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I read this question "Do I owe them a two week notice?" and the most popular answers with astonishment. It seems a lot of people consider it professionally necessary to give two weeks notice no matter how the employee was treated even in an at-will state.

What I (a European who has never worked in the US or any place with at-will employment laws) wonder is: If the employer expected to get two weeks notice, wouldn't they just put a clause into the contract requiring either party to give two weeks notice? So if this clause is missing in the contract I would think that the employer neither expectes nor requires two weeks notice and that abitcurious (in case of the question mentioned above) would be entirely justified in just handing in the resignation and leaving right away.

If it's professionally necessary to always give two weeks notice, why would any employer not put this clause into every work contract they send out?

But from the answers to that question it's obivous to me that I'm missing something - probably something about US work culture and/or law. What am I missing here? (Apologies if this is purely a law question - I had the impression that it's not.)

Update: It seems I've hit upon one of those culture issues where people from both sides of the Atlantic are incredulous that anybody would do things differently from them because "how's that supposed to work?" - and yet it does seem to work (on both sides of the Atlantic). Thanks a lot to everyone posting here for indulging my curiosity and taking the time to explain this.

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    I think this is actually a legal catch 22. If you demand your employee offers 2 weeks notice, you also have to provide 2 weeks notice on dismissal (for job completion or whatever). Maybe it's the case that companies don't want to feel they owe anything in exchange for this notice period... – XtrmJosh Sep 16 '16 at 10:06
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    @ИвоНедев: Where I come from may matter because what may be completely obvious to somebody born and raised in the US is not clear to me because I wasn't raised in that culture. I don't expect anybody to change their behaviour - I just want to understand the reasoning behind it. I have no personal stakes in this because I don't (and don't intend to) work in the US. – AllTheKingsHorses Sep 16 '16 at 10:16
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    From most answers here it's obvious that Americans don't understand it either, they just keep doing it out of force habit : D – Agent_L Sep 16 '16 at 14:11
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    A contract is only useful if there are repercussions. If an employee up and quits, failing to give two weeks notice, what are the consequences? If the consequences are termination, what good does that serve? The employee has already voluntarily left the company. The contract would have to include some monetary penalty, or otherwise. What terms are you suggesting be included? – dberm22 Sep 16 '16 at 14:40
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    @dberm22 I would (naively) expect a monetary penalty - but I'm not a US lawyer; maybe there are other possibilities. Please note: I also wouldn't expect the majority of notice periods to be enforced by a lawyer "the hard way" (just like they aren't in the various European jurisdictions). Personally, I just think that explicitely stating mutual expectations (preferrably in writing) about important issues would help to make things clearer on both sides and provide some security on both sides. – AllTheKingsHorses Sep 16 '16 at 14:49
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Most at-will employment in the US doesn't involve an employment contract. There are documents that get signed, of course, for non-disclosure agreements, tax withholding, benefit enrollment, etc. But you generally wouldn't have an employment contract as such. The closest you'll come for most people is an acknowledgement that you've read the employee handbook that lays out the company policies but is subject to change at any time.

Two-weeks notice is solely a cultural expectation. You're entirely free to announce at noon that you're going to lunch and then call at 1 and inform them that you won't be back. If you do that, however, your former coworkers will be less likely to have wonderful things to say about you if you need a reference or encounter them later. It's generally considered professional to at least offer your employer a couple weeks in which to transfer tasks to others and make sure that tasks aren't dropped.

Could an employer draft a document requiring two weeks notice? Sure. But it probably wouldn't do much good. If there were penalties to not giving notice, the agreement would almost certainly need to impose some sort of reciprocal burden on the employer. From the employer standpoint, since 99% of your good employees are going to give notice anyway, the agreement wouldn't accomplish much other than to impose some sort of obligation on the employer. And despite the image we have, Americans aren't anxious to involve lawyers which would be necessary if a company wanted to enforce some sort of penalty for not giving notice. So you could have an agreement. It just wouldn't have any practical benefit to the employer.

