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Historically, courts in England did not adhere to rules that recognized an employment relationship as one that could be terminated by either party at any time. In fact, ancient statutes and early decisions sought to protect employees by presuming that the employment relationship would last for a certain period of time, such as one year. This type of rule prevented employers from hiring employees for a short period of time, such as for the duration of a harvest season, and then firing the employee during the winter season, when the employee would not have food or shelter.

Courts in the United States during the 19th century began to follow the rule that where an employee did not have a contract for a fixed length of time, the employer could terminate the employment relationship at any time. H.G. Wood, an author of a leading treatise on the relationship between master and ser-vant, formulated a rule in 1886 that set forth the employment at will doctrine. Nearly every state eventually adopted the at-will doctrine as the law governing employment relationships.

Inside History