Employers can fire at-will employees for any legal reason—or for no reason at all. Employees who work under a contract, on the other hand, have more rights.
Don’t let a flawed employee handbook weaken your hand. Under certain circumstances, language in a handbook may destroy at-will status and leave employers able to discharge employees only for “just cause.” It can happen if the handbook specifies that employees can challenge.
That’s why it’s important to have an attorney review your employee handbook. Legal counsel can ensure that you haven’t accidentally destroyed one of your most valuable rights as an employer: the ability to fire at will.
Recent case: Eric Dean worked for the city of Bay City as director of power and technology until he was fired for allegedand failing to meet profitability goals. He sued, alleging—among other things—that he could be fired only “for cause” and he was not an at-will employee.
As support for his claim, Dean pointed out that the employee handbook had a provision that allowed employees to appeal their termination decisions to the city commission. The court said such a clause was enough to create a legitimate expectation of a secure job—one an employee could lose only for cause.
Fortunately for the city, the court also concluded it had just cause to terminate Dean. (Dean v. City of Bay City, No. 06-1192, 6th Cir., 2007)
Final note: Employee handbooks should always contain a clear statement that nothing in the handbook creates a contract and that employees are at-will. Always have competent counsel review your wording.