You are NEVER Safe If You Work For Someone Else

Repeat this to yourself over and over like a mantra. Write it down and tape it to your bathroom mirror. Have a subliminal tape made and listen to it while you sleep. Turn it into a screen saver for your computer. If all of that doesn’t work, have it tattooed on your arm (perhaps encircling a nice skull and crossbones).

There are few absolutes in life – this is one of them. If you think you know of an exception, you are wrong. This reality was the raison d’etre for my first book and I am posting it first here. Every week I receive calls from terminated employees who thought they were safe. Thirty-year employees, union workers, family members of the boss, government employees, tenured professors, even people who had started the company – they all thought they were safe. They all found out they were wrong.

You Can be Fired on a Whim

To understand why you can never be safe working for someone else, a short course in employment law is required. Of all the legal concepts that impact the lives of average people, the concept of at-will employment is without a doubt the most misunderstood. Focus on this, because it could be the single most important fact you derive from this blog.

Here is the simple rule, and it may challenge your fundamental understanding of employment. If there is no agreement to the contrary, an employer does not need any reason to fire you.  You can be fired on the complete whim of your employer. This is called “at-will” employment. Just as you are free to leave a job whenever you please, the employer can fire you whenever he, she or it pleases.  This is true in every state but Montana.  And depending on the state where you live, it is worse for some employees than others.  In California, for example, an employee can be fired for no reason, but the reason cannot violate public policy.  So, if you are required to serve on jury duty, for example, you can’t be fired for doing so because that would be a violation of public policy.  New York, on the other hand, doesn’t even recognize the public policy exception.  In other words, you can be fired for doing something you were required by law to do.

When I explain this to people, I often get stunned silence. It is so contrary to what they believe, they are certain I must be mistaken. For the person’s entire working life, they had proceeded under the assumption that so long as they showed up at work and did a good job, they could not be fired.  Having been fired for what they consider a trivial reason, they assumed there would be recourse through the courts.  And there I am, taking away that cherished belief.

They will try to argue the point. “How can that be,” they say, “that would mean no one has any job security!”  Someone once said to me, “Unless I went to sleep and woke up in fascist Germany, that can’t be the law — the people wouldn’t stand for it!”  He acknowledged that two other attorneys had already told him the same thing, but he was sure we were all just confused.  He thanked me and went in search of lawyer number four.

Over the next few posts, I’ll be providing actual examples taken from California cases and clients that have come to my office, to make certain you understand the at-will rule.  If you can’t wait, many of the examples can be found at

Incidentally, when I make this point to a group, inevitably some yahoo will pipe up and tell me the story of how he has worked for the same company for 50 years and it’s all been cake and ice cream.  I realize that can happen.  I have people working for me, and I’m sure it’s about as close to heaven on earth as anyone can get.  But if my mid-life crisis kicks in and I move to Montana to open a bait shop, they are all out of work.  The point is that you are never SAFE if you work for someone else, not that you are never happy, content or possibly even blissful.  If you want to be in control of your own destiny, work for yourself or get a really bullet-proof employment agreement with a company that is immune from the vagaries of the economy and will never restructure or go out of business.