Hawaii is an “employment-at-will” state, which means that either the employer or the employee may end the employment relationship without giving either notice or a reason. However, while this is true in theory, Hawaii statutes and courts have changed the traditional doctrine to some degree.
Even if there is no explicit employment agreement with an employee worker, certain actions and representations can bind the employer just as if there were a written contract signed by both parties. For example, an employee’s at-will employment can be contractually modified and qualified by statements in employee policy manuals or handbooks (Kinoshita v. Canadian Pacific Airlines, 724 P.2d 110 (Haw. 1986)).
Employers should be cautious about allowing anyone in the organization to make a promise of job security to an employee or applicant. If the promise can be seen as an inducement for an employee or prospective employee to give up something of value, by relocating, for instance, or by leaving a good job or turning down an attractive job offer, it may be considered a “contract.” A federal or state law, collective bargaining agreement, or individual employment contract may place further limitations on an otherwise employment-at-will relationship.