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Employment-at-Will Training for Supervisors
©SHRM Introduction The term “employment-at-will” is a familiar one for most employees, especially for management staff. It is often included in job offer letters, in policies, and during discussions pertaining to involuntary terminations. Despite its frequent use, managers may not fully understand employment-at-will, its exceptions, and how to explain it to their employees. This sample presentation is intended to explain employment-at- will to supervisors and other individuals who manage employees. It is designed to be presented by an individual who is knowledgeable in employment-at-will and the employer’s own policies and practices. It is a sample presentation that must be customized to comply with state case law and the employer’s own policies and practices.
©SHRM Objectives At the end of this session you will be able to: Define employment-at-will. State the difference between employment-at-will and right-to-work. Cite and describe exceptions to the employment-at-will doctrine. Discuss steps an employer may take to limit liability under employment- at-will.
©SHRM What is Employment-at-Will? Employment-at-will is not a law. It is a doctrine based on common law. As defined in the SHRM HR Glossary, employment-at-will is a legal doctrine that states that an employment relationship may be terminated by the employer or employee at any time and for any or no reason. This means that an employer does not need good cause to involuntarily terminate an employee. In every state but Montana (which protects employees who have completed an initial probationary period from being fired with cause), employers are free to adopt at-will employment policies.
©SHRM Employment-at-Will vs. Right-to-Work As previously stated, employment-at-will is a legal doctrine that states that an employment relationship may be terminated by the employer or employee at any time and for any or no reason. Right-to-work pertains to state laws which prevent labor- management agreements requiring an individual to join a union as a condition of employment. These laws do not cover involuntary terminations or resignations. In right-to-work states (almost half of all states), there may be requirements that a union represents an employee in grievances and negotiations. Railway or airline employees are sometimes not protected by right-to-work laws, even if they reside in a right-to- work state. Federal properties may also be exempt. What is the difference between employment-at-will and right- to-work?
©SHRM Questions? Comments?
©SHRM Exceptions to Employment-at-Will There are three major exceptions to the employment-at-will doctrine, as developed in common law. These exceptions are based on each state’s case laws. * The exceptions are: 1. Public policy 1. Implied contract 1. Covenant of good faith * An article on employment-at-will and chart of state exceptions is found at
©SHRM Exceptions to Employment-at-Will (cont’d) 1.Public Policy: This is the most widely-accepted exception (43 states). Under the public-policy exception to employment-at-will, an employee is wrongfully discharged when the termination is against an explicit, well- established public policy of the state. The majority view among states is that public policy may be found in either a state constitution, statute, or administrative rule, but some states have either restricted or expanded the doctrine beyond this bound. Example - Palmateer v. International Harvester Company – employee claimed he was terminated for providing information to law enforcement about employer criminal acts; the court found that public policy favored the exposure of criminal activity.
©SHRM Exceptions to Employment-at-Will (cont’d) 2.Implied Contract: The second major exception to the employment-at-will doctrine is applied when an implied contract is formed between an employer and employee, even though no express, written instrument regarding the employment relationship exists. Although employment is typically not governed by a contract, an employer may make oral or written representations to employees regarding job security or procedures that will be followed when adverse employment actions are taken. If so, these representations may create a contract for employment. This exception is recognized in 38 of the 50 states. Examples: policy language, employment offers, supervisor statements. Example - Toussaint v. Blue Cross & Blue Shield of Michigan – the employer had a policy of just cause terminations and did not follow established procedures.
©SHRM Exceptions to Employment-at-Will (cont’d) 3.Covenant of Good Faith and Fair Dealing: The exception for a covenant of good faith and fair dealing represents the most significant departure from the traditional employment-at-will doctrine. Rather than narrowly prohibiting terminations based on public policy or an implied contract, this exception— at its broadest—reads a covenant of good faith and fair dealing into every employment relationship. It has been interpreted to mean either that employer personnel decisions are subject to a “just cause” standard or that terminations made in bad faith or motivated by malice are prohibited. This exception is recognized by only 11 states. Example - Cleary v. American Airlines – An employee with 18 years of service was terminated without any reason. The court stated that “Termination of employment without legal cause after such a period of time offends the implied-in-law covenant of good faith and fair dealing” and that, from the covenant, “a duty arose on the part of...American Airlines…to do nothing which would deprive...the employee...of the benefits of the employment...having accrued during [the employee’s] 18 years of employment.”
©SHRM Exceptions to Employment-at-Will (cont’d) Other common law limitations on employment-at-will are: Intentional infliction of emotional distress. Intentional interference with a contract. Promissory estoppel (reliance on employer representations to the detriment of the employee).
©SHRM Questions? Comments?
©SHRM Steps to Reduce Employer Liability Steps to take to minimize employer liability for adverse employment actions: Use disclaimers in the new hire process (offer letters and new hire orientation) and require signed acknowledgements. Outline clearly employment expectations. Implement a progressive discipline policy. Adopt a grievance procedure Train supervisors. Remind managers to document disciplinary actions. Include human resources in the disciplinary process. Review situations carefully and seek legal guidance prior to making adverse employment decisions.
©SHRM Employer Checklist for Adverse Employment Actions Employer checklist when considering adverse employment actions* 1.Is the proposed action fair? 2.Is the proposed action consistent with employer policies and practices? 3.Is the proposed action made based on business needs (not made due to other factors, i.e. discriminatory reasons)? 4.Is there good documentation to support items1-3 above? *HR Magazine, Keep ‘Em at Will; Treat ‘Em for Cause, May 2005
©SHRM Quiz Is employment-at-will a law? If not, what is it? Explain. What is the difference between employment-at-will and right-to- work? What are the three major exceptions to employment-at-will? Name three things employers can do to minimize employer liability under employment-at-will.
©SHRM Questions? Comments?
©SHRM Summary Employment-at-will is a legal doctrine that states that an employment relationship may be terminated by the employer or employee at any time and for any or no reason. Right-to-work pertains to state laws which prevent labor- management agreements requiring an individual to join a union as a condition of employment. These laws do not cover involuntary terminations or resignations.
©SHRM Summary (cont’d) There are three general exceptions to the employment-at-will doctrine: Public Policy, Implied Contract, and Covenant of Good Faith and Fair Dealing. There are steps employers can take to defend and minimize their liability. These include using employment-at-will disclaimers, requiring signed acknowledgements for company policies/procedures, and training supervisors and managers.
©SHRM Course Evaluation Please be sure to complete and leave the evaluation sheet you received with your handouts. Thank you for your attention and interest!
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