You might have heard of ‘employment at will’. But what does that mean, and what are the benefits and trade-offs for both companies and employees? Can it be offered as an 'employee value proposition' benefit to potential candidates? If you’re a job seeker looking at an at-will position, what might that suggest about the company? In this article, we’ll discuss what employment at will is and cover the good, the bad, and the ugly.
What is employment at will?
Employment at will pretty much means that employers can fire employees at any time for any reason, within the law. Employees also have the freedom to leave when they want. This employment is still governed by local anti-discrimination laws. Whilst employers don’t need a paper trail to fire an underperforming employee, they do need to be able to prove the firing wasn’t discriminatory.
There are some benefits to employment at will for both workers and employees, such as…
What is a fulfilment centerre going to do when a seasonal rush ends and their new part-time employees are still hanging around? Employment at will enables even more flexibility for managers for covering seasonal rushes than even a fixed-term contract.
The flexibility of employment at will can work for employees too. If they find better-paying work they can just walk out from a job that’s paying them less than they’re worth. In a toxic workplace, employees can just not show up one day.
Employment at will makes it easier for everyone to begin and end working relationships at a moment’s notice. This creates more vacancies at a company doing this. They tend to have a higher turnover of employees, creating more opportunities for job seekers.
In a business where sales and communication skills are just as important as experience, it’s better for everyone if the most talented team members are promoted faster based on ability over years of service. Employment at will makes it easier for talented people to rise quickly as companies are less worried about who’s been around the longest.
Employees are still protected
Despite all the flexibility to end contracts with no notice, regulations still apply. Employees are still protected by local labour laws and employers are still bound by regulations like anti-discrimination laws.
Employers can’t fire people based on factors like their race, gender, age, or disability. Further to that, employers should be careful to make sure their reasons for firing someone are legitimate to reduce the risk of litigation, even if they don’t have to leave a paper trail.
However, you should keep in mind that employment at will has some downsides…
More vacancies = more work to cover
For the jobseeker, an employment at will company will generally have more vacancies at any given time. But for the people at the company already, this means more people are doing the work of two people to paper over the gaps yet to be filled by new hires. Combined with higher employee turnover and burnout, this poses a risk to the long-term health of the company.
It also prevents companies from building what strategist Hamilton Helmer calls “hysteresis”, a kind of invisible build-up of skills and experience passed from employee to employee.
A contact centre might have the best tools, the best hardware, the best customer engagement platform, but if employees haven’t had time to learn them well enough to pass the knowledge to new hires, then your company isn’t going to build those “muscles” in the long term.
You need a smoothly-run and experienced workforce for whom solving customer problems has become second nature. An experienced force of customer service and support staff is how you turn customers into brand evangelists and unlock certain advantages like a high Net Promoter Score or a SaaS referral program. This is hard to do when your staff is constantly changing.
Fewer opportunities to improve the way you work
One of the best practices for call centre management is constantly adapting your service and processes based on feedback from employees and customers.
Because employers have no incentive to negotiate on workplace conditions, employment at will can leave people in unsatisfactory or needlessly stressful jobs looking for something else as soon as they can get it.
With approaching a manager about conditions or processes carrying the risk of immediate termination, employees have no incentive to argue for better support that will in turn create a better experience for customers.
Less teamwork or camaraderie
Whilst daily stand-up meetings might keep your team informed of what’s going on elsewhere in the company, you ultimately can’t thrive without strong relationships across different business functions.
Strong bonds of trust across the workforce can help shortcut around certain problems that come up; you’re much more likely to call someone up for a quick favour if they’ve done the same with you in the past. The higher turnover and lack of job security in employment at will makes it much more difficult to grow a high-trust culture that can benefit companies in this way.
Employment at will can lead to higher turnover rates due to all these factors. If employers aren’t careful, this can create a negative feedback loop where the high turnover contributes to all of the factors listed above. Companies that use employment at will to get away with exploitative business practices will find themselves plagued with these issues and will struggle in the long run.
A less stable, cohesive workforce under more stress is a recipe for conflict. With teams competing for advancement, a higher risk of conflict can tank productivity for the whole company.
Furthermore, employment at will allows companies to slash pay and benefits at a moment’s notice. This might seem like a hard but necessary decision if a company is struggling, but when workers can leave with no notice they might run like rats from a sinking ship.
Employment at will offers flexibility for employers and for workers. However, it also enables bad employers to get away with poor conduct with the threat of immediate firing, and it gives employees the right to disrupt businesses by leaving with no notice.
Both of these factors threaten the stability and predictability that businesses need to make accurate forecasts in the near term and to build an experienced workforce in the long term.