‘You can be fired for any reason’ in US at-will employment system

Tech companies have been making headlines lately for laying off hundreds or even thousands of employees. On Nov. 3, Twitter became the first to lay off hundreds of employees overnight, and Meta also announced that it would cut more than 11,000 jobs. In late November, DoorDash announced it would lay off 1,250 employees.

While some workers affected by these recent layoffs may be protected by the federal NOTICE Act, those considered part of a mass layoff are owed 60 days’ written notice and regular wages and benefits during that period, while others may not.

In fact, under the US at-will employment system, workers have few protections to both help them keep their jobs and soften the blow—financially, emotionally—if they lose them. The United States is one of the few countries in the world that has such a system.

Here’s how at-will employment works, why it’s the de facto system in America, and how other countries treat the workforce.

“You can be fired for any reason or no reason at all”

says Najah Farley, senior staff attorney at the National Employment Law Project.

For example, says Arick Fudali, a partner and managing attorney at civil rights firm Bloom Firm, you can be fired “because the boss is having a bad day.” “Because he’s in a bad mood. Because you didn’t laugh at his joke.” None of these, as it appears, would be treated as unfair, illegal termination.

“In the same way, you can quit for any reason,” he says.

Montana is the only state in the U.S. that doesn’t technically have a will, and according to its labor department, employers there must have “good cause” to fire. However, in 2021, changes were made to Montana’s Wrongful Dismissal from Employment Act, giving employers more freedom in this area.

“Your boss can’t flirt with you and then fire you”

There are a number of exceptions where employees cannot be fired. Here are four of the critical ones:

  • Discrimination: Your employer cannot fire you because you are part of a protected class. They can terminate you based on “race, color, religion, sex (including pregnancy, sexual orientation or gender identity), national origin, age (40 or older), disability, and genetic information (including family medical history).” they can’t. US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Importantly, they also can’t fire you or let you go because you complained about discrimination that wasn’t directed at you.
  • Sexual violence: Your employer cannot fire you or let you go because you refused or complained, regardless of whether the sexual harassment happened to you or someone else, even if the complaint turns out to be unfounded. “A boss can’t offer you paid sex in exchange for your work and then fire you because you refuse. Your boss can’t fire you because you’re persistent about sexual harassment. Your boss can” fire you for flirting with you and then not reciprocating to remove,” Fudali said.
  • Union membership: Many unionized workers are also exempt from the at-will employment system. “They’re negotiating a contract, and it’s getting them a legitimate job,” Farley said. This means that the employer must have a clear reason for the dismissal or dismissal.

Dismissal is not provided by law

Another component of the US at-will employment system is that under its auspices, once an employee is fired, the former employer does not owe him severance or other similar provisions.

“If you come to work at 9 and they fire you at 10, they’re going to pay you for your hour,” says Farley, and that includes any extra hours you put in before that. But, regardless of how long you’ve been there or what contributions you’ve made, in most cases this is what they legally owe you.

There are several situations in which a company is obliged to fire a former employee:

  • Under the NOTICE Actor those who are part of what is classified as a mass layoff or plant closing, even if they are no longer obligated, will be owed 60 days’ written notice of termination and continued pay and benefits package during that period. let them come to work.
  • Members of some unions may also be entitled to a severance package, depending on union negotiations with the employer.
  • Some individual contracts may also cause dismissal. “If your contract says, ‘If you’re fired in the first 6 months, you get this much,’ that’s what you get,” Fudali says. Often senior executives have such contracts.

Involuntary employment is uncommon worldwide

In most countries of the world there is no system of on-demand employment. For example, when it comes to many OECD countries, “there are many more steps that an employer has to go through to let an employee go,” said Annelies Goger of the Brookings Institution.

In Japan, for example, the ability to fire an employee is extremely limited and in some cases is considered a last resort under international labor law, after cutting the salaries of senior employees, stopping companies from hiring, and encouraging early retirement. firm L&E Global.

In New Zealand, except in cases of serious misconduct, an employer must give an employee notice of impending termination, according to the government, which stipulates that 2-4 weeks’ notice is “often considered fair”. The employer must pay the employee until the end of the notice period.

“You have to take care of yourself and if you succeed, you will succeed”

So why is this the de facto doctrine in the US?

Ludmila Praslova, a professor of psychology at Vanguard University of Southern California, says the system is partly the result of “the very strong influence that businesses have historically had on policy and legislation.” This gives businesses a great deal of freedom and they have successfully lobbied to keep it.

“I believe a lot of the reason we focus so much on voluntary work here is because of the history of racial segregation and slavery,” Farley said. He says it’s a centuries-old tradition of devaluing labor and workers that still affects employers’ attitudes today.

Finally, the strong individualistic culture of the United States comes into play. Praslova says how this individualism plays out: “You have to take care of yourself, and if you’re successful, you’re either going to be successful or you’re not.” “Within that philosophy, there’s not much protection for people.”


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