What Does At-Will Employment Really Mean?

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Throughout my HR career, I have advised managers and business owners on disciplinary matters for employees, as well as employee terminations.  One frustration that I’ve often seen from my clients is that I require a valid reason, as well as documentation, before I give the green light on any involuntary separation.

“But this is an at-will state!  That means I can fire any employee, at any time, and I don’t even need a reason!”  – A lot of managers

The above “quote” paraphrases an argument I hear frequently.

At-will employment (which is used in many states) is a term that means an employee can be dismissed by an employer for any reason (meaning that “just cause” doesn’t need to be established), without any warning, as long as the reason for the termination is not illegal.

This certainly makes it seem that you can just fire anyone you’d like at any time.  However, you can’t do so without some consequence.    For example, letting an employee go because they “just aren’t a good fit”, with no documented performance issues, policy violations, etc. would still allow the employee to make an unemployment claim (that they could potentially win).

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Furthermore, arbitrarily picking and choosing which employees to fire and which to keep without any solid justification for business reasons can give the appearance that you are engaging in discriminatory practices, and anyone can file an EEOC claim for free.  It’s easy for a (former) employee to find a reason to say that you, as an employer, discriminated against them, and then the onus is on you to prove that wasn’t the case.

So, to protect yourself from future claims against your company (and major headaches), it’s in your best interest to have solid justification for terminations – along with documentation regarding the reason.    Be consistent in your practices, including progressive disciplinary action and terminations.

Staff One HR provides expert guidance and ongoing support for clients throughout the employee lifecycle, helping them make better hires, reduce turnover, increase productivity, and educate and empower supervisors.  Contact the author directly at mallory.basore@staffone.com.

Image: Wang Tom