At-Will vs. Just Cause Employment

June 24, 20203:37 pm2702 views
At-Will vs. Just Cause Employment
At-Will vs. Just Cause Employment

In 2012, fourteen law firm employees were fired only because they wore orange-coloured shirts at work. Some employees purposefully wore the shirt to protest the new work rules, while others wore the shirt because they planned to go to a happy hour later that day. The employer disliked his employees wearing orange shirts, thus he terminated the said employees. This action by an employer is lawful under the category of at-will employment. 

Another lawful conduct that could terminate employees from his/her current job is Just Cause employment act. Yet, just-cause employment is different from at-will employment in its practice and is more ethical to be implemented because its rules are written under certain clauses and therefore more reasonable. To understand better, here is the breakdown of at-will and just cause employment. 

See also: HR Audit Checklist

At-will employment 

At will means that both employer and employee are entering the relationship by mutual agreement, but both can end the relationship without mutual consent. Employers can terminate an employee at any time for any reason, except an illegal one (terminating based on gender, nationality, disability etc.), or for no reason at all, without incurring legal liability. Similarly, an employee can leave a job at any time for any or no reason without adverse legal consequences. 

However, like with anything else, there are caveats and exceptions to this rule, such as follows: 

  • Public policy. This exception assumes that employees should be protected against termination for actions that are in the best interest of the public, like refusing to perform an illegal act for the employer or engaging in acts that are in the public interest. 
  • Implied contract is one that is not written and not specific between employer and employee. 
  • Implied covenant of good faith and fair dealing. As explained by Amy Letke, SPHR and founder of Integrity HR, there are a few states that recognise an implied covenant of good faith and fair dealing. An exact definition is difficult, yet upon judicial interpretations, an employer could not fire an older employee prior to retirement to avoid paying retirement benefits, firing an employee right after relocating them to a new state, or firing a salesperson just because a large commission payment or bonus was to be paid. 

Just cause employment 

Just cause employment refers to a reason to terminate an employment contract immediately and for which, no notice or severance pay is due to the employee. Ellen Dannin in her publication defines just cause employment as when an employee has been guilty of serious misconduct, habitual neglect of duty, incompetence, or conduct incompatible with his/her duties, etc. the law will recognise employer’s right summarily to dismiss the delinquent employee. 

In recent practice, just cause employment no longer requires fault on the part of the employee or a blameworthy error or omission. For example, innocent absenteeism for a prolonged sickness or incompetence is an example of what might constitute just cause for summary dismissal. 

In short, for some employers, having both at-will and just cause policy within their workforce might be a good fit. Yet, for other employees, particularly those whose work links them with a humane image and a social conscience, having the at-will policy might be so completely at odds with their internal and external identities, that it can undermine their mission. 

Read also: The Pluses & Minuses of Internal and External Recruitment

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