Washington Employment At-Will Doctrine

In Thompson v. St. Regis Paper Co., 102 Wn.2d 219, 685 P.2d 1081 (1984), the plaintiff sued for wrongful discharge arguing, in part, that he was fired because he implemented accurate accounting practices in compliance with the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act of 1977 (FCPA), 91 Stat. 1494, a federal statute intended to prohibit bribery of foreign officials. Id. at 223, 234. Thompson asserted that the company dismissed him because he insisted on compliance with the federal requirements and the company intended for his dismissal to serve as a warning to all employees in his position. 102 Wn.2d at 234. The Court found it necessary to modify the common law employment at-will doctrine in order to rectify the employer's "unfettered control of the workplace" which left employees largely unprotected from changing work conditions. Thompson, 102 Wn.2d at 226. In Thompson, the Court held an employer could modify a terminable at-will relationship and contractually obligate itself to the provisions found in an employee policy manual. Primarily concerned with the unequal power between employees and employers that existed under the common law termination at-will doctrine, the Court explained: When the employment relationship is not evidenced by a written contract and is indefinite in duration, the parties have entered into a contract whereby the employer is essentially obligated to only pay the employee for any work performed. In this contractual relationship, the employer exercises substantial control over both the working relationship and his employees by retaining independent control of the work relationship. Thus, the employer can define the work relationship. Once an employer takes action, for whatever reasons, an employee must either accept those changes, quit, or be discharged. Because the employer retains this control over the employment relationship, unilateral acts of the employer are binding on his employees and both parties should understand this rule. Thompson, 102 Wn.2d at 229. The Court went on to explain that once an employer voluntarily issues a manual promising "specific treatment in specific situations" and makes this known to its employees, the employment relationship is changed. Thompson, 102 Wn.2d at 230. By issuing the manual, the employer has created an atmosphere of job security and fair treatment inducing the employee to continue the employment relationship. Thompson, 102 Wn.2d at 230. In an at-will work relationship, it is the employer who has the power to unilaterally change the conditions of that relationship, presumably for its own gain. Once it issues an employee handbook, the employer demands its employees abide by the policies in it. In exchange for its promises of specific treatment in specific circumstances, the employer secures a cooperative and loyal work force. In contrast, the at-will employee is powerless to initiate a modification of the employee relationship. Once a manual has been issued, the employee has only two choices--stay and accept the new conditions of the employment relationship or terminate the relationship. This is why, under Thompson, we scrutinize the employer's actions more closely than those of the employee. Thompson, 102 Wn.2d at 229-30. The Thompson court joined a growing number of states by adopting the tort of wrongful discharge in violation of clear public policy. 102 Wn.2d at 232. The Court reasoned that findings of public policy must be clearly grounded in legislation or prior jurisprudence in order to protect employers from frivolous lawsuits and to assure balance between the interests of the employer and the interests of the employee. Id. at 232-33. The Court stated: "In determining whether a clear mandate of public policy is violated, courts should inquire whether the employer's conduct contravenes the letter or purpose of a constitutional, statutory, or regulatory provision or scheme. Prior judicial decisions may also establish the relevant public policy. However, courts should proceed cautiously if called upon to declare public policy absent some prior legislative or judicial expression on the subject." Id.