Did you know a NJ business can be vulnerable to wrongful discharge claims based upon what its employee manual says – or doesn’t say?
Employment in New Jersey defaults to “at will” meaning that an employee may generally be terminated anytime, for any reason – or lack thereof. There are important exceptions, which is where the employee manual comes in. Woolley is a watershed case on this topic. The manual in Woolley was flawed because while it contained a multitude of provisions, it omitted a provision on termination without cause. (See Woolley v. Hoffmann-LaRoche, Inc., 99 N.J. 284, 290 (N.J. 1985), judgment modified 101 N.J. 10 (N.J. 1985)).
The following rules-of-thumb can be cherry-picked from Woolley so as to make an employee manual as bullet-proof as possible:
Read it through employee’s eyes. If your manual is disseminated to a substantial portion of your workforce, you will want to read each provision from the perspective of the employee. This means you should ask yourself what employees would reasonably expect each provision to mean. But your analysis should not stop there. You will need to dig deeper and identify and edit those provisions that represented an offer or employment terms and conditions.
Disclaimer. Always include a disclaimer that the manual does not create legally binding obligations. Leaving out this provision can expose the employer as courts have held that – absent the disclaimer – a manual provision such as a stated termination procedure is legally enforceable against the employer. Be sure to set-off the disclaimer, giving it the attention it warrants, and prominently display it. Additionally, it must clearly inform employees the employer can terminate employment “with or without cause.”
So, if an employee manual is a “must have” for your business, management will need to proceed with caution — both as to what it says as well as where it is silent.