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Is your employee handbook a contract?

You know that California is an “at-will” state when it comes to employment. That generally means that your employer can fire you for any reason they want as long as that reason isn’t against the law or public policy.

There are exceptions to that rule, however. One of those exceptions is that employees who work under a contract may have certain rights and protections. Your employer cannot fire you unless they follow the procedure outlined in your contract.

Does that include the policies on discipline and termination that are laid out in your employee handbook? Maybe.

The wording of your employee handbook may hold the key

A number of courts have held that employee handbooks can be considered legally enforceable contracts unless the handbook specifically states that it is not.

According to experts on employer-employee relations, the handbook must state something to the effect that it “is not intended to be a contract (express or implied), nor is it intended to otherwise create any legally enforceable obligations on the part of the Company or its employees.”

Lacking that kind of clause, your employer may be required to follow any procedures or steps laid out in your handbook before firing you. For example, your boss could not fire you for merely irritating him in some way if your handbook says that you will be evaluated based on your production. Nor could you be fired for a single mistake if your handbook guarantees you at least one warning and a write-up first.

Understanding your rights as an employee isn’t always easy. If you think you may have been mistreated by your employer, it may be wisest to take your story to someone who can help you better understand the legalities involved.


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