What does it mean for an employee to be hired "at will"?

Employment-at-will means that an employee can be terminated without cause. That is, it is the employer's right to terminate him or her at any time with or without cause. But there are exceptions to this. The attorneys of litigious-minded terminated employees will use these exceptions to argue their case. The exceptions include the charge that the employer discriminated against the employee on the basis of the person's age, sex, or sexual orientation; that the company is retaliating against the employee for having filed a workers' compensation claim, or whistle-blowing, or for filing an OSHA charge against the employer; or that the employee is being discharged just as she or he expects to receive some anticipated financial benefit, like pension plan vesting.

If the plaintiff's lawyer can prove any of these exceptions to the at-will relationship, then he or she may win the case against your firm. Which is why human resources experts advise that managers have a good reason to terminate and that employees be given written warning prior to their losing their jobs. This is particularly true if termination is due to problem performance.

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At present, most states, but not all, recognize at-will relationships. If you live in a state that does so, your organization can establish an at-will relationship with each and every employee it hires by communicating its status on employment applications, offer letters, and employee handbook, and any other documents that might be found in the new-hire package. Because some courts have denied companies' right to at-will relationships because it has been too long since employees were told of the fact, firms are also advised by lawyers to issue annual at-will updates for their employees to sign.

The good news with all this is that you need not clarify verbally the work relationship, although you should be prepared to answer questions if a prospective hire sees the phrase and asks about it. The bad news is that whether or not your company has declared in writing its at-will relationship with its employees, you should be prepared, with documentation, to justify any decision to terminate an employee.

What do I do if I can't hire anyone from my group of winners?

You need to decide whether you want to go through the entire recruitment process again or choose someone from among your potential winners.

As you look through your potential winners, ask yourself what it would take to make your top potential winner into a winner. If the answer is as simple as a training course or two, then you should give this candidate serious consideration—with the understanding that you'll schedule the training soon after hire. Perhaps the candidate needs a little more experience before you would have put him or her into the winners' stack. Then you need to make a judgment call as to whether you feel that his or her current experience is enough to carry the person through until the individual gains the experience you are looking for. If you have any doubts, you may want to keep looking for the right candidate. After all, the person you choose will be working with you for a long time—taking the time to find the best candidate only makes sense.

How can I make a new hire's first day on the job productive?

Rather than leave the new hire with an assortment of brochures and employment forms to complete, and forget about him or her, leaving it to the employee to find work, you should have tasks ready for the employee to complete on his or her first day at work. Once you have "oriented" the employee to the company, then you need to explain to him or to her the work you expect to be done and leave the employee to the assignment.

During the day, you need to be available to answer any questions that may arise as your new hire does the assignment. Since you can't be there all the time, you may want to assign one of your skilled employees to help guide the new hire through this task and others that may arise during his or her first few days on the job.

At the end of the day, you should visit with the employee to get feedback on how that first day went. Is there more help he or she needs? Is the mentor you selected to help your new hire doing the job you expect?

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Because buddies can have a significant impact on shaping a new employee's initial impressions and actions, you need to select employees for this role carefully. Here are some guidelines for selecting someone who over the short term will be the new hire's mentor:

- Choose those who are doing the same work or a similar job or who will be interacting with the employee frequently. Common ground makes for more productive communications between the two individuals.

- Select people who are skilled but are relatively new in the job. Employees who have been with your firm for a long time may forget what it was like to be a new hire. Employees who have been with the company for eighteen months or fewer generally can relate best to what the new employee is feeling and what he or she needs to know.

- Select employees who have a positive attitude about the company and about their work. This is common sense. You want to build the same positive attitude and commitment in your new hire.

- Select high performers, those who are good at the work. You want as a buddy for your new hire a positive role model.

Before you make the assignment, check with the individual whom you are considering for the role. Be sure that the employee is willing to do this and fully understands his or her responsibility. Those who demonstrate a knack for this role should get recognition for their contribution.

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