Ohio is an “at-will” employment state. This means that for anyone who does not work for a government, is not covered by a union contract, or does not have an individual written employment contract specifying a minimum term or conditions of employment may be terminated or modified. This means you have a job so long as you and your employer agree that the relationship will continue.
So an employer can terminate the relationship or alter the terms and conditions of the job at any time, with or without cause and with or without notice. This is just like the employee is free to leave the job at any time by walking out the door, with or without cause or notice.
Most times, the at-will employment doctrine favors the employer, not the employee. That’s because the Supreme Court of Ohio several years ago declared that every day is a new day for the employer and employee in an at-will relationship.
Each day presents a new opportunity for the employer to alter the terms and conditions of employment and the employee’s only recourse each day, therefore, is to avoid letting the door hit himself or herself on the back side on his or her way out.
This can have devastating consequences for an employee. David Worhatch has seen instances where an employer offers a bonus or incentive compensation program to someone during the recruiting process – and even puts the bonus plan in writing at the time the job offer is extended – but later changes the incentive compensation terms (or eliminates the plan all together) because the offer includes “at-will” language expressly reserving the privilege of the employer to do so.
Consider the executive who relocates his or her family after his or her spouse has left a good job with the expectation of better things to come with the new career opportunity, only to discover after the employee’s home has been sold and his or family has been uprooted that the employer wants the employee to sign a covenant against competition or non-compete agreement on terms that the employee never would have considered if the employer has asked for them at the time the offer was extended.
The at-will employee will be left with no alternatives but to refuse to sign and be fired or sign and make it virtually impossible for him or her to re-enter the job market in the same industry or geographic vicinity for a year or two if the employer should decide, for whatever reason or no reason whatsoever, to terminate the employment relationship in the future.
The Law Offices of S. David Worhatch strongly encourages each of its clients to explore the possibility of negotiating written terms that still can protect against the worst scenarios if the employer should invoke the “at-will” power and terminate an employee. One would involve negotiating a predetermined severance benefit and/or terms imposing conditions or limitations on the sorts of modifications an employer could make without the employee’s consent.
An employment contract is the best defense to an employer’s unilateral, callous, or self-serving exploitation of the “at-will” principles deeply embedded in Ohio employment law. Even when the employer wants to reserve those “at-will” powers of termination and modification, the relationship is still a contract, meaning it is possible to improve the employee’s position through negotiation.