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At-Will exception protects employees who refuse illegal order … if it’s actually illegal

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in Firing,Human Resources,Leaders & Managers,Management Training

It’s illegal to fire an employee because he or she refuses to engage in illegal conduct. But this is a very narrow exception to the general rule of at-will employment.

Employees aren’t protected if they refuse to do something they suspect may be illegal, but it isn’t. If fired, such employees have to prove they would have broken the law if they had followed instructions.

Recent case: Attorney Jacqueline Martinez worked for Rapidigm, a firm specializing in information technology that had a constant need for foreign technology workers. Martinez ran the company’s immigration office.

Martinez refused to sign visa applications after the company declined to follow her suggestions for ensuring the applications were completely legitimate. Management said she didn’t have to sign, and she didn’t look further into the matter.

Martinez was terminated soon after in a reorganization that outsourced her in-house position. She sued, alleging that although she was an at-will employee, her firing violated public policy because she had been discharged for refusing to sign the visa applications.

Not so, concluded the court. Because Martinez simply suspected the visa applications might violate the law—and it turned out they didn’t—her firing didn’t violate public policy and wasn’t illegal. (Martinez v. Rapidigm, No. CV-02-1106, WD PA, 2007) 

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