Termination Of Employment
Historically, employment law has limited an employee's right to challenge an employer's unfair, adverse, or damaging practices. The law has generally denied any redress to an employee who is arbitrarily treated, unless the employee is represented by a union or has rights under a written employment contract. Absent these two conditions, or a statutory provision, the general rule has been that an employee or an employer can terminate the employment relationship at any time, for any or no reason, with or without notice. This rule forms the core of the "at-will" employment doctrine.
The at-will doctrine was articulated and refined by state courts in the 1800s. It provided employers with the flexibility to control the workplace by terminating employees as economic demand slackened. For employees, it provided a simple way of leaving a job if a better employment prospect became available or if working conditions were intolerable.
Courts and legislatures have modified the at-will employment doctrine. A public policy exception recognizes that an employee should not be terminated because he or she refused to act in an unlawful manner, attempted to perform a duty prescribed by statute, exercised a legal right, or reported unlawful or improper employer conduct ("whistle-blowing").
At-will employees may be protected even if no written contract exists. Many state courts now recognize employee rights that are contained in personnel policies or employee handbooks. As businesses grow larger, formal rules and procedures are needed in order to streamline administrative issues. A handbook or employment-policy manual usually contains rules of expected employee behavior, disciplinary or termination procedures that apply if the rules are violated, and compensation and benefit information. An employer must follow the rules for firing an employee that are set out in the handbook or manual, or risk a lawsuit for wrongful termination.
If an employer terminates an employee, the employer must be prepared to show "good cause" for the firing. With the many statutes that forbid discrimination in the workplace, the employer has the burden of showing a nondiscriminatory reason. Good cause can include inadequate job performance, job-related misconduct, certain types of off-the-job conduct, and business needs.
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