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I work in an at-will state (Texas) but my contract says I have to give 1 month notice, and the company has to give 3 months notice.

Why would they offer more notice than the law demands? Presumably if they wanted to get rid of me straight away they would have to pay me 3 months salary to stay at home - or do American companies typically just find some legal excuse to fire people eg. minor violation of expenses or workplace policy?

On my side I imagine I can't similarly pay them a months salary and leave straight away. I am the senior technical person in the company and it would cost them a lot more than my annual salary to replace me and get back on schedule.

I am from the EU and used to fairly long and complex rules on both sides. How does at-will work in other jobs? I can't believe a 747 captain can decide to abort a take off and just walk away from the aircraft at-will!

EDIT: To clarify the question: In an at-will state are employment contracts basically meaningless? Do I expect a US employer to just fire a worker anyway with whatever legal justification. Should an employer in such a state also assume that key members of staff might leave in the middle of a vital task and have contingency plans?

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  • You need proper legal advice about this, which falls outside of the scope of workplace.
    – Styphon
    Apr 6 '14 at 17:03
  • @Styphon - it was just a "general interest" type question rather than a specific case. I was wondering about the effects of being able to walk off the job in the middle of a task Apr 6 '14 at 17:07
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    You might want to edit your question then. Right now you're talking about which laws trump which, which is a legal question.
    – Styphon
    Apr 6 '14 at 17:12
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    @aroth - perhaps I should say "can simply quit at any time with no legal liabilities". Perhaps we will soon need to get Hollywood style completion bonds in case our rock-star leaves before launch! Apr 7 '14 at 2:36
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    Employment contracts are contracts. 'At will' means that 'without any more specific agreement, either party can terminate the relationship when they please.' Your contract, however, states that you will provide one month's notice, and that is legally enforceable. Apr 19 '14 at 2:25
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Why would they offer more notice than the law demands?

Perhaps they feel that the law doesn't demand enough to satisfy their sense of corporate ethics. Or perhaps they are trying to make their organization more attractive than their competitors'. Or perhaps it was influenced by large external players, such as a union and an important contractor/customer insisting upon such terms for one reason or another.

There are many possible reasons, but not enough context provided to know for certain which (if any) apply.

Presumably if they wanted to get rid of me straight away they would have to pay me 3months salary to stay at home - or do American companies typically just find some legal excuse to fire people eg. minor violation of expenses or workplace policy ?

In general the first case would be the most likely. To do otherwise would leave the company in breach of the contract, which would allow the employee to sue for those three months worth of income (and possible additional punitive damages, depending upon state law and the exact circumstances).

Most companies would not bother looking for some minor technicality to use to avoid the three-month notice period. It's more likely that a company that really wants to pay out nothing will simply do so and hope that either 1) the employee will not bother taking them to court and/or 2) they will easily win any court case that ensues, by digging up or manufacturing a reason for terminating the employee if/when needed.

On my side I imagine I can't similarly pay them a months salary and leave straight away.

No, you can simply leave straight away without paying them anything (unless your employment contract explicitly stipulates otherwise). Although of course doing so would be very unprofessional unless there was serious misconduct on behalf of the employer.

Technically you're in breach of contract in that case, but in no scenario does employment law allow a person to be forced to do something against their will. If you no longer intend to work there, that's pretty much the end of it. In essence all you really forfeit (apart from your professional reputation) is your pay for that final month. Note that your employer may decide to use any accrued leave entitlements that you have to account for your final month, which may or may not be legal depending upon locality and what is spelled out in the contract.

As in any case where a contract has been breached, a civil court case can be filed and nothing guarantees that won't happen. However, in order to collect in such a case an employer must prove damages. Which, unless they paid you for the month when you did not work and you refused to give that money back, would be very difficult to do (and not to mention costly and time-consuming in and of itself, and potentially damaging to the employer's reputation as well).

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    The 2nd part of the answer to this question is legal advice. Consider adding a disclaimer or removing it.
    – Codeman
    Apr 7 '14 at 19:29
  • @Codeman Generally speaking, there is no need for a disclaimer. There is no reasonable expectation of professional legal advice here, and the OP is not explicitly stating they are offering legal advice. Mar 18 at 13:40
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Welcome to Texas. To the extent that the contract is enforceable, it basically IS state law, which in Texas unless otherwise specified is pretty much 'do as you please'. If you're working here on a particular visa, federal regulations are more likely to apply. For the employer to enforce it, they would have to take you to court. This is pretty unlikely.

