At-will employment

If you are a manager you may be familiar with the phrase “at-will employment.” Perhaps it is something that you use when talking with your HR person, for instance “what do you mean I can’t fire them? We are an at-will employer!” Or, “I don’t even know why I have to go through all this, (insert state here) is an at-will employment state.”  

Since this is such a popular phrase, I thought it might do us all some good to brush up on what at-will employment really means…

At-will employment is actually a doctrine that has been around a while. It doesn’t apply to all employers, for instance the existence of a contract typically voids out at-will (think unions).  Also, not every state is at-will.  However, if your company is an at-will employer then essentially your employment can be ended at any time by either party (the employee or the employer) for any legal reason, or no reason at all.  

Operative word being legal.

Don’t think that is significant?

It is.

Your employer can’t end your employment because you are Hispanic – that is illegal (a violation of Title VII) regardless of whether your employment is at-will or not. Generally speaking (there are a few caveats here, but we won’t go into those today) they cannot fire you just because you are disabled, a woman, pregnant, too old, etc. and claim “at-will employment.”

I can hear you now: “yeah, well if that is the case, they can just tell me that they don’t have to give me a reason…” You are correct, that is part of the at-will doctrine: the employer does not have to give a reason. Here’s the deal, if they did decide to do that and not give a reason, it will be up to them to explain that they did in fact not have a reason and not that the reason was truly something illegal (like firing you because you are Hispanic). No court on this planet is going to believe that they did not have any reason at all. That defense is just stupid.

Now that being said, the employer still does NOT have to give a reason when they end someone’s employment, and they are well within their rights to tell you as much. But (and this is a Sir Mix-a-Lot sized big but) before you get cocky and start thinking that you automatically have a case, think about your time at said employer:  

  • Did you do a good job?  
  • Were you on time?  
  • Did you do what was asked of you?  
  • Did they ever stop by your cube to “talk about your TPS reports?”  

Depending on how you answer these and similar questions, you may want to reconsider whether your time might be better spent looking for other employment.

Now, back to those of you who manage people: stop hiding behind “at-will employment” because you think it will make your job easier. It won’t. Eventually you are going to have to give the reason for letting this employee go – whether to the state unemployment commission, or to a judge.’til next time, y’all!

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