Florida is an “at-will” state, meaning an employer has the right to terminate an employee without having to establish just cause, and without warning. The only employees who this would not apply to are those protected by a legal employment contract. A contract might provide a period of time in which an employee can only be terminated for limited reasons, as outlined. This can be a powerful bargaining tool when trying to woo a strong prospect with an offer of job security.
The wording of your employee handbook is so important, as one or two sentences could turn the document from an informative onboarding tool into a legal contract that ties the hands of an employer. Creating a contract through implication can occur with something as simple as stating that employment will be terminated if there is “good cause,” or making promises of job security for employees who do “good work”. One or two words of careless copy could land you in a mountain of legal trouble.
When a probationary period is outlined in an employee handbook, it could create an implied contract. A court might interpret the transition from probationary employee to permanent employee to imply job security, and thus the permanent employee cannot be terminated at will.
It is also important to note your disciplinary policies. If you state that employees can only be fired for certain instances of outlined misconduct, and will undergo a series of warnings, write-ups, and documented coachings, a court could require you to live up to that. If an employee is released for a reason not outlined in the official policy, or if a step in procedure was skipped, that employee could sue you for breach of contract.
A simple fluffy statement like “hardworking employees will always have a job here,” can be seen by a court as a promise of job security. This would necessitate the presence of “good cause” for termination, effectively neutering your “at-will” rights from a legal standpoint.
When drafting an employee handbook, you should avoid any and all language that could be perceived as a promise of job security. Outline your rights as an at-will employer in the handbook, clearly stating that nothing found within is meant to be taken as a contract for employment. Finally, ensure that you are fully protected by requiring employees to sign an acknowledgement form, which states that they understand their employment is at-will and can be terminated at any time for any reason.
The Orlando Law Group stands at the ready to aid businesses in creating and reviewing business policies. If you are establishing a business, or simply looking to review your current employment policies, call The Orlando Law Group at 407.512.4394 for a consultation.