Massachusetts, like many states, follows the doctrine known simply as “at will” employment. In it’s most simplest form, the concept means that either party ( the employer or the employee ) can terminate the relationship at any time and for any reason or for no reason. The doctrine can be explained by simply understanding that an employee who does not have an employment contract is an “at will” employee, and therefore subject to the doctrine. It is axiomatic, however, that an employment termination can not violate a statute or an established social policy.
The “at will” law is severe at times, since an employer can indeed terminate an employee for unfair reasons. The doctrine actually goes back to the 19th century and was intended to support capitalism and the concept that labor was simply a commodity. Over the years, the harshness of the concept has been eroded by statutes that designate reasons that, in addition to being unfair, are indeed also unlawful.
A good example of such a statute is MGL c. 151B, which prevents terminations based upon what are called “protected classes.” Examples of these classes include age, race, ethnic background, religious preferences, sexual preference, recovering addiction and handicap. The interplay between the statute and the doctrine is the type of dialectic that keeps attorneys employed. For example, it is generally not unlawful for an employer to use various incentives to “encourage” employees to retire, yet it is unlawful to terminate someone because of their age. To demonstrate some of the nuances of the analysis, however, it is legal to terminate someone because of their age if they are less than 40 years of age, but may be unlawful to do so if they are 40 and above. The reason for the difference is that MGL c. 151B makes employees in the 40 years of age and above category a “protected class,” while people under 40 are not. Therefore, the termination of an employee under the age of 40 is a simple “at will” analysis while the termination of employee 40 years of age or older must include an analysis under MGL c. 151B. It is important to note, however, that MGL c. 151B does not convey the older employee a legal right to their job since they remain an “employee at will,” but only makes unlawful a termination based upon the employee’s age. In other words the statute is a “shield” but not a “sword.
There are, of course, many other exceptions to the employment “at will” doctrine, including a number of federal statutes as well as many other state laws. If you are interested in finding out if a particular employment termination is legal or not, whether you are an employee or an employer, it would probably be a good idea to check with an experienced employment attorney.
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