Here in Virginia, employment is presumed to be “at-will”: an employer can terminate the employment relationship with or without cause, upon reasonable notice, for any reason or no reason at all. Employees have the same right. The employment-at-will doctrine is particularly strong in Virginia, but there are some limited exceptions. An employee cannot be terminated without cause if an applicable employment agreement requires good cause for termination. A termination will also be deemed unlawful if it violates state or federal anti-discrimination laws or if the reason for the termination violates public policy.
Under the public policy exception to the employment-at-will doctrine, an employer may not terminate an employee in violation of explicit statements of public policy or in violation of laws that don’t expressly state a public policy but are designed to protect property rights, personal freedoms, health, safety, or welfare of the people in general and are in furtherance of an underlying and established public policy. Bowman v. State Bank of Keysville, 229 Va. 534 (1985). In practice, courts apply the public-policy exception only in rare circumstances, and not every violation of public policy will give rise to a valid wrongful discharge claim.