Do verbal agreements hold any legal weight?

I had informed my current employer that I was ending my employment with them because I wanted to stay in a certain geographical area. It wasn’t until my employer learned that I was offered a job with another company in that area that they came back to me and told me verbally if they could keep me in my preferred area would I continue to work for them. I told them yes. They asked that I reject any other offers from other companies and so I did. Now, a year later they are relocating me across the country even though they told me they would keep me in my preferred area. Can my employer go back on their verbal agreement?

Asked on March 4, 2016 under Employment Labor Law, California


SJZ, Member, New York Bar / FreeAdvice Contributing Attorney

Answered 4 years ago | Contributor

Yes, an oral (that is the better term than "verbal") agreement can be "gone back on" after a year. Only a written employement contract, not an oral or verbal one, will prevent employment from being "employment at will." Employment in this country is employment at will: the default or general rule is that an employer may relocate employees at will. Without a written employment contract, an employer may terminate, change duties, demote, transfer, etc. an employee at will.
If they had made the change *right* you rejected other offers, you might have been able to enforce the agreement under the theory of "promissory estoppel"--that they can't promise one thing, knowing you would do something to your detriment to get the benefit of the promise, then turn right around and do something else. But promissory estoppel would not bind an employer indefinitely, given the presumption of employment at will, and after one year, it is VERY unlikely that a court would still hold them to their promise.
If you do not relocate and are terminated, you may eligible for unemployment benefit under the theory of "constructive termation": that is, you were effectively fired by relocating your job so far away that it would not be reasonable to expect you to keep working under those conditions.

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