THE AT-WILL DOCTRINE
Washington has been an at-will employment state since at least 1928. See Ford v. Trendwest Resorts, Inc., 146 Wn.2d 146, 152, 43 P.3d 1223, (Wash. 2002) (referencing Davidson v. Mackall-Paine Veneer Co., 149 Wash. 685, 688, 271 P. 878 (1928); see also Prescott v. Puget Sound Bridge & Dredging Co., 40 Wash. 354, 357, 82 P. 606 (1905) (Mount, C.J., dissenting) (“where [an employment] contract is general and for an indefinite time, it is terminable at will.”)). According to this doctrine, an employer can discharge an at-will employee for no cause, good cause or even cause morally wrong without fear of liability. See Id. (citing Thompson v. St. Regis Paper Co., 102 Wash.2d 219, 226, 685 P.2d 1081 (1984)) (internal quotations omitted). Conversely, an employee has the absolute right to quit his or her employment at-will. See id. However, there are three recognized exceptions to the general at-will employment rule: (1) Statutory; (2) Judicial and; (3) Contractual.
(1) STATUTORY EXCEPTIONS
Under the Statutory Exception, both Congress and the Washington State Legislature have modified the employment at-will doctrine by limiting employers’ rights to discharge employees. Id. at 153 (referencing National Labor Relations Act, 29 U.S.C. § 158(a)(1) (1994); Civil Rights Act of 1964, 42 U.S.C. § 2000e-2(a)(1) (1994); chapter 49.60 RCW (Washington’s law against discrimination); see also chapter 49.12 RCW (prohibiting discharge of employees for testifying in investigations regarding labor conditions, worker earnings, or sex discrimination); RCW 49.44.090 (prohibiting discharge of employee for being age 40 and over)). These are examples of statutory laws that provide an exception to the at-will doctrine that protects the employee’s rights and limits the employer’s ability to discharge an employee at-will.
(2) JUDICIAL EXCEPTIONS
Under the Judicial Exception, Washington courts have recognized a narrow public policy exception to an employer’s right to discharge an employee; this exception is commonly known as wrongful termination in violation of public policy. Id. (referencing Smith v. Bates Technical Coll., 139 Wash.2d 793, 991 P.2d 1135 (2000) (public policy exception to “for-cause” employees); Gardner v. Loomis Armored, Inc., 128 Wash.2d 931, 913 P.2d 377 (1996) (discharge of armored truck driver who abandoned post to prevent murder violated public policy)). Under this exception, an employer does not have the right to discharge an employee when the termination would frustrate a clear manifestation of public policy. Id. By recognizing this public policy exception, Washington State Supreme Court has expressed its unwillingness to shield an employer’s action which otherwise frustrates a clear manifestation of public policy. See Id. at 154.
(3) CONTRACTUAL EXCEPTIONS
Under the Contractual Exception, employers and employees can contractually modify the at-will employment relationship, eschewing the common law rule in favor of negotiated rights and liabilities. Id. at 154 (internal citation omitted). An employer can bargain away its right to discharge an employee without cause by contracting not to do so. Id. The law governing this exception is not a species of the employment at-will doctrine; it is the law of contracts. Id. Therefore, the law of contracts governs an injured party’s right to recover damages under this exception. Id. at 155. Unlike a wrongful discharge, a breach of contract is neither immoral nor wrongful; it is simply a broken promise. Id.