The first recognized exception to the employment at will doctrine applies when an employer terminates an employee in a manner that violates public policy. This exception generally applies in four circumstances: (1) an employee refuses to perform an illegal act at the request of an employer; (2) an employee attempts to exercise a legal right provided by statute, such as filing a workers’ compensation claim;(3) the employee reports on an employer’s illegal acts, also known as “whistleblowing;” and (4) an employee attempts to perform a public duty, such as serving on a jury.
The majority of states recognize at least some form of a public policy exception. Courts are generally more likely to recognize a public policy exception that is based on a statute than one based on some other authority, such as a constitutional right. Thus, for instance, employees who have attempted to argue that they were wrongfully discharged for engaging in actions allegedly protected by the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution have not had significant success in the courts.
This exception does not eliminate the employment at will doctrine, but rather allows employees to recover for wrongful discharge.