Take a look at your employment-at-will language right now in your employee handbook or offer letter. (I’ll wait; if you can’t find it, you’ve got larger issues than the one I’m about to discuss).
It probably says something like this:
Your employment with the Company is on an “at-will” basis. This means that you have the right to leave your job here at the Company if you want to, for any reason at all or for no reason. The Company can also terminate your employment for any reason or no reason, and with or without notice.
Ken Adams, who writes the terrific Adams Drafting blog, called me yesterday to discuss the provision "for any reason or no reason". Ken spends time trying to figure out how contracts and other legal documents can be written in plain English, without the legal mumbo-jumbo that sometimes accompanies it.
So we discussed some of the legal issues surrounding the language. He recounts our discussion here but the first thing he asked was whether an employer could simply state that an employee is "at will." In theory, that perhaps could withstand judicial scrutiny, but my question is "why would you do that?" I don’t think most people really know what that language means. I think an explanation should be attached by the employer when using the "at-will" language.
But Ken is still frustrated by the use of the "no reason" language; as he states, every action has a "reason". So has to be a better way of crafting this, mainly by banishing the "no reason" language. I agree.
What is interesting about the language of "any reason or no reason" is that some of its origins are not from lawyers looking to make things more complicated but rather from the courts that have used the language to describe the relationship. For example, in a Connecticut Supreme Court case from 2002, the Court defines an "at-will relationship":
In Connecticut, an employer and employee have an at-will employment relationship in the absence of a contract to the contrary. Employment at will grants both parties the right to terminate the relationship for any reason, or no reason, at any time without fear of legal liability.
So, back to the question — is there a way to simplify this? Sure. Ken makes one suggestion on his blog but I think Ken’s suggestion puts an undo focus on the fact that the employer need not provide a reason for the termination. Here are some other alternatives.
This Handbook is not an express or implied contract of employment for any period. Any employee who does not have an express written employment contract with the company signed by an authorized Officer of the company, is an employee at will. This means that the employee retains the right to leave at any time, and the company retains the right to terminate the employment of any employee, at any time, for any reason, with or without notice.
Or perhaps this one.
This handbook is not a contract of employment. All employment, benefits and compensation with the Company is “at will.” That means that an employee can be terminated with or without cause, and with or without notice, at any time, for any reason, at the option of either the Company or yourself, except as otherwise provided by law.
Are these examples perfect? No but it removes the "no reason" language basically finding it superfluous. Feel free to comment below with language that you prefer using or an example that you’ve seen that tackles this issue.
There is no magic solution to this but at the end of the day, the takeaway for employers is that there is always another way to draft your policies and contracts. Always think about ways to simplify matters and subscribe to Ken’s blog for additional suggestions.
(Note about the language referenced above: These examples are for informational purposes only. If you are revising your policies, make sure to consult with legal counsel about laws in your area and other issues that might be related to this.).