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HR Basics: What is Employment at Will?

Most of you are probably aware of the term “employment at will.”  This is actually not a law, but rather a doctrine or philosophy.  “Employment at will” means that there is a mutual understanding between the employee and the company that either party is free to end the employment relationship at any time for any reason, other than those prohibited by law.

Many companies put too much value and emphasis on the employment at will doctrine.  We frequently receive telephone calls from companies who want to terminate an employee.  When asked if they have any documentation for the termination, the companies often reply that they do not need documentation because they are terminating the employee under the employment at will doctrine.  While they are technically correct to be able to do this, (provided that their policies/handbook clearly spells out that they follow employment at will), many terminated employees file unemployment claims or EEOC discrimination charges against the company.  When the company tries to defend the termination at the unemployment hearing, they usually have no documentation to back it up.  Therefore, the employee will usually win the hearing.  In the case of an EEOC charge, the terminated employee is always in a protected class (age, race, sex, national origin, religion, disability, etc.), and very few cases are ruled in favor of the company if their only defense is employment at will.  It is imperative that there be written documentation to support the termination.

We have heard many employment law experts state that for all intent and purposes, the employment at will doctrine is a big misnomer in the workplace.  The courts uphold it in a very inconsistent manner, and companies should not try to use it as a sole defense.  Companies should include their employment at will intent in their handbooks and policies, but nothing beats good documentation when you are trying to prove your point to a third party.

Source: The Employers Association

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