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Q&A: Does “at-will employment” mean we can terminate without risk?

Question:

Does “at-will employment” mean we can terminate without risk?

Answer from Sarah, PHR, SHRM-CP:

No, termination always comes with some risk, even when the employment is at-will. While at-will employment allows either the employer or the employee to terminate the employment relationship at any time, with or without notice, and with or without cause, it does not permit you to terminate employment based on the employee exercising a legal right or belonging to a protected class (e.g., race, sex, religion, national origin).

There’s even some risk when the termination is for cause because a terminated employee could claim that your reasoning is just for show and that they were actually terminated for an illegal reason. That risk grows exponentially when you don’t provide the employee with a sensible reason for the termination.

Consequently, the safest way to terminate an employee is to have documentation that justifies the legitimate business reasons behind the termination. This documentation would include infractions of policy, instances of poor performance, and any disciplinary or corrective action taken. The more you can do to show that you had a legitimate business reason, the harder it will be for an employee to fill in the blank with their own illegal reason for termination, and the less risky it will be.

Second, terminating the employee before their resignation period comes to an end could motivate other employees to forego giving adequate notice in the event they resign. By terminating an employee immediately, rather than letting them earn two more weeks of pay, you’re effectively telling other employees that you don’t honor notice periods. As a result, they may not see the point in giving you that courtesy.

Ultimately, the choice to terminate early – with or without pay – is up to your discretion. There are certainly good reasons to ask an employee not to return to the office once they have offered you notice. Just keep in mind that there may be other reasons to go ahead and pay them for their notice period, even if you don’t want them to continue to work.

Picture of Sarah, PHR, SHRM-CP

Sarah, PHR, SHRM-CP

Sarah has extensive Human Resources experience in the legal, software, security and property preservation industries. She has a Business Communications degree from Villa Julie College (now Stevenson University) and a master’s certificate in Human Resources Management and a Strategic Organizational Leadership certification from Villa Nova University. Sarah is also a member of the National Society of Human Resources Management and has managed the HR function for small startup companies to mid-sized/large organizations.

 

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