At-Will Employment (part 3)
Continuing Life Tip #1, I am explaining why you are never safe if you work for someone else, because under the at-will rule you can be fired on the whim of your employer. Here is the second of some real-life examples.
Nobody Likes a Snitch
Ron loved music, and could not believe his good fortune when he landed a job at a record company. It was an entry level job, but the “benefits” included meeting some of his favorite musicians, and even occasionally having lunch with them when they would take a break during a recording session.
To promote the company’s music and artists, company employees in charge of promotion could simply sign out a hundred CDs or so and give them away to radio stations and record stores in order to promote new albums. Ron happened to notice that his supervisor was always helping himself to large quantities of CDs, but never seemed to use them for promotions. He soon found out why. It turned out that Ron’s supervisor was making extra money by selling the promotional copies to record stores.
Ron didn’t know what to do. He did not want to report his supervisor, and for all he knew, this might be an unofficial perk. He eventually decided, however, that if this was illegal activity and he failed to report it, he would be viewed as an accomplice. So, without making a big deal of it, he mentioned to his supervisor’s boss what was occurring.
It turned out that this practice was highly improper, and Ron’s supervisor was immediately fired. And after thanking Ron for bringing this matter to the attention of the company, Ron was also fired. It was explained to Ron that while he had done the right thing, he had rendered himself unemployable. With his demonstrated lack of loyalty to his supervisor, no other supervisor would want to work with him. He was told that “nobody likes a snitch.”
Ron cried “wrongful termination,” and went in search of an attorney. Under the at-will rule, an employer can fire an employee for no reason, but not for a reason that violates public policy. For example, an employer cannot fire someone on the basis of race, because that would violate the public policy against discrimination. Similarly, there is a “whistle-blower” exception that holds that it is against public policy to fire an employee for reporting wrongdoing to a regulatory agency. If employees could be fired, for example, for reporting a safety violation, then employees would be far less likely to report such violations.
So, Ron found an attorney that was willing to pursue his case under the whistle-blower exception to the at-will rule. Years later and after spending a large amount of money on court costs, Ron’s case against the music company failed. Do you need to hear it again? Absent a contract to the contrary, the employer can fire you for any reason whatsoever, or for no reason at all. If the employer wants to fire you for ratting on your boss, that is perfectly legal. The court held that Ron’s case did not fall within the whistle-blower exception. The whistle-blower exception is designed to keep employers from retaliating against employees that report illegal conduct. For example, if an aircraft mechanic knows that the company is lying to the FAA about repairs, we as a society want him to feel free to report that fact without fear that he will be terminated as a result.
At one time the courts required that the employee be an actual whistle-blower. In other words, the case would be dismissed unless the employee could show that he was terminated only after he had reported the wrongful conduct to some regulatory agency. That rule has been modified somewhat, and now a case will survive if the employee can show that he was terminated because the company believed the employee was about to report the wrongful conduct. But in Ron’s case, neither rule would provide him relief. The company was not doing anything illegal; the company was the victim. There is no public policy designed to encourage employees to report internal squabbles, so the termination was not a violation of public policy. The court held that Ron was not entitled to any protection for report a theft within the company.
I’ll say it again — you are never safe if you work for someone else. My philosophy is that you can work for someone else during high school, and I might even let it pass if you work for someone else while attending college (although I’ll need an explanation why you haven’t started your own business out of your dorm.) I might even forego taking out loser ads in the paper if you take a job for a year or two after college to get some training for your own business. But two years out of college, it’s time to grow up and go out on your own.
Consider this. In the old days, company loyalty was rewarded. You could work at a company until retirement, and leave with a party, gold watch and pension. Nowadays, when companies are only interested in the bottom line and compassion does not enter into the equation, loyalty works against you. In most companies, you get a small raise each time you are evaluated, assuming the evaluation is good. As a natural result, the people that have been there the longest, usually the older employees, are the ones making the most money. When the economy goes bad, and the company needs to cut the payroll, who has the bigger target on their backs? Yes, it is perfectly legal to fire the employees with the most seniority. (Another cherished belief I sometimes encounter is the urban legend that a company must fire the newest employees first.) That is why so many 50 and 60-somethings find their way to my office, devastated because they were fired after so many years of loyal service to the company, and replaced by some young person they trained. They are unable to find work elsewhere because of their age and salary demands, and end up working as a greeter at Walmart.
Next time: “The Freedom to Speak Your Mind”