  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. – Jane S Sep 17 '16 at 21:13
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    Wow. As a European, this is just a really hard thing to wrap my head around. The whole thing of having so little set in a contract. In the end it just all boils down to a difference in culture, though. – Jasper Sep 23 '16 at 19:06
  • I had an employer who put the two week notice period in the handbook. It said something like: if you didn't get two weeks notice, you would be ineligible for rehire. Seems like a small punishment, but then "eligible for rehire" was one of the few questions they would answer for a reference request (along with dates and final title). – stannius Jan 10 at 18:16
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If it's professionally necessary to always give two weeks notice, why would any employer not put this clause into every work contract they send out?

This is actually a somewhat complicated question. I'll do what I can to cover at-will employment states.

First off, the USA has an adverse reaction to anything that has the appearance of slavery; forced employment certainly falls under this view. A second thing that impacts this is how contract law works in the USA.

All contracts, in order to be valid, require "consideration" for both sides otherwise they are unenforceable. Some state supreme courts have ruled that continued employment or the normal employee salary can not be used as consideration; others have taken the opposite opinion.

This means that an employer which has a new hire sign a "you will always give 2 weeks notice" document may have to provide some other form of consideration to the employee for that above and beyond the normal salary. For non-critical employees, you'll never see this happen as the benefit to the company simply isn't there. For crucial ones a company will sometimes offer a monetary bonus to the employee to encourage them to stay those 2 weeks or longer.

Certainly owners of companies that are being acquired usually sign an agreement to provide continued service to the new owners for a certain period of time at a certain rate in order to facilitate the hand over. However this is quite a bit different than a normal employment contract.

Even if an employee signs that document and simply walks out one day leaving the contract unfulfilled then the only recourse the company will have is to not pay that extra bonus. For those states where continued employment is consideration - well, the employee again can still walk away and only to give up those last few weeks of pay - which they were giving up anyway.

Point is, the company can't take this any further. No court in the USA is going to force someone to actually show up to work because to do otherwise would give an appearance of slavery. Further no company would want to be involved in the tremendous amount of very bad press that would occur when having workers sign such a clause.

At the end of the day, the notice period is just professional courtesy. Yes, it's generally one sided in the employer's favor but it's not required and, in my opinion, not that big a deal to ignore it.

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    Suppose the company can legally enforce requiring the employee to stay for the 2 weeks. How much work do you think the employer is really going to get out of the employee who is being forced to stay? What kind of quality will the little work that is accomplished actually be? Having the 2 weeks be a choice made by the employee is of far greater benefit to all parties than making the 2 weeks a legal requirement. – Dunk Sep 16 '16 at 16:08
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    @TylerH Court is expensive for companies too. There are many other things businesses would rather spend their money on than suing a former employee. – Andy Sep 17 '16 at 1:15
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    In Germany I doubt it's enforceable to make an employee show up but the employer can sue for damages due to breach of contract. Should work the same way in the US. And since that threat is there the employee will dutifully show up. He will have expected that to be necessary before quitting. He will not be resentful since nothing unexpected has happened. – boot4life Sep 17 '16 at 15:05
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    About the slavery argument: While I appreciate that people hold that view and hence it's relevant, it sounds like a hell of a strawman to me. "It would be bad to require employees to keep working for two weeks, they should be free to quit if they don't like how they are treated. So instead, they should suck it up "voluntarily" for two weeks if they don't like how they are treated (see linked question) because doing anything else would damage their reputation." Of course, you never said it would severly damage their reputation - that's just my impression from the answers on that question. – AllTheKingsHorses Sep 17 '16 at 21:16
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    "First off, the USA has an adverse reaction to anything that has the appearance of slavery; forced employment certainly falls under this view." As opposed to Europe, where slavery is A-OK? This bizarre sentence detracts from your overall answer. Requirements in a contract are not "slavery." – user1602 Sep 22 '16 at 5:20
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I don't know which countries in Europe you've lived or worked in, but I can make comparisons to experiences my family have had in Germany. Hopefully, you'll get a better understanding of the professional environment in the US.

