I think my stance on at-will employment is pretty well established – namely that I think that it is a good thing overall. Without it, it would be harder for employers to release non-performers, which would make them more reluctant to hire. However, as with anything, it isn’t without its issues. Particularly, it can make it just too damn easy to fire people.
This is a problem not because I think organizations are unscrupulous in their dealings with their employees, or that I think bosses are cold-hearted sociopaths. The problem is no one wants to have tough conversations, especially when it comes to dealing with performance and the awkward interactions afterward.
For example, is your employee Joe’s performance suffering lately? Assuming that ignoring it isn’t an option (and I am not saying that it is), you have a few options. You can have a difficult conversation with him where you explain the issue, why it is important, and then lay out your expectations going forward. Maybe you get him to sign something for his file. The problem is he may decide to argue. He may say that his performance isn’t slacking, you are just being unfair. Or maybe he disagrees with your example and has a valid reason for why. And it doesn’t end there! After the meeting you have the awkward interactions afterwards. He stops looking you in the eye, he isn’t smiling as much or his good mornings are a little more than barely audible mumbles.
Of course, you can avoid all of this by just firing him. I mean why not? You are an at-will employer and this is an at-will employment state! This way, you have one very short difficult conversation, HR walks him out, and you are on your way. If this sounds nonsensical to you, congratulations, you have renewed my faith in humanity. If this sounds like a reasonable strategy, think about why this sounds reasonable. Is it the best thing for the organization, or the easiest thing for you (at least in the short run)?
Do the hard work and have the tough conversations. I have tough conversations for a living and it never gets easier, but I can also attest that avoiding them never turns out to be the best option either, especially if you think you can just invoke At-Will employment and make all of this just go away.