Document Type

Report

Publication Date

2021

Disciplines

Labor and Employment Law | Law

Abstract

In the United States, the vast majority of private-sector employers have free rein to discipline or fire workers for good reasons (for harassing other workers), bad reasons (a personal dislike of the worker or a worker’s off-duty activities), or even no reason at all so long as the employers’ justification is not otherwise barred by law. And even if a worker suspects they have been fired for an illegal reason – for instance, because of their race, ethnicity, or gender – the burden is on the worker, not the employer, to collect the necessary evidence, prove discriminatory intent, and mount a legal challenge.

This sweeping legal principle, called employment “at-will,” is the foundation of American employment relations for nonunion private-sector businesses in every state except for Montana.1 It is also unusual: In no other rich democracy do private-sector businesses have as much latitude to dismiss workers without justification as in the US (see box). Other countries require employers to spell out clear justifications for terminating a worker, limit firings to those that meet “just cause” standards, or most often, both (ILO n.d.).

American exceptionalism in at-will employment has pernicious consequences for workers and US workplaces. As we explain in this brief, at-will employment corrodes enforcement of workers’ labor, employment, and civil rights (e.g., Blades 1967; McGinley 1996). At-will employment also leaves workers vulnerable to arbitrary and unfair treatment by managers and supervisors. Workers already likely to experience discrimination or illegal treatment from their employer – for example, Black and brown workers, workers with lower levels of formal education, and low-wage workers – are especially vulnerable under at-will employment. On a more fundamental level, at-will employment erodes workers’ dignity and diminishes the possibility of real workplace democracy.

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