Follow Benton Linkedin Twitter
Email Benton Email
Legal Issues
Mar 15, 2015

Employment-At-Will: What Does It Mean For Your Business?

Sponsored Content provided by Benton Toups - Attorney, Cranfill Sumner & Hartzog LLP

I regularly field calls from small business owners who describe a problem employee to me and then ask, “Do I have good grounds to terminate the employee?” Many such callers are surprised when I explain to them that, in North Carolina, businesses technically don’t need any grounds for terminating an employee. That is because North Carolina adheres to the doctrine of employment-at-will.
 
Employment at Will: What it means for employers
 
North Carolina employers are free to terminate employees for a good reason, a bad reason, or no reason at all. Taken to its literal extreme, I explain to clients, this means that if you have an employee show up to work with an ugly tie, you are perfectly within your legal right to tell him, “Your tie is ugly. Pack your things. You’re fired!” Of course, such a termination would be terribly unfair. It would also be terribly foolish. But it wouldn’t be illegal.
 
Exceptions to the Rule
 
Like any good rule, however, the employment-at-will doctrine has exceptions – lots of them. For instance, under various state and federal laws, it is illegal to terminate employees because of:

  • Race
  • Sex
  • Religion
  • National Origin
  • Color
  • Pregnancy
  • Age
  • Actual disability
  • A history of disability
  • A perceived disability
  • A workers’ compensation claim
  • A complaint over wages
  • A complaint over workplace safety
  • Discussions with coworkers over the terms of employment
  • Use of tobacco products outside of working hours
  • The employee’s genetic makeup
  • And many more ...
As you can see, there are so many exceptions to the rule that the rule almost isn’t a rule anymore.  Taking this into account, clear communication and documentation are key. In addition to avoiding personnel decisions based on the protected categories listed above, employers must take care to avoid even the perception that the decision was motivated by some illegal animus, since perception alone is often enough to induce the affected employee to seek legal redress.
 
Last month I submitted an article for this series that focused on the need for honestly and transparency in employee terminations, and the discussion above further illustrates the importance of that. Because of the employment-at-will doctrine, your reason for termination does not have to be good. As counter-intuitive as it seems, it doesn’t even have to be fair. It just cannot be one of the reasons designated as illegal. Whatever your particular reason might be, it should be transparent.
 
I will end with a comment that I am sure need not be conveyed to the vast majority of readers. While employers technically do not need a good reason to terminate employees, requiring one is certainly the best practice. You aren’t characters in some law school exam question. You have a product to produce, or a service to provide, and your employees make that possible.  It’s no secret that employees are happiest and most productive when they are treated fairly. I also find that, in the majority of employment claims I defend, the employee simply feels “wronged.”  Avoid that, and you avoid lawsuits.
 
This content has been prepared for general information purposes only. This information is not intended to provide specific legal advice. Legal advice is dependent upon the specific circumstances of each situation. The information provided cannot replace the advice of competent legal counsel by a licensed attorney in your state.
 
Benton L. Toups is a partner at Cranfill Sumner & Hartzog LLP and serves as vice-chair of the Employment Law Practice Group. His practice concentrates on representing businesses in all aspects of labor and employment law. A firm believer in the adage that “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure,” Toups counsels employers on day-to-day issues and assists them in developing and implementing policies to avoid employment litigation. To contact Toups, call (910) 777-6011 or email him at [email protected].

Wbj insights revised 0510
Ico insights

INSIGHTS

SPONSORS' CONTENT
Burrus rob headshot 300x300

Cameron M.B.A. Alumna Keeps Wilmington WARM

Robert Burrus - Cameron School of Business - UNC-Wilmington
Aaeaaqaaaaaaaaidaaaajdhiztrkodm0lte2yjetngrkmy1hotrmltawmdvlmwqyztmymw

Understanding the AI Ladder

Diane Durance - UNCW Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship
Dallas headshot 300x300

Balancing Goals in Family Transfers

Dallas Romanowski - Cornerstone Business Advisors

Trending News

Ohio Company Acquires Wilmington Based Environmental Consulting Firm

Cece Nunn - Jul 19, 2018

New Businesses Open, On The Way To Beau Rivage Marketplace

Cece Nunn - Jul 20, 2018

Airport Terminal Expansion Project Set To Move Forward Ahead Of Schedule

Christina Haley O'Neal - Jul 19, 2018

Mermaid Cove Opens New Store In Wilmington

Johanna Cano - Jul 20, 2018

Wilmington Based Atlantic Packaging Buys Maryland Company

Christina Haley O'Neal - Jul 20, 2018

In The Current Issue

Governments Fund Economic Agencies

The new fiscal year for government entities in the Cape Fear region began July 1, and with it, a new round of economic development funding f...


Orthopedic Practice Continues To Grow

EmergeOrtho is expected to continue to expand in the Cape Fear region and beyond. The physician-owned orthopedic practice is set to break gr...


What’s Next In Local Grocery Wars?

The Cape Fear region is likely to remain a tempting prospect for grocery store chains considering areas for growth, developers say, although...

Book On Business

The 2018 WilmingtonBiz: Book on Business is an annual publication showcasing the Wilmington region as a center of business.

Order Your Copy Today!


Galleries

Videos

2018 Power Breakfast - Dishing on the Restaurant Biz
2018 WilmingtonBiz Expo - Keynote Lunch with Eric Dinenberg, Rouse Properties
2017 Health Care Heroes