By: Ellis Bennett  [2/18/22]

In Virginia, employment is “at will,” meaning, in short, that employers may legally fire an employee at any time, for any reason, without cause. Likewise, an employee is free to quit at any time. Neither the employer nor the employee is required to provide any notice in advance. 

One overarching exception is that federal laws prohibit all employers from discriminating on the basis of an employee’s age, race, sex (including gender identity, pregnancy, and sexual orientation), religion, genetic information, national origin, or disability.

There are several nuances to this general rule, and different states recognize different exceptions. The Supreme Court of Virginia holds that there are certain narrow public policy exceptions to the employment “at will” doctrine in Virginia. 

The Public Policy Exceptions

These contain three overlapping categories:

1. Refusing to perform illegal acts: It is not only illegal to compel an employee to perform a criminal act, but it is also illegal to fire them for refusing to comply with the request. As the employer, you cannot force any employee to commit perjury or violate any other federal, state, or local laws.

2. Employer’s violation of public policy explicitly expressed in a statute: The exception applies when an employer has violated a public policy that is expressly stated in a state statute. The employee must also fall within the class of persons directly entitled to the protection enunciated by the public policy. A good example of this is Virginia Code Section 2.2-3900, which states, “[i]t is the policy of the Commonwealth to safeguard all individuals within the Commonwealth from unlawful discrimination because of race, color, religion….”

3. Exercising a statutory right: All employees have the right to file a safety complaint, for instance, and it is illegal to fire an employee for exercising any statutory right.

Legally Firing an Employee

A termination in Virginia generally will legally permissible so long as it complies with the following principles:

  • The firing is not due to the employee’s age (if over 40), race, sex, religion, national origin, or disability. 
  • The employee isn’t fired for refusing to perform an illegal act.
  • The termination isn’t retaliation for exercising a statutory right or reporting illegal activity.

In conclusion, if you have any doubts regarding the legality of firing an employee, speak with one of our attorneys. This is especially important if you are uncertain about the scope of your employee’s rights or are dealing with the complex issue of potential discrimination. Our attorneys are well-versed in local, state, and federal employment discrimination laws. Speak with one of our many qualified attorneys at Dunlap Bennett & Ludwig to assist with your employment matters today. 

Learn more about employment law here. To learn more about Dunlap Bennett & Ludwig and how we assist you, contact us by calling 800-747-9354 or emailing

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Posted in: Employment Law

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