Martha walks into your office and says she wants to fire her assistant, Roy, because he keeps sending emails with typos and it is embarrassing. Martha says, “We are at-will and I want him gone by the end of the day.” Like most others, Alaska is an “employment-at-will” state, which means that the employee and employer are free to end the employment relationship at any time and for almost any reason. But is there more to consider in terminating Roy?
Every employment relationship in Alaska contains an implied covenant of good faith and fair dealing. An employer can violate the covenant by acting with an improper motive, like firing an employee two weeks before he is tenured. The covenant also requires employers to treat employees in a way that a reasonable person would consider fair.
Violation of the covenant of good faith requires a very fact intensive inquiry, which often requires going through a trial with witnesses rather than resolving issues through a motion for summary judgment. Trial is incredibly expensive for employers, not only in court costs but also in terms of stress on staff and distraction from business. However, two Alaska Supreme Court cases issued in early July of this year, that you can see here and here, show that summary judgment is alive and well if an employer can adequately demonstrate it acted fairly and without improper motives in its termination process. The application of the implied covenant of good faith and fair dealing to the employment context varies from state to state, and clearly does not apply in some states, like Washington. Nonetheless these recent cases are a good reminder that fair and equitable treatment in discharging employees can help employers avoid costly and disruptive claims.
So what do we do about Roy? Here are five suggestions to help ensure compliance with the implied covenant of good faith and fair dealing:
- Follow a process. Require supervisors to provide good faith, fair reasons for discipline. Provide the employee an opportunity to respond to any allegations. Hear facts from Roy now, rather than for the first time in an EEOC proceeding or in court.
- Be fair. Enforce personnel policies in a way that a reasonable person would regard as fair. Follow personnel policies when disciplining employees. What policy is Roy violating? Is termination an appropriate response to Roy’s violations?
- Be consistent. Treat like employee alike, and justify any reasons for inconsistency in treatment. What type of conduct has resulted in other terminations? Have other employees received progressive discipline under similar circumstances, instead of termination? Treat Roy like other employees in similar situations.
- Act in good faith. Do not manufacture reasons to justify a termination. Is Martha frustrated with Roy for some other reason? Better to learn about it now.
- Document your process, fairness, consistency, and good faith.