Monday, December 16, 2013

Employment Tips for Maryland Businesses—What It Means To Be An Employer “At Will”

By Jamie Kent Hamelburg

Since Maryland is an “employment at will” state, many employers think they can terminate employees at any time and for any reason at all.  While this is true generally, there are two important exceptions. 

The first exception is when the employer and employee agree in advance that the employee will be employed for a set time period.  For example, if the parties agree that the employee will work for a two-year time-period, then the employer cannot terminate the contract at its will but can terminate for cause – although to be safe, that should expressly be part of the original agreement and it would be best if the agreement is in a writing signed by, at least, the employee.

The second exception is that an employer cannot terminate an employee on the basis that the employee has done something that is a protected right, or for a reason that is in clear violation of public policy.  Examples of activities that will not prove a legally sufficient reason for discharging an employee include reporting a criminal activity to law enforcement, refusing to submit to a polygraph examination, refusing to engage in sexual activity and filing a worker’s compensation claim.  And employers cannot discharge an employee based on categories such as race, color, gender, national origin, religion, age, disability or marital status. 

The general rule in Maryland, then, is that in absence of an express contract, agreement or policy to the contrary, an employee may be hired or fired for almost any reason, or for no reason at all.  Before terminating an employee, an employer should look carefully at any agreement it has with the employee that might set a term of years for the employment, and should make sure that its reasons for the termination do not violate public policy.  [We intend to address the law in Virginia and D.C. in a forthcoming blog.]

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