At Will Employment: Am I entitled to Fairness in the Workplace? 3 Workplace Models

Fairness: the state, condition, or quality of being fair, or free from bias or injustice; evenhandedness.

“I have to admit, in all fairness, that she would only be paid for part of the work.”  We pour our hearts and souls into our work and hope, at least, to be treated fairly in return. “It only seems right,” or “I am owed at least that for all I have given,” are the unspoken expectations harbored by most employees in measuring their workplace relations. When our co-workers leave and are not replaced, we work harder.  We are prone to imagining that this extra work is a way of earning the favor, or at least fairness, of our bosses. It seems that many people have heard that Colorado may not be a place where fairness is universally mandated in employment relations. Yet, perhaps because it is too chilling or repellent a concept, few are able to define the most universal rule of employment relations in Colorado, which is “at will” employment.

“At will” is a concept from the feudalistic time of “Master and Servant” law. It means that most Colorado employees serve “at the will” of the employer.  The Employer is free to terminate employment at any time, for any reason or no reason and with or without notice. An “at will” employer does not have to be fair or reasonable in termination of employment, and may make a decision that is subjective or decline to explain why a termination was made. An “at will” employer may give a reason that appears to be false or may terminate an employee under a mistaken belief that the employee committed a certain transgression (as long as the employer is not covering up a termination for an illegal reason). At will employers may legally terminate employment if a supervisor does not like the employee or the employee is not “a fit” for the company. Absent circumstances indicating that an employee has legal protection under disability discrimination laws or under the Family and Medical Leave Act, an employer may fire an employee for missing work due to illness. None of the aforementioned bases for termination are “wrongful,” unless they are a pretext for an illegal basis for termination of employment. An “at will” employer is free to terminate employment at any time for reasons that, from an employee’s perspective, seem unfair.

The same rule applies during employment: an “at will” employer does not have to be fair in delegation of job duties, performance evaluations,  employment level or classification changes, as long the employer refrains from discrimination or adverse selection based on prohibited criteria.

There are many exceptions to the at will employment rule, such as where there is a signed written agreement or other document stating that an employee will be employed for a specific amount of time or may only be terminated for certain reasons or “cause,” and where a termination is illegal because it violates anti-discrimination laws or laws protecting employees who report illegal workplace activity or exercise important public policy rights (such inquiring about pay or filing a worker’s compensation claim).

Similarly, an “at will” employee is free to leave his or her job at any time and does not have to give a reason. Most employees are asked to give some notice – two weeks is standard – before they leave.  However, neither party is required to give notice prior to terminating at will employment.

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