Avoid Wrongful-Discharge Suits by At-Will Employees

April 21, 1999
Terminating an employee raises a multitude of legal concerns for employers. Not only do you worry about whether you are violating any federal and state laws, but you also must make sure you haven’t violated any common law protections granted to your employees.

What can management learn from the mistakes of other employers who ended up in court defending the discharge of an at-will employee? Nearly every employment relations attorney and management consultant preaches "do’s and don’ts" for management.

Of course, the best way to "win" a lawsuit is to avoid it in the first place. By keeping in mind some basic principles, employers can go a long way toward lessening the anger of a discharged employee who might vent his wrath in a courtroom. Here are just a few pointers.

  • Don’t fire an employee for a reason that seems to violate some basic principle of law or social justice.
    In some instances, the public policy may be clear—for example, you wouldn’t discharge an employee for serving on jury duty or for obeying a subpoena and testifying in a court proceeding. Other instances may be less clear. But, if it feels wrong to fire an employee who has just reported you to the health department for spoiled milk that you know you sold, don’t do it.
  • Don’t create implied employment contracts by actions or words.
    Don’t hand out an employee handbook that says you will discharge only for just cause and then fire an employee on the basis of hearsay that may turn out to be wrong. If you have a handbook, be sure you know what it says. And, if you don’t intend it to be a binding contract, make sure that it does not contain language that may hint that it is. Using a disclaimer may be desirable, but make sure that it is in a prominent place so that the intended readers—the employees—know your intentions.
    In addition, caution supervisors about what to say during an employment interview and on the job. If supervisors make promises of job security or disciplinary measures to be followed, then you, the employer, could be held to them. Also, check your employment applications for language that could be read to mean that your handbook is a contract, or that just cause is required before an employee can be terminated. As a general rule, if you make statements to induce prospective employees to take a job, be prepared to live up to them.
  • Treat every employee with "good faith and fair dealing."
    While you may not be able to spot situations where this would come into play, if you treat employees as human beings and as you would want to be treated, you can avoid trouble. An employer who maliciously discharges an employee in an attempt to retain commissions or bonuses that the employee has rightfully earned is asking for a lawsuit. If possible, be fair.


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