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Common Handbook Mistakes #4

It is important for an employer to be clear about the nature and scope of the work relationship. Relying on your workforce to read your mind only results in misunderstandings and hard feelings.

Neither is good for morale. That brings us to…

Mistake 4

No “At Will” policy.

“At Will” employment is one of those concepts that we understand on one level but don’t care for on another because it sounds so harsh. It means that an employer is free to end the employment relationship at any time, for any legal reason, with or without notice and without consideration of the employee’s length of service. It also means the employee is free to leave at any time, for any reason, and without giving notice. It sounds like the legal equivalent of “I am so done with you” or “We just don’t click” or, described in Facebook terms, you have gone from “in a relationship” to “it’s complicated” to “single.” In reality, it is not that harsh.

As with everything, there are exceptions to the “At Will” employment concept (race, gender, age, disability, etc). I will discuss these later in another series of posts. Regardless, the beauty of at will is that it accurately sets forth the nature and scope of the employment relationship. It also allows the employer latitude in making decisions about the composition of their team. Employers can treat all members of their team similarly without undue consideration being given to matters such as length of service. Employers know when a change has to be made but are often convinced by barroom barristers that ending an employment relationship will result in litigation. My advice to employers is to trust your instincts, embrace the at will employment concept and, if you have concerns about a particular employee, talk to your lawyer.

When you know a change has to be made, end the relationship and move on. Making excuses for unsatisfactory performance only increases your level of frustration and is unfair to the employee and your team. There is nothing inherently wrong with changes being made, provided they are designed to move your team to the next level. The “At Will” employment relationship allows an employee to find a better fit just as it allows the employer to make adjustments to its team. In those circumstances, “it’s just not a good fit” is a perfectly valid reason for making a change. I understand these conversations are difficult but they have to occur for organizational growth to occur.

Employers that effectively communicate the nature of the “at will” employment relationship to their workforce tend to have fewer problems (read that wrongful termination and retaliation lawsuits) when the decision is made to part ways. I have yet to meet an employer that looks forward to letting an employee go, but you have to remember that you can either be proactive and make positive changes that will improve your company culture or you can wait to have change thrust upon you. The former allows you to manage change. The latter allows you to manage chaos.

For those who are reading this that are employees, the at will relationship means you are free to move on at any time for any reason. I meet a lot of great people that work at places that just don’t appreciate them. When you get that feeling in your gut that this place will never change, start the process of moving on. That means planning for the move. Review your personnel file, your confidentiality agreement, non-compete, and, if necessary, get some legal advice on your legal responsibilities after you leave. Keep watching this Blog, because I will have some general tips for employees.


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