This paper analyzes the relationship between the survey conducted by the Department of Labor in New York and Syracuse areas and the existing law. The survey reviews the law regarding the dismissal of at-will employees for exposing or refusing to partake in criminal or immoral endeavors. Results of the survey were to ascertain societal expectations regarding at-will employment and the law’s content regarding the issue.
Employment at Will: Relationship between Societal Expectations and the Law
The employment-at-will law states that employment may be terminated by an employer, for any reason or at any time. Employers are allowed to dismiss their employees for good reasons, morally wrong reasons, or for no reason without being liable of a legal wrong.
Termination from rejecting to take part in practices that are not illegal but which are believed by the employee to be unethical are less apt to be actionable. Both of these situations are addressed in terms of the so-called public policy exception to the employment at will rule. The cause of action, often labeled "wrongful discharge" or "retaliatory discharge," is typically tort-based, although a few states employ contract theory in this context.
On the other hand, individuals who report illegal or unethical practices within the organization--for example, to a superior--and are fired for their efforts are left without legal recourse with perhaps surprising frequency. Such dismissals are often characterized by the courts as resulting from mere management disputes.
Judicial approaches to the exception vary widely, however, and in few states can employees at will report or refuse to participate in illegal or unethical activity with assurance that the law will shield them from being fired.
The sample for this article's survey comprised approximately five hundred persons employed in the Syracuse, New York metropolitan area. It was developed through direct contacts with employers....