In the US, companies don't typically invest as much in their employees. For example, companies don't like to give extensive training to new hires. They would much rather hire someone that has received training/experience from another company (which is why recent college grads have difficulty finding jobs). In Germany this is the opposite. Companies there would rather hire someone inexperienced right out of school, provide them training, and keep them forever.

By investing little in their employees, it becomes much cheaper to fire someone. In combination with at-will contracts, companies can afford mass lay-offs whenever they are losing/not making enough profit. Adding terminology regarding time constraints would be detrimental to the company in this sort of environment.

That being said, changing jobs is fairly common in the US. People frequently move across states, and even the country, to find new lucrative employment (moving twice the distance from about the UK to Italy for a job seems insane for my German family). With all this going on, references become pretty important. Giving your current employer some time to make arrangements before you leave is the respectful thing to do. Your employer will recognize this, especially since they couldn't afford to do the same for you (vindictive employees). This is more likely to lead to a positive reference which could land you that next job.

As a side note, the companies I've worked for don't necessarily like promoting people. If someone leaves, they typically like to fill the position with someone new. For a lot of people, the best way to get promoted is to find your promotion with another company. If you want that new position, you almost need a reference from your current one.

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    Well.... Thanks for the terribly depressing reminder that our society is just simply broken in the most fundamental ways. – ThatGuy Sep 17 '16 at 1:33
  • Hm... references are pretty important in Germany as well (and an arcane topic in itself, see here ). But I don't see how this all plays together: if you give notice, you ideally do it because you've already got another offer (which you got without the reference from your current company). Only then will your current employer give you a reference, right? So you don't need it for the new job but maybe for the one after that? – AllTheKingsHorses Sep 17 '16 at 9:33
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    @ThatGuy I think not - you trade security for flexibillity. The german model can be very harmful if the economic situation changes and people cannot follow the changing situation. As an employee, I dislike my extremely long notice periods (3-4 months). It is difficult to change to a new employer, who would like to start you tomorrow and even if he agrees, you sid 3 months in oldjob, doing nothing new. – Christian Sauer Sep 17 '16 at 9:56
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    @ChristianSauer I was referring to the fact that, in the US, the only way to get ahead these days is to find a new employee. – ThatGuy Sep 17 '16 at 10:19
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Your assumption that most employees in the US have a contract is wrong. We may have a one page offer setting the initial start date and salary, and mentioning benefits and employee handbook; but no formal contract.

Therefore any expectation for two weeks notice is by custom.

The role of the two week notice is to train somebody else, or to prepare turnover documents, or to finish the assigned shift schedule. It isn't to let them find and hire a replacement and have you train them.

It isn't months long which would seem to be designed to make is too hard to leave.

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    In my book, if the company mutually agrees to not have a notice period, they should be prepared for employees quitting on the spot. The employee must expect to be fired on the spot too, right? – daraos Sep 16 '16 at 11:22
  • I dunno. I certainly signed a formal contract; that's what the Intellectual Property Agreement and so on were attached to. But that may be less comments n in smaller businesses or in other industries. – keshlam Sep 16 '16 at 12:33
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    What you've described in the first sentence is exactly what employee contract is. The question: why it does not specify notice period still stands. – Agent_L Sep 16 '16 at 14:10
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    It only addresses the start date and salary. everything else is in the other documents. The salary, handbook are not static, and benefit documents change annually. Unless the government requires it they can be changed without requiring an negotiation. – mhoran_psprep Sep 16 '16 at 15:01
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    Employees are fired on the spot. Happens all the time and I can;t imagine why any company wouldn't want to do that for any person they are firing as it is a risk to the business to keep them there. – HLGEM Sep 16 '16 at 15:32
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Most US employees do not have contracts. The ones that do, abide by the contract. Giving notice is expected, but not required. If you leave your employer without notice, it is considered bad form, and could damage your reputation with future employers.

Also, employers will ask "how much notice do you need to give" to see if you're honorable or not. If you say anything other than two weeks (or longer if you have contractual commitments) you may have just killed your chances as the employer may think that you'd leave them in a lurch at some future point.