While there are probably employers that will trump up reasons to get rid of people, it isn't likely with larger and more reputable employers, and even less likely if your skill is in demand. The 3-month notification on their part may be a kind of 'layoff insurance' - if they're on contract with a large aircraft manufacturer or government agency, this was written in such a way that a shut-down is 'graceful' - thousands of people aren't suddenly out looking for work in the same industry. It has less to do with you in particular than everyone covered in the contract.

You would not be expected to pay them your month's salary were you to walk away. If you simply quit showing up for work, they might finish out your pay period, but then discharge you for cause. The one month notice presumes that you are showing up for work and doing your job during that period - particularly transitioning your tasks to your co-workers and your replacement.

In general, labor rules are far more flexible in the US than in Europe, and far more flexible in Texas than in, say, New York, California, or the heavily union influenced areas of the Midwest. It may take you some time to get used to it.

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  • My introduction to Texas was that if it was profitable to harvest your organs, an employer would ;-) I'm pretty much vital so not too worried. Apr 6 '14 at 17:15
  • @NobodySpecial - Aviation contracts can be canceled for any reason at all. One trigger would be a situation where the employer isn't delivering, which happens from time to time, the other is a 9/11 kind of national disaster that forces reprioritization of various budgets. In such a situation the contract might be suspended until further notice. Apr 6 '14 at 17:17
  • That was the reason for my question. Employers will fire you when cost effective - that's capitalism. And there are decades of laws/unions to protect vulnerable workers. But now there are jobs where a single employee leaving can cost a company $M - which makes the "at will" interesting ! Apr 6 '14 at 17:20
  • @NobodySpecial - "My introduction to Texas was that if it was profitable to harvest your organs..." This is more what they have in mind: beaspermdonor.com. Apr 7 '14 at 3:30
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At-will employment simply means that the State doesn’t have a law requiring either a certain notice period or require employment contracts to have a particular period defined. It doesn’t mean that employment contracts don’t exist or that they can’t be enforced. Employment contracts do exist and are as enforceable as any other contract. Although it is frequently the case that both parties no longer want to hold to those terms.

Anyway, leaving without fulfilling your contractual obligations, means that you are in breach of contract. The consequences of that will depend upon your contract and local laws.

That said, there are two things to consider:

  1. Potential new employers like to know that you fulfill your obligations.
  2. Companies are rarely interested in keeping people against their will.

The combinations of these two facts result in it rarely being issue. If you are applying for a position while still employed (and most people are), the potential employer expects a delay while the notice period is finished. And if (for whatever reason) you feel you must leave your current position immediately, your current company will generally try to be accomodating, if for no other reason than it is dangerous to have someone that is actively hostile to the company doing valuable work.

As for whether companies look for an excuse to fire you, instead of giving notice. While possible, and in this crazy world anything that is known to be possible has probably been done at least once (see rule 34 for example), it isn't common. It is rarely worth the potential bother, winning a breach of contract suit on the grounds that you justly fired someone, is not an optimum outcome. And just as potential employers like to know that you fulfill your obligations, so do potential employees.

Take your 747/captian as an example -- do you want to let the pilot walk off and have to find a replacement on no notice, or do you want the to "accidentally" ding up the plane or be "forced" to divert to an alternative airport, or have to make several attempts at landing? Having the plane touch down and but then take off again because there was "insufficient room" to come to a safe stop, is not going to make several hundred passengers eager to fly with your airline again. If the captain wants out that badly, you don’t have a fight in the cockpit, you simply tell HR and your company attorneys and let them do their thing.

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  • I was just interested in why an employer would handicap themselves with the 3months notice period - unless they never actually had to pay it. It's a small technical company so no govt contracts/union rules Apr 6 '14 at 17:14
  • Becuase notice periods are almost always reciprocal, and they want the employee to stay around longer. That said, I think 3 months is way too long.
    – jmoreno
    Apr 6 '14 at 17:46
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    @NobodySpecial perhaps they have found that offering a longer notice period is a cheaper way of making job offers more appealing that simply offering more salary? Apr 7 '14 at 0:31
  • @NobodySpecial - Because it's not a handicap if the policy allows the company to attract and retain top talent more effectively than their competitors by providing a more stable/attractive workplace. A longer notice period isn't all negatives.
    – aroth
    Apr 7 '14 at 2:06

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