Employment ‘at will’ is the idea that a worker can quit at any time for good reason, bad reason, or no reason at all. Similarly the employer can fire any of the workers at any time for good reason, bad reason or no reason at all.
At first glance that sounds like the end of the world because we have become accustomed to the idea that once you have a good job you should stay put for the rest of your life, and that meanwhile all the employers are consumed by a strong desire to fire all their workers if they can possibly get away with it. This causes people to think that the only reason life on earth continues as it is, people getting up every morning to go to work at their nice job, is because we have Employment Laws that will force employers to go down to the Tribunal and give an account of themselves if they fire anyone. They will be forced to pay compensation if they can’t conjure up a good reason for their firing decisions. To avoid this fate, they play nicely and try hard not to fire anyone.
Well, here’s an astonishing new alternative way of thinking about this: maybe most employers actually want their enterprise to survive, and they need workers to do the work, and they’re happy to have good people doing the work. Yes, I know, shocking. Seems that the world would go on turning after all, even without the law shouting at employers about what will happen if they fire anyone and fail to produce a plausible reason for doing so.
Of course, plausible reasons for firing anyone are really easy to come up with, so like many laws the unfair dismissal ‘protection’ ends up being nothing more than a trap for the unwary and hopelessly naïve employer who thinks it is ok to fire a young woman and explicitly tell her, in writing, that she’s been fired because she got married and might soon bunk off to have a series of babies thereby potentially causing inconvenience to her workmates. There aren’t many employers left who would say that sort of thing, at least not on the record.
Most employers know that you have to ‘create a paper trail’ if you’re planning to do something naughty like firing a worker because she is about to start her family. The paper trail prepares a robust line of evidence to support any kind of firing, and can include such things as warnings for being late to work – most human beings will turn up late at some point or other so if someone is watching you closely enough they’ll soon have a nice healthy paper trail on you. The trail can include things like: stuff you forgot to do, stuff you broke, stuff you lost, deadlines you missed, customers complaining that you were ‘rude’ to them - really any of the things that normal human beings do from time to time that can be plausibly classed as misdemeanors at work. The possibilities are endless.
If you work for an employer who keeps a paper trail of all your little infractions, just in case they might one day want a ready-made set of reasons available to support a dismissal, you should be very afraid. You should not assume that this is ‘unfair’ and that the law will protect you, because the whole point of the paper trail is that it includes things that are actually real mistakes that you actually made. The law only protects you if the employer explicitly said, in writing, ‘I’m firing you because you’re a woman and I hate women’ or something like that which you haven’t heard any employer say since about 1796. [Editor: have you noticed how, when they quote naughty things people said about other people, it’s always something from really long ago?]
Luckily, most employers are not preoccupied with finding surreptitious ways to fire their employees. Reason being, that they are busy trying to run a successful enterprise and they know that they need good workers to support them in that enterprise. Moreover, when they focus 100% on productivity, there is no time left for the type of shenanigans that fill up the Employment Tribunal listings. In a reasonably well-functioning market economy, most employers are too busy trying to be productive, keep their show on the road, and turn a healthy profit. If you find yourself unhappily working for an employer whose focus is mostly on keeping paper trails about the workers’ little infractions, noting down in writing that you arrived at work two minutes late, and constantly reminding you that they have a File on you, then you are in the happy position of being able to gather up your bag and coat and go work for a more sensible employer. Luckily, this is not difficult. Going on adventures is really easy these days.
Which brings us back to the idea of employment at will. The idea is that what you need most, if you find yourself in an unhappy work relationship, is the ability to up stakes, get on your bike, and move on to a happier situation. In the age of the internet, there are really good websites that will help you chart your path towards happiness at work. The internet is free at a public library near you, courtesy of the lovely taxpayers, so there’s no excuse to say you don’t know how to fix your own problems. In the Age of Internet, nasty employers are playing a losing game as they watch all the good workers flock to the good employers.
What you don’t need is a bunch of laws that will give you the tools to force your nasty employer to trudge over to the Tribunal and explain why he is so nasty. Do you want to find a nice new job surrounded by happy creative people like yourself, or do you want to spend the next several years of your life squabbling with your employer in a Tribunal about how unfairly you have been treated? The choice is clear.
The moral of this tale is that employment at will leads to much happier outcomes than unfair dismissal laws. Given the choice, it is always better to choose the path that will lead you to a happy outcome. Tribunal squabbles about unfairness are for the birds.