“At-will” employment refers to a common-law rule that the employment relationship may be terminated by the employer or the employee at any time, with or without cause, with or without notice, for any reason (allowed by law) or no reason at all. The intent behind this rule is to allow either the employee or employer to terminate the employment relationship without financial liability to the other. To minimize the risks of wrongful termination claims, every employer needs to understand the big exceptions to the employment at-will concept.
Illegal Reasons for Termination
At-will employment only extends to reasons that are permitted by law. The law allows for pretty much any reason at all, so long as it is not based on a person’s inclusion in a protected class. For example, you could legally terminate an employee for coming to work with pink hair, but not because the employee revealed that they have social anxiety. However, you should be careful when terminating employment even for valid reasons. If you were to simply terminate an employee without any disciplinary actions or attempts to remedy the problem, or if you had previously not terminated other employees for the same reason, the employee could claim they were terminated for an illegal reason. It’s therefore helpful to give employees a chance to improve (unless their behavior warrants immediate termination) and to follow your discipline and termination policies consistently.
If the employee who showed up to work with pink hair on Monday is terminated without the opportunity to correct the hair problem and had no other record of poor performance, she might reasonably believe that she had instead been fired for revealing that she had social anxiety.
If you want to maintain a policy of at-will employment, it’s best to avoid any language that could imply conditions for continuing employment. It’s also helpful to have a statement in your handbook noting that employment is at will and that nothing in the handbook alters that at-will relationship.
Join us for a 60-minute webinar on Thursday, May 17th at 12pm MST on the “Employment Law 101 for Non-Lawyers.” We’ll examine a few key employment law concepts to help you understand their legal basis and nuances, such as the at-will employment relationship. We’ll also focus on what constitutes workplace harassment, the importance of Section 7 of the National Labor Relations Act, and discuss how seemingly minor payroll oversights can turn into massive wage and hour claims. This webinar will be eligible for one credit from SHRM, HRCI, and APA.
Payday HCM offers comprehensive on-site HR Consulting Services to help you navigate employment issues, and proactively create policy to manage your work environments. Our experts can provide you with a complete suite of services, including:
- Handbook and policy formulation
- EEOC Manager Training
- Harassment and discrimination investigations
- Risk mitigation – including understanding at-will employment!
- Interactive trainings on the responsibilities and requirements or managers
- Interactive trainings on the responsibilities and rights of employees
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