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Yes, Virginia, You Can Fire on the Spot

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In a recent decision by the Virginia Supreme Court, the judges confirmed that at-will employees (e.g., those not under contract) can be fired on the spot, with no advance notice given to the employee.

The case, Johnson v. William E. Wood & Associates, Inc., involves a long time employee of a real estate firm. The employee was discharged without notice, and subsequently sued for wrongful discharge and breach of an implied term of her employment contract that she be provided with reasonable notice of any termination.

In Virginia, unless an employer and the employee agree otherwise, employment is “at-will”, meaning that either the employer or employee may end the employment relationship at any time and for any (legal) reason, upon “reasonable notice”. The employee in this case argued that “reasonable notice” meant advanced notice. The Supreme Court disagreed.

According to the Court, “reasonable notice of the termination need only be effective notice.” In other words, the employer only has to make it clear to the employee that the employment relationship has ended, so that the employee knows to stop work. Advance notice of the termination is not required unless the employer has promised to give advance notice or the federal WARN Act, which addresses mass layoffs and plant closings, applies. In ruling in the real estate firm’s favor, the Court reaffirmed a bedrock principle of the traditional at-will employment doctrine, and one in which both employers and employees are afforded maximum flexibility to end employment relationships for any reason or no reason at all, just so long as the reason is not an illegal one.

The decision by the Court is not a change in the current law, but underscores that reasonable notice does not mean advance notice in an involuntary termination (and also underscores an employee’s right to quit and leave on the spot as well.)

The take-home in this decision is that Virginia employers need to be mindful that their employee policies, handbooks, offer letters, and other communications with their employees – both written and oral – do not promise or imply that the employment relations will last for a particular period, or that the employee will only be fired for cause or after advanced notice. Best practices for employers dictates that you should emphasize that employment is at-will and can end any time.

Hilary Atkins

Posted In: Legal, Management

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