Every employment relationship is based on a contract, even if there is nothing in writing signed by the employer and the employee. At a minimum, the agreement is that the employer will pay the employee for work performed under the employer’s direction and control.
In Virginia, as in most states, the employment contract is presumed to be “at will,” which means that the employment term extends for an indefinite period. In other words, the employment agreement can go on forever. On the other hand, either the employer or the employee may end the contract at any time, for any reason, or for no reason at all.
An employee is ordinarily at liberty to leave his employment for any reason or for no reason, upon giving reasonable notice, without incurring liability to his employer. Notions of fundamental fairness underlie the concept of mutuality which extends a corresponding freedom to the employer.
Miller v. SEVAMP, Inc., 234 Va. 462, 465, 362 S.E.2d 915, 917 (1987)
Virginia adheres very strongly to this employment-at-will doctrine. To overcome the presumption that an employment agreement is at-will the employee must produce sufficient evidence to show that the employment is for a definite, rather than an indefinite, term. By way of example, a contract which states that the employment is for a year, or which states that an employee will not be disciplined or dismissed without a “just cause” creates a definite term for the duration of the employment. Where the employment contract says that employment is for a year, an employee who quits before the year is up may be liable for breach of contract. Similarly, where the employment contract says that the employee will only be fired for just cause, an employer who fires an employee for no reason may be liable for breaching contract.
One exception to the employment-at-will doctrine which is recognized by Virginia courts is a termination that violates public policy. This exception is very narrow and requires the employee to show that the public policy is stated clearly in the statutes of Virginia. The employee must also show either that the statute was directly intended to protect the employee or that the employer discharged the employee for refusing to engage in an act that the statute makes a crime.