It’s been a long time since I worked a regular job; mostly I’ve been a consultant, a small-business owner, a free-lancer. (Some of these gigs paid better than others, while some didn’t pay at all, but that’s not the point.) Only yesterday did I realize something about employer-employee relationships in the US. Per Wikipedia:
At-will employment is a doctrine of American law that defines an employment relationship in which either party can break the relationship with no liability, provided there was no express contract for a definite term governing the employment relationship and that the employer does not belong to a collective bargaining group (i.e., has not recognized a union). Under this legal doctrine, any hiring is presumed to be “at will”; that is, the employer is free to discharge individuals “for good cause, or bad cause, or no cause at all.”
At-will employment has been the norm in this country for more than fifty years. The United States is the only major economic power in which at-will employment is the rule rather than the exception. Other countries stipulate that workers can be discharged only “for cause,” though I understand that in the UK redundancy and outsourcing constitute cause. In the US, you can be fired merely because your boss doesn’t like you, or because you don’t agree to changes in working conditions, reduction in working hours, or reduction in pay. Some companies maintain corporate policies specifying acceptable causes for dismissing workers. Unions typically include a “dismissal for cause” clause in their labor agreements with employers. Otherwise, companies rarely deviate from at-will employment arrangements, with the notable exception of high-level employees.
After finishing grad school I worked as an employee for three different companies. In each case I held a high-level position. I don’t recall negotiating a “for cause” clause into any of those employment agreements, but I suspect that they were already in place — the bosses have each other’s backs.
The only reason I’ve become alerted to the triumph of the “at will” provision is that Anne is being subjected to it. For two years she’s been working as a volunteer for a non-profit startup that provides overnight shelter for homeless people. For a year she was Chair of the Board, stepping down only last month. She’s focused much of her effort on putting together a short-term convalescence program for homeless people being discharged from the hospital or the emergency room — people who would otherwise be back on the streets recovering from surgery or fighting a virulent infectious disease. Anne ran a pilot demonstration project, raised some grant money and contributions, and negotiated a contract with the local hospital to pay for this program. In other words, she has put this whole program together from scratch. Now she’s wanting to get paid. The new Chair is
an asshole a guy whom Anne brought into the organization about six months ago. He’s an attorney, so he’s been useful in establishing policies and procedures and so on. But he spent most of his career as a corporate counsel, advocating on behalf of investors and management. So when he writes up an employment contract for Anne he inserts the “at will” provision as a matter of course. Anne begs to differ and won’t sign; the Chair says she’s being “uncooperative.”
I tell Anne that she should invoke the high-level position exception for herself. But she wants to replace the “at will” provision with a “for cause” clause that would apply to anyone hired by this organization, which mostly includes homeless people working part time for minimum wage. Sheesh, what a do-gooder!