Employment-at-will, the HR law of the land in most states, is often cited as follows: “The employer is free to discharge individuals for good cause, or bad cause, or no cause at all and the employee is equally free to quit, strike, or otherwise cease work.”
There are a lot of other definitions and summaries, but the one that always stuck in my head is, “You can be fired for a good reason, a bad reason or no reason, just not an illegal reason.”
I remember when I first started working in the industry—I thought: Really? The law says it’s okay to be fired for a bad reason? Even NO reason? Like after 50 years of employment I could be fired because I have on a yellow shirt that day and my boss hates yellow? I could be fired because they can’t stand the sound of my voice anymore? Because if they have to look at my face one more time they’ll go crazy? I could be fired because…well, just because? What is this, a marriage? (just kidding, honey).
Of course, being fired for a shirt color or other ridiculous reason is rare, and often in these scenarios the employee will contend that these “at-will” reasons are used as a cover for an illegal dismissal. It’s not the fact that Joe has on a yellow shirt but because Joe is older and due a pension. Not because we hate the sound of Sally’s voice, but because Sally is pregnant.
Of course, under employment-at-will, the employee has the same rights. A worker is equally free to leave his job at any time, for a good reason, bad reason or no reason. In most cases, an employee can get up from his/her desk and walk out the door with no repercussions.
Obviously, so many people lost their jobs over the last few years—and yes, some because they were low performers, but I think in most cases business conditions were so awful their companies simply couldn’t afford to keep them any longer.
Now here’s a new wrinkle that’s a product of that lousy economy: I’ve read a few disturbing articles stating that because most companies are so desperate to show their customers, shareholders and vendors that their business is rebounding, some are using “creative” firings and terminations–since a round of layoffs would signal weakness when they need to project strength. If these people are not in a protected class or are not being dismissed for discriminatory/illegal reasons, they have little recourse.
My perspective? I think overall, employment-at-will makes a lot of sense, and is fair and just for both sides–but like everything involving laws or policies there are always a few groups that try to abuse the law—and we need to keep an eye on them. For now, just don’t wear your yellow shirt to work.