Most of my Oregon employer clients are familiar with the various rights afforded their employees under Oregon law. From the Family and Medical Leave Act to the various discrimination and whistleblower statutes, it can seem at times difficult to fire an employee in Oregon without drawing a lawsuit.
As a Portland employment dispute lawyer, I frequently remind my business clients that they have one over-arching right, and it might just be the most important right you have as an employer. The ‘at-will’ employment legal doctrine provides you with the right to fire your employees when they are not performing or if you just don’t want them around anymore–as long as you, as the employer, don’t do something to give away that right.
One way to alter your right to fire is by contract. An employment agreement can (and often does) provide that an employee can only be fired for cause. For key employees, this type of provision may make sense, and it’s sometimes required to attract top talent.
But a document does not need to have the word “contract” written in bold across the top to alter an employees contractual right to continued employment. A contract can be formed inadvertently under any number of circumstances. Experienced plaintiff’s employment lawyers will look for creative ways to argue that you, the employer, agreed to amend the at-will doctrine.
My Portland business law clients are often surprised to hear that several courts have held that employee handbooks, personnel guides and employee manuals can contractually alter the employer’s right to fire an employee at-will.
There may be no quicker way to end up in a employment dispute than drafting and distributing a sloppy employee handbook. Among the many other potentially important provisions in the handbook, all Oregon employers should include a provision clearly stating that the manual is not a contract and nothing contained therein shall alter or affect the at-will nature of the employment relationship.
This type of provision isn’t a guarantee that you’ll stay out of an employee dispute or lawsuit, but it does provide you some cover once you get there.