The Supreme Court has ruled that where state law permits, union as well as nonunion employees have the right to sue over their discipline and dismissals. In a unionized employment relationship, a collective bargaining agreement normally incorporates procedures by which disciplinary actions can be appealed. In practice, union representatives spend a considerable amount of resources and attention processing employee claims of unjust of unreasonable disciplinary actions (Tracey 664).
For more than 70 percent of U.S. workers who are not covered by a collective bargaining agreement or an individual employment contract, dismissal is always a possibility. Many nonunion employers rely on statements in their employee handbooks that the organization is an at-will employer. Employment-at-will is created when an employee agrees to work for an employer but there is no specification of how long the parties expect the agreement to last (Tracey 666). Since an employee may quit his or her employment at any time for any reason, the employer should have the same opportunity to terminate the employment relationship. In recent years important expectations to the at-will doctrine have emerged. For example, federal laws limit an employer's right to terminate or discipline at-will employees for reasons such as age, sex, race, religion, union activity, or disability (Ivancevich 476). However, employment-at-will is primarily a matter of state law.
State courts have judicial exceptions to employment-at-will. One exception is the public policy exception, which means an employer may not be fired or disciplined because he or she refuses to commit an illegal act (Ivancevich 476). Another exception is when an employer has promised not to terminate an employee except for unsatisfactory job performance of other just cause, the courts will insist that the employer carry out the promise (476). This does include implied promises.