Almost all private sector employees in North Carolina are "at will" employees. That means that an employee is hired for an indefinite period of time and may be terminated for any reason or no reason at all, with or without notice, as long as they are not terminated for an illegal reason that is prohibited by federal or state laws.
Does Having a Contract Protect Me?
Some employees, usually medical or other professionals, actually have employment contracts, verbal or written, for a definite term of employment, or providing that employment can only be terminated "for cause." However, even in some written employment contracts, there are provisions that the contract may be terminated "at will."
North Carolina law has very limited exceptions to employment "at will" created by the courts and the legislature. The North Carolina courts have recognized that an employee cannot be terminated in violation of public policy. For example, an employee cannot be fired for refusing to violate the law at their employer's request, for engaging in legally protected activity, or for opposing their employer's activity that is illegal or contrary to public policy. The North Carolina Court of Appeals has set forth a rule that the public policy cannot be based on federal law, but must be set forth in North Carolina's constitution, statutes, or regulations.
There are some other North Carolina laws which may protect an employee who is being fired depending on the circumstances. For example, an employee cannot be terminated for being absent due to jury service or for being subpoenaed as a witness for court proceedings. The North Carolina Retaliatory Employment Discrimination Act (REDA) prohibits discrimination or retaliation against an employee who engages in "protected activities" with regard to a wide range of areas, including workers' compensation claims, wage and hour issues, workplace safety rights, mine safety and health, sickle cell and hemoglobin C carriers, genetic testing, National Guard service, juvenile justice system, domestic violence, pesticide exposure, and drug paraphernalia. North Carolina also has a Smokers Rights Act that is not limited to tobacco use and makes it illegal to terminate an employee for "the lawful use of lawful products during nonworking hours."
Are There Special Protections for State Employees?
Employees of the State of North Carolina have protection from termination if they "blow the whistle" on violations of law, fraud, misappropriation, danger, or gross mismanagement, waste, or abuse of authority in or relating to any state programs and operations.