If, like most employers, you use an employee handbook to manage the workplace, remember that you must ensure that employees understand that the handbook is not a contract.
Do that by clearly stating that employment is at-will and that employees can be fired for any reason or no reason. To stand up in New Jersey courts, the handbook disclaimer must:
- Appear in a prominent place so that employees can be expected to see it
- State that the handbook contains no promises of any kind
- Specify that the employer is free to change all working conditions without consultation or agreement
- Explain that the employer retains the power to fire employees with or without cause.
Recent case: Dana Ruffo worked for a Wawa store but was terminated when the company closed it.
She sued, alleging that the employee handbook was a contract that guaranteed she could be terminated only for cause.
But the handbook had several prominent disclaimers, including one at the beginning of the section on discipline and one at the end. The disclaimer said, “Employment at Wawa is ‘at will’ which means it is subject to termination by either the Company or the Associate at any time, for any reason. There is no contractual relationships between the Company and the Associate, and letters, benefits or policy statements,, Associate Handbooks or other Associate communications should not be interpreted as such.”
That was enough for the court. It tossed out Ruffo’s claim. (Ruffo v. Wawa, No. 09-5264, DC NJ, 2010)
Final note: Get every employee’s signature after the disclaimer. Update the signatures whenever you revise the handbook or provide a new copy. If you place the handbook on your intranet, use a click-through acknowledgment.
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