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Depending on your job, you might have several projects running in which you are involved or have things in your mailbox / desk that need to be transferred to others or completed by yourself.

Thus, if you were to leave immediately, this would put the company (your manager) in the difficult position of having to check everything you did for open ends. Inevitably this will lead to problems and or things that are not resolved properly.

As a result, it is considered polite to use a period after your resignation (after the company knows they have to create capacity for your open projects) to facilitate the transfer and make sure everything keeps running smoothly.

EDIT: read the question wrong, this doesn't answer the original question. Apologies.

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    While reasonable, this does not answer the question, which is: If employers expect a notice period, why don't they put it into the contract? – sleske Sep 16 '16 at 10:07
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    @nocomprende No European professional understands that, hence the question. – Agent_L Sep 16 '16 at 14:08
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    @nocomprende One-sided standard is just a form of exploitation. Eg tipping the waiter who did a lousy job exploits the customer, and then it's an excuse for the restaurant owner to exploit all waiters alike. If Liberal Arts can't teach people to recognize this then it has failed in quality, not quantity : ) – Agent_L Sep 16 '16 at 14:27
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    This absolutely answers the question. When you leave suddenly you leave your company hanging: and your next company wants to know if you're going to do this to them. Two weeks notice (and how you handle it) is part of your professional reputation. – drewbenn Sep 16 '16 at 21:36
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    @drewbenn: so why do companies not reason that if they ever let an employee go without two weeks notice, then they have suddenly left that employee hanging, and the next employee will want to know if they're going to do it to them? Thus it's part of the employer's corporate reputation? Is it that employers are more fragile creatures than employees, less able to handle surprises, or is it a power imbalance that means companies don't have no reason to care about their reputation? – Steve Jessop Sep 17 '16 at 21:23
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I would suggest one likely reason is that if they did that, then there would have to be a reciprocal agreement not to let them go without notice. Only a company that is foolish wants to keep on board people they are letting go whether being fired for cause or in a layoff. Too many of those people have the ability to significantly damage the company.

  • "then there would have to be a reciprocal agreement not to let them go without notice" - well, of course? Paying people (for two weeks) who you don't "need any longer" would be the price to pay for reducing the risk of people just walking out. But if the vast majority of employees doesn't just walk out anyway, even if treated poorly, I can see that employers just don't have to. – AllTheKingsHorses Sep 17 '16 at 9:23
  • If you can't plan layoffs two weeks in advance, something is going wrong. Firing somebody for gross misconduct can still be done with immediate effect; firing for anything else can wait two weeks. This is another answer of "It couldn't possibly work like that" which ignores the fact that it does work exactly like that in many other places. – David Richerby Sep 17 '16 at 11:45
  • I am not saying they couldn't keep the people I am saying they don't want to as people who have been laid off are risk to the company. It was asked why the US does this and that is one reason why, – HLGEM Sep 17 '16 at 12:09
  • Would the reciprocal agreement have to allow them to hang around an "significantly damage the company", or would it be sufficient in US contract law to pay them two weeks in lieu of notice, and that constitute a sufficient reciprocal agreement? Of course there are companies to whom two weeks pay for a worker who isn't working is "significant damage", and those are the most likely to want to lay people off. And since employees self-police this by giving terrible references in retaliation, any tiny risk of a cost to the company isn't worth paying for something they get free :-) – Steve Jessop Sep 17 '16 at 21:16
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    ... but I'd be quite surprised if "if we required two weeks notice then we'd have to let Dave, who we've just laid off, keep the keys to the company safe for two weeks" is the case in US law, since that's not the case in other countries and is clearly pretty undesirable all around. Just pay Dave and send him on his way. So are companies saying, "aargh! security! can't do that!" as a smokescreen, when the actual reason is "two weeks pay"? Which might be a perfectly legitimate business decision, not to pay so much for something you can get free, but admitting it makes the employer a jerk. – Steve Jessop Sep 17 '16 at 21:27

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