A Critique of Employment Law

Here’s the scenarioâÂ?¦

You’re an executive assistant who has spent the past ten years working your way to the top of a successful corporation. You’ve put in long hours, taken numerous educational courses in your free time, and poured gallons of blood, sweat, and tears into your career. Finally, two years ago, you hit pay dirt in the form of the ultimate promotion. You were made executive assistant to the CEO. Two years later your boss adores you and couldn’t make it through a day without you. After ten years of raises and promotions, you’re at the top of your field, making more money than most people with your job description, and life is definitely good.

Suddenly, your boss’ wife is diagnosed with a terminal cancer. In a whirlwind of days, he decides to take early retirement and a new CEO is selected. Your new boss is somewhat uncommunicative and a bit unfriendly, but you handle your duties with the same efficiency you always have, and your work performance never falters. Two weeks later you’re called into the boss’ office and fired. The explanation? He simply doesn’t like you.

You are outraged! You’re the best executive assistant the company has ever had on its payroll. This company can’t just randomly persecute you. It has got to be against the law, right? Wrong. All the states in this country, with the exception of Montana, have at-will employment laws firmly in place. In plain English, it means your employment is by choice-yours and theirs-and you can be fired for any reason that isn’t prohibited by law.

Okay, now we’re getting somewhere. Surely firing good employees with excellent work records and skills would be prohibited by law, right? Wrong again. The protection provided by employment laws is so minimal it’s embarrassing. In summary, you can’t be legally fired because of your race, religion, sex, national origin, age, or a disability. Anything and everything else is fair game.

It’s a simple fact of life that most people are at the mercy of employers in order to obtain the jobs they need to make a living and support a family. What very few people realize is that the same companies we rely on to offer us the means of earning our livelihood can take everything away on a single person’s whim. In 49 states, “I don’t like you,” is a legal reason to fire someone. How horrifying is that?

To avoid a potentially ugly scene I suppose most employers attempt to be more subtle, but the point is that they’re not required to be. Just imagine, your employer can actually look you in the eye tomorrow and say, “I don’t like you, and I don’t want to work with you. You’re fired.” It’s the stuff of nightmares.

Companies aren’t required to provide severance pay or even a positive reference to assist you in obtaining another job. Employers could be exposing themselves to defamation of character lawsuits by giving false, negative references, but the company can legally follow the common practice of not providing any information beyond employment dates, or it can simply offer a brief, “No comment.” Neither response does much to impress potential employers.

Now that you’ve had your hopes of justice crushed and your life is in shambles at your feet, you have to begin the process of finding another job. The first thing you discover is that most starting salaries for executive assistants come in well below what you were previously making. Chances are, it will take many years to even equal the salary you were accustomed to receiving. You may even be treated to blank stares or patronizing smirks as potential employers point out that, “Executive assistants don’t start out working for the CEO in our company.”

Then comes the point where you have to be honest and tell them you were fired. As the negative term hangs in the air, suspicion fills the room around you. You outline the injustice of the situation in grave detail, but it doesn’t make any difference. Your interviewer sits in the chair across from you, nodding and offering sympathy on cue, and probably doesn’t believe a word you say. As far as he/she is concerned, you were most likely fired from your job because of your performance or other character problems.

If the interviewer bothers to call for a reference at all, his/her negative opinion may even be confirmed by your documented reason for termination. Your former employer will likely say something unhelpful like, “No comment,” or vaguely identify the reason as “incompatibility.” If nothing positive is offered, it will probably be taken for granted that the reasons are actually negative. It will also be assumed that “incompatibility” means you were the one who was argumentative and difficult. You can rest assured there won’t be any mention of the fact that your boss’ personal preferences were the source of the incompatibility. The negative perception will be there, and the last thing an executive wants is an argumentative, difficult assistant.

So what happens next? You’ll eventually find another job. It might take weeks or even months, but there’s a company out there somewhere who will believe enough of your story to overlook your termination and trust in your skills. Of course, you’ll probably have to start back at the bottom and accept significantly less money while trying to smother your bitterness, but that should be a piece of cake, right? It’s a pretty large pill to swallow, but the law leaves you no choice. The company you poured your heart and soul into for ten years has just effectively ruined your life-on a single person’s whim.

