Employment Law Attorneys

Several Great Reasons to Get Rid of the Employment At-Will Rule6 min read

By Mark Carey

What do you mean I can be fired for any reason or no reason at all? Who made up this rule? Why do I have to follow the employment at-will doctrine?  Well, you don’t and there are several reasons companies and employees should shift to a modified approach that satisfies the expectations of both the employer and the employee.

I can honestly say that over the past twenty-three years handling employment law cases for both executives and employees, my clients are really confused and bewildered by the employment at-will rule and the significant financial impact it creates when employers decide to let them go.  Many clients always state they understand the basic rule that they can be fired at any time and they can leave at any time.  But beyond that they know absolutely nothing about why the rule came into being or more importantly how they can negotiate around it.  When a termination occurs the adverse impact is clear, the uncertainty of the break in career trajectory and financial resources.

At the executive level, I routinely negotiate employment contracts that provide for termination “for cause” and “termination for good reason” by the executive.  This is standard in the industry at the executive level. However, I do confront the hybrid cases, where the employer “shoves” in the provision identified as “termination for any reason”. Well, that sounds like the employment at-will rule doesn’t it, because it is.  Enter the LeBron James Rule. (I made up this rule).  When negotiating employment contracts, employees needs to identify their leverage factor; it is what makes the employer throw money or equity in order to induce the hire.  LeBron James can write his own ticket to work wherever he finds the highest bidder, and he can demand the termination for cause and good reason provision with a severance payout.  Find your leverage and do not be shy about asserting it.

Well you might say not everyone is as fortunate as LeBron. I disagree and this is what has bugged me for many years.  We all too often knee jerk react and accept this stupid and ill-conceived rule that your employment is as good as the last minute or hour you just worked. Some say, just be grateful you have your job etc.  Give me a break!  There is a new way to handle this.

I propose getting rid of the employment at-will rule and replacing it with the modified form we see in executive employment contracts. Specifically, employees can be fired for cause or terminated by the employee for good reason. If the good reason event occurs, then the employer pays a severance amount to take care of some of the financial issues related to your transition to new employment.  If you land a job, your severance stops, as this is fair in an economic theory way of thinking.  “Termination for cause” means you violated the law and company policies.  “Termination for good reason” means the employer materially changed your title, salary, reporting structure, location of your office etc.

Now here are several positive effects of eliminating the employment at-will rule based on my research into this issue.

  1. Management vs. Everybody: Eliminating the employment at-will rule will get rid of the large divide between management and employees. Literally, this is the trust divide.  If you scare employees into believing they can be fired any time, management is not creating a loyal and trusting environment that spurs innovation and creativity which will push the company forward in profound economic ways.  Employers want employees to be focused on their work, but this rule is utterly distracting and frankly non-motivating. The rule erodes any semblance of entrepreneurial creativity among the team.  Employers need to seriously rethink this one.
  2. HR vs. Everybody: Honestly, did you really believe the Human Resources Department was there to help you. I make it my mission to point this out to every client I have. They (HR) have a duty of loyalty to the employer and have absolutely no interest in doing what’s right for you. By eliminating the employment at-will rule, employees will closer align themselves with HR and HR will do a better job of “caring” for the very employees that make up the company; without employees you have no company. Where did all those employers go astray?
  3. Eliminating Fiefdoms: Does your boss have their favorites? Do they hire from the last place of employment? Are there any “brown-nosers” in the team who believe the only way to the top is to “work it” what ever that means to you. It’s childish and it’s irritating to say the least.  You know what I am referring to.  Why do other employees do this and why do supervisors encourage it?  Eliminating the employment at-will rule will breed meritocracy, but not the type Bridgewater Associates thinks they are creating.  Employees will begin to feel compassion for their coworkers and work more closely as a team or family, instead of putting a knife in their back at work. Employees will work with management for the company common good; all will prosper together not just the few.
  4. Reducing Discrimination: If you create trust, honesty, transparency and vulnerability, then you create lasting relationships where employees want to stay and work.  Employment discrimination bias arises from many reasons, but my theory is that if you get rid of the employment at-will rule you will gut the walls that employees build in their work environments with the sole goal of getting ahead.  Think about it. If you say something or do something negative about another person to make yourself look better in the eyes of your employer, you will do it to get ahead.  That negative comment or idea could be motivated based on gender, age, race, religion or manipulation like seeking sexual favors in exchange for career advancement.  We need a sea change to course correct our current direction.  The status quo just doesn’t work anymore; although it may work for employment attorneys like myself as we are very busy policing this garbage.  If you see something, say something. Have the courage to speak out, you will be protected.

Finally, here is my shout out to older employees. If you are an older employee “we honor your wisdom and experience, you are worth every penny we pay you”.  Employees who are in their fifties and even sixties are well paid because they have many years of experience to offer, more than someone twenty years their younger.  I say we should keep them on board and ignore the bottom-line cost issues and focus on their economic impact these older wiser employees can create for the company.  Management must stop terminating the baby boomers because the economic argument that fosters this decision making is not financially sound and never was to begin with.  It’s like a bad drug addiction.  Remember, wisdom still is a virtue for a reason.

When will this change occur? When management realizes they can make greater revenue multiples by providing better job security.  They will have to stop listening to management side defense employment counsel who banter incessantly to maintain the employment at-will rule for every client. The world isn’t flat, or at least until someone very smart said it wasn’t.  Same goes here, management should adopt this new rule and maybe just maybe they will convince themselves that #employees matter.

If you want more information about employment law issues, please feel free to contact Mark Carey, Carey & Associates, P.C., at mcarey@capclaw.com or call the office at 203-984-5536.