Employee Handbook Exception to At-Will Employment

Employee Handbook Exception to At-Will Employment

Under Washington State laws, what is the employee handbook exception to at-will employment? Here's my point of view (NOTE: please read our DISCLAIMER before proceeding).



Washington State has been an “at-will” employment state since at least 1928. See Ford v. Trendwest Resorts, Inc., 146 Wn.2d 146, 152, 43 P.3d 1223, (Wash. 2002) (referencing Davidson v. Mackall-Paine Veneer Co., 149 Wash. 685, 688, 271 P. 878 (1928); see also Prescott v. Puget Sound Bridge & Dredging Co., 40 Wash. 354, 357, 82 P. 606 (1905) (Mount, C.J., dissenting) (“where [an employment] contract is general and for an indefinite time, it is terminable at will.”)).  

According to the doctrine, an employer can discharge an at-will employee for no cause, good cause or even cause morally wrong without fear of liability. See id. (citing Thompson v. St. Regis Paper Co., 102 Wash.2d 219, 226, 685 P.2d 1081 (1984)) (internal quotation marks omitted). Conversely, an employee has the absolute right to quit his or her employment at-will. See id.

However, there are three recognized exceptions to the general at-will employment rule: (1) Statutory; (2) Judicial and; (3) Contractual. The employee handbook exception is a contractual exception.


"Generally, an employment contract indefinite in duration is terminable at will." Mikkelsen v. Public Utility District No. 1 of Kittitas County, 189 Wn.2d 516, 540 (Wash. 2017) (citing Thompson v. St. Regis Paper Co., 102 Wn.2d 219, 223, 685 P.2d 1081 (1984)). However, "under certain circumstances, employers may be obligated to act in accordance with policies as announced in handbooks issued to their employees." Id. at 539-40 (internal citations and quotation marks omitted). 

For example, "if the employer has made promises of specific treatment in specific situations on which the employee justifiably relies, those promises are enforceable and may modify an employee's at-will status." Id. at 540 (internal citation omitted).


"Under this theory, [a plaintiff] … must show [the following:]

[(a)]  … that a statement (or statements) in an employee manual or handbook or similar document amounts to a promise of specific treatment in specific situations, …

[(b)]  that the employee justifiably relied on the promise, and …

[(c)]  that the promise was breached.

Id. (internal citation and quotation marks omitted) (paragraph formatting added).


"[T]he crucial question is whether the employee has a reasonable expectation the employer will follow the discipline procedure, based upon the language used in stating the procedure and the pattern of practice in the workplace." Id. (internal citation omitted) (alteration in original).

"[W]hether an employment policy manual issued by an employer contains a promise of specific treatment in specific situations, whether the employee justifiably relied on the promise, and whether the promise was breached are questions of fact." Id. (alteration in original) (internal quotation marks and citation omitted). "Therefore, summary judgment is proper only if reasonable minds could not differ in resolving these questions." Id. (internal citation omitted).


If you would like to learn more, then consider contacting an experienced Washington State Employment Discrimination Attorney as soon as possible to discuss your case. Please note: the information contained in this article is not offered as legal advice and will not form an attorney-client relationship with either this author or Williams Law Group, PS; please see our DISCLAIMER.


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