Okay, so maybe “ruined” is a rather harsh word. After all, you still have your personal relationships and your health, right? Or do you? The stress has you developing a serious ulcer, and your doctor just put you on a strong prescription anti-depressant. Tension headaches randomly attack at various hours of the day, and you’ve started having spasms in your neck and back muscles. You’re not eating properly, which further aggravates your ulcer, and you’ve lost a considerable amount of weight. Your temper is short, and your altered personality has your family and friends wondering if your body has been taken over by aliens. Maybe “ruined” isn’t such a harsh word after all.

It’s a very sad state of affairs to live in a country that offers so much, yet leaves the average citizen hanging by such a tenuous thread. Our government at least tries to protect us from criminal harm. Why would it do so little to protect us from the emotional and economic harm that employers could inflict? There certainly can’t be any doubt that the current employment laws, or lack thereof, are potentially harmful to average, hard-working Americans. If your employer unexpectedly tosses you out like yesterday’s garbage, the fact that you were fired could inhibit your ability to get another job. You could be out of work for months. If you do get another job, you could be starting at the bottom, making much less than your previous salary. Can anyone honestly say these events wouldn’t be emotionally and economically harmful?

On a daily basis people lose their homes, their cars, and their entire way of life because of loss of employment and the inability to obtain another comparable job. These events are always terrible, but at least they’re occasionally unavoidable due to company closings, layoffs, and other legitimate financial constraints. But what about the companies who do it on purpose, or at least without any concern for the carnage they leave behind? Isn’t it much worse for a company to financially and emotionally ruin a good employee simply because a manager didn’t like the person and didn’t care that he/she could end up being out of work for months?

What if it was even worse? What if an employee was deliberately fired by a manager who maliciously hoped that the employee would end up losing everything important to him/her? Our government officials would still stand by and watch it happen, all the while shaking their heads in wonder at the growing homeless and suicide rates.

So again, why would our government do so little to protect us from the emotional and economic harm that employers have the right to inflict? I suppose the answer is glaringly obvious and painfully simple. Companies have the money to sink into political campaigns and lobby efforts, while we the people-or peasants as the case may be-do not. After all, what are the chances that a former president, governor, senator, or congressman will ever be on the other side of the fence and get fired from a civilian job? I think it’s a safe bet they’ll never be in the same boat and have to worry about job security or the fairness of employment laws.

I have to laugh at company owners and executives who stomp around, beating their chests, insisting they deserve the right to hire and fire at their discretion because their companies are doing this country a great service by providing jobs to Americans. After all, where would Americans be without them and all the other companies who offer employment opportunities throughout the country? It’s a good point on the surface, but on the other hand, where would these companies be without employees? They’d be out of business with the owners heading up the unemployment lines.

Companies need employees every bit as much as employees need jobs. The employment game is totally, completely, and irrevocably a 50/50 relationship. This is part of what makes it so grossly unfair that-with the exception of discrimination issues-employers have all the rights and employees have none.

What are companies so afraid of anyway? It’s not like anyone in his right mind would suggest that companies never be allowed to terminate an employee. There would still be plenty of valid reasons to fire employees. Theft, lying, poor work performance, insubordination, tardiness, the list could go on and on. Is it really so much to ask that managers restrict their destructive power to employees that are legitimately not good for the company? I don’t believe that it is.

On the other hand, doesn’t their resistance to laws that would protect employees from wrongful termination tell us something about their attitude? Maybe they’re enjoying having the peasants under their thumbs. Maybe they’re enjoying their legal right to ruin people’s lives. Maybe they’re enjoying throwing their weight around and playing God.

Since the law probably won’t be changing anytime soon (if ever), here’s a helpful little tip for all the employers out there. If a good, productive employee honestly gets on your nerves or clashes with your personality, and you seriously don’t think you can work well with the person, that’s okay. Transfer the employee to a position that requires minimal contact with you. There’s no justifiable reason to tamper with the person’s life in any way. Firing the employee would merely be a flexing of your corporate muscles. Ditch the God Complex, and you might actually sleep better at night.

Unless new laws are added, I’m sure employers will continue to go about their business, exploiting the talents of employees to make a profit and getting away with almost anything short of murder. On the upside, I would sure hate to be in their shoes when the Almighty shows up someday to demand an explanation from those who have been passing themselves off as Him. With all the uncertainty in the world, I do know one thing for sure. That will be a glorious day to be a peasant.

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