At-Will Employment (part 2)
When we last left Life Tip #1, I was 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 first of some real-life examples.
The Case of the Smoking Employee
Maria wanted to stop smoking, but smoking seemed to provide the only release from her hectic life. To anyone that gave her grief about her smoking, she would simply say, “I can smoke or use drugs, and as vices go, I guess I’d rather smoke.”
Maria worked in an office building where smoking was not permitted, so she could only smoke on her breaks and had to leave the building to do so. Most of her fellow smokers would congregate around the back door to smoke their cigarettes, but Maria preferred to sit in her car and listen to music on the car radio during her 15 minute breaks. One day, as she had done dozens of times before, Maria was sitting in her car smoking a cigarette during a proper break. This time, however, the owner of the business happened to look out the window and saw Maria smoking in her car. For some crazy reason, and with no basis for jumping to such an absurd conclusion, the employer decided that Maria was smoking marijuana, and fired her the moment she returned from her break.
A clear case of “wrongful termination,” correct? After all, Maria did absolutely nothing wrong, and there was no reason for the employer to fire her. That was what Maria and her attorneys thought, and at the subsequent trial, Maria proved beyond dispute that she had not been smoking marijuana, and therefore should not have been fired. The jury agreed and awarded her almost a year’s worth of wages as damages. Good for Maria; you go girl!
But that was not the final word. Although the jury found in her favor, the California Court of Appeal reversed the verdict, and she ended up with nothing. Why? Again, you must think in terms of the at-will rule. If an employer can fire you for no reason, then what difference does it make if the employer makes a mistake, or for that matter, simply makes up a reason? People have a real problem with this concept, because their logic is clouded by a concept of fairness. It seems horribly unfair that Maria was terminated for something she didn’t do, but even if that is proven to be the case, the employer can just say, “so sorry we were wrong about that marijuana thing, but now you’re fired because we don’t like the way you wear your sunglasses.” The appeal court held that whether Maria was using marijuana or not was of no importance. Maria could be fired at the will of the employer, even if the reasons were based on a misunderstanding. Maria ended up with nothing, and had to pay all the costs her employer had incurred in going to trial and on appeal.
Next time: “Nobody Likes a Snitch”