At Will Employment: What’s the Big Deal? That’s the question that Earl Phillips of McCarthy Tetrault asked in response to my post — Like a Whole Different Country — about differences between Canadian and U.S. employment laws.
I’ve never claimed that California was what anyone would call employer friendly. But at-will employment is an important defense and not one that private employers here are going to give up without a fight. The statute creating the presumption (California Labor Code section 2922) was enacted in 1937 and I’ve never even heard of a move to do away with it — at least not a move by the legislature, the judiciary has carved plenty of exceptions over the years.
To be clear, California employers don’t make a habit of firing employees for no reason. This isn’t The Lottery (or maybe The Hunger Games provides a more contemporary reference). But if the employer wants the person gone immediately and has legitimate grounds, it can make that happen without worrying whether the reason satisfies the definition of just cause or whether it needs to pay the employee several weeks pay in lieu of providing notice. Just like the employee, the employer can terminate the relationship at any time, as long as it has a lawful reason to do so.
But enough about at-will employment. While very few cases go to trial here, the threat of multimillion dollar verdicts lurks like a dark cloud over discussions of everything from employee discipline to settlement. So I ask my cohort at McCarthy Tetrault: Is it true that plaintiffs in Canada don’t get to present their claims to a jury and don’t recover punitive damages?
McCarthy Tetrault, with offices throughout Canada, has provided a guide for U.S. employers entitled Cross-Border: Navigating Canadian Employment Law Guidebook (pdf). If you’re more concerned with California employment law, our Guide to Doing Business in California (pdf) identifies the areas that most frequently cause problems for employers doing business in the state.