Welcome to the March edition of the HR Advisor Newsletter. This month we look at three ways you can put the at-will employment relationship at risk, the meaning of the terms mission, vision, and values, and some tips for spring cleaning.

 

 

Putting At-Will Employment at Risk

 

“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 at least three 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.

Public Policy
At-will employment also doesn’t allow you to terminate employment because an employee exercised their rights under established public policy. Even under at-will employment, it’s illegal to terminate an employee because they requested time off to serve on a jury or participate in a police investigation.

Implied Contract
At-will employment is the standard in every state but Montana, but not every employer-employee relationship follows that standard. A contractual relationship, for example, would not be at will; and you don’t necessarily need something in writing for a contract to exist. An implied contract could be created by an employer’s oral statements or by the implied meaning of other written policies. For example, referring to an employee’s first 90 days as a “probationary period” can imply guaranteed continuing employment when the probationary period has ended. Likewise, a statement that the company will employ you as long as you meet the minimum job performance standards is essentially a promise that the company will only discharge an employee for a performance-related issue, therefore eliminating the at-will relationship.

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.

 
 
 

Content Spotlight

2-Minute HR
 

You’ve probably heard the terms mission, vision, and values, but can you say what differentiates them? If you’re unsure, check out our recent 2-Minute HR on the topic. Our collection of 2-Minute HR trainings can be found under the Learning tab on the Support Center.
 
 

HR Tip of the Month
 

Spring Cleaning
With year-end and first-of-the-year goals out of the way and a lull between holidays, there’s no better time to do some organizational spring cleaning. As many experts in tidying up and clearing clutter will tell you, a clean space with room for movement (both physical and psychological) will boost productivity and just make people feel better.

You may be low on time, or you might feel ready to embrace some serious reorganization. Depending on the number of hours available, consider mixing and matching the following spring cleaning options, from quickest to most comprehensive.

  • Do a walk-through of the workplace to ensure that pathways are clear and free of tripping or falling hazards. This may mean finding storage for unused furniture, breaking down boxes, or finding a system to organize supplies.
  • Set aside 30 to 90 minutes for employees to tidy up their work areas. Ask them to recycle or shred documents they no longer need, give their filing cabinet or desk drawers a once-over, clean up unruly cables, and wipe everything down.
  • Take an inventory of things that need to be fixed and start tackling it from most to least important. This might include a broken lock on a bathroom door, dirty walls, carpet stains, broken office chairs, fraying uniforms, mismatched name tags, or malfunctioning computer equipment.
  • Clean up personnel files. Often in the day-to-day rush, a document will just get stuffed into the middle of a file. Take time to go through and file documents in the right places, whether that’s a specific section of the file a document is already in or a different file entirely. A little maintenance on a regular basis can go a long way, especially if you receive an unexpected request for documentation, whether from a former employee, an attorney, or the state or federal Department of Labor.
 
 

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