Business ABC’s in the USA: At-Will Employment
Welcome to the 2018 re-boot-aroo of your friendly neighborhood Intercultural Reflections Blog!
After some reflections of my own, I’ve decided to A-B-C- our way through the customs and peculiarities of doing business with Americans. And guess where I’m starting? Yep, with the letter “A”, as in, “At-Will Employment”. Enjoy!
At-Will Employment (or Employment-At-Will) is better known here in Europe as „hire and fire“. It is the principle that employees can be released from (or quit) their jobs at any time and for any reason—including for no reason. Good times.
In many states, employment-at-will also allows an employer to change the terms and conditions of an employment relationship–including wages– without prior notice to the employee. Exceptions to the right to fire at will are here . These exceptions notwithstanding, at-will employment is generally considered to be the overriding principle of employer-employee relations in the United States. The state of Montana is the only one which switches from at-will to a more German-style just-cause firing principle after a probationary employment period (no longer than six months) has been completed.
Why is this significant for movers and shakers in the German business world to know? For those working at any level of business cooperation with Americans, being aware of this key employment difference will help to shine a light on why Americans may operate as they do in a given business situation. If a U.S. counterpart seems to act in ways that are more immediately and concretely self-preserving than what seems to be in the overall, long-term and big-picture better interests of the company, the at-will employment doctrine is likely humming along in the background.
One example of this might be an employee’s reluctance to speak frankly and critically, especially to a superior. Another is a tendency to take actions before they have been meticulously planned out and discussed, since employees tend to be measured by short-term quantifiable results. A lack thereof puts an employee at risk of looking unproductive. And an unproductive employee is an easily replaceable one.
On a more concrete level, at-will employment means that employees can be let go and replaced if they are absent, including for short-term illness (self or family member). The Family and Medical Leave Act does provide some limited protections for longer-term illness, including that of family members.
Did you really think Americans *enjoy* going to work sick?
Ditto, by the way, for vacation time, even when a vacation allotment exists. Presence counts, and for many, the risk of being replaced is not worth the risk of enjoying some time off, no matter how well-deserved.
In contrast to Germany, American labor law is significantly more heavily skewed in favor of the employer/corporation, and Germans will need to account for this and all its implications on American work culture when doing business with the U.S.A.
German managers working Stateside will probably be surprised by the relative deference employees will show him/her, and may struggle to encourage open, critical and frank discussion from team members. Identifying, speaking out about and tackling problems with our superiors is not within our comfort zone. We would much rather highlight our achievements and „victories“ since our jobs so often depend on plentiful examples of such. German managers would do well to draw a line with employees about coming to work sick and will need to explicitly make it „safe“ for team members to take their allotted vacation time. An incentive or three to this end may even be necessary.
Regardless of what American labor law does or does not stipulate, the less at-will-y (my spell check is moving mountains to change that turn of phrase) you make your working relationships with Americans, the more likely you are to foster a sense of trust, loyalty and openness in your sphere of influence.