Firing an employee in America
Why American employers can dismiss staff whenever they like and workers can walk out of their jobs
America has very different rules regarding firing staff and employees quitting their jobs. So if you’re looking to hire someone in the US, you’ll need to know the ins and outs.
The US is one of only a few countries where most employers can fire a member of staff at any time, for any reason – with or without notice. It doesn’t matter how long the employee has held the job. Equally, staff can leave at any time. It’s known as at-will employment. In most other countries, however, workers sign a contract that can only be terminated for specific reasons and often notice has to be given.
All US states except Montana have laws that presume at-will employment. Courts have traditionally viewed the employee/employer relationship as being on an equal footing because each side can call it a day just as easily. Employees aren’t obliged to sign an at-will agreement, but most do. And they might not be hired if they don’t.
Laws against discrimination
It may seem as though employers hold all the cards given that they can sack an at-will worker at any point for any reason – or indeed for no reason at all. And an employee has much more to lose if they’re sacked than an employer does if one of their staff walks out. Yet at-will workers still have some protection. It’s illegal to fire someone because of their race, gender, national origin, disability, religion or because they’re aged over 40.
While each day may be an employee’s last (no wonder Americans work so hard), there are further laws in their favour. It’s illegal to fire a whistleblower and anyone who has filed complaints about illegal activity or health and safety violations. It’s also against the law to fire an employee for exercising their legal rights such as taking family or medical leave, military leave or taking time off to serve on a jury.
A very small number of workers in the US have an employment contract. If it specifies the length of employment, then no at-will rules apply and the employer is bound by the terms of the contract.
If you’re setting up a new business in the USA, Foothold America can help you decide whether it’s best to offer your employees a contract or an at-will agreement.