Promises Aren’t Meant to be Broken!

Employers are not immune from liability when they use broad statements such as: “permanent employment,” “job for life,” or “just cause termination,” giving employees more legal rights than you would think. Have you been promised job security, whether by written contract or by an employer’s word? If so, you may be entitled the right to rely on such promises.

If you were fired but believe that your employer promised you job security in some way, you may be a victim and have a right to a claim. It is vital to get informed and know your rights as an Employee to ensure your legal rights are protected. Here’s a section of my book “The Employee Rights Handbook” that deals with just that.

Oral Promises of Job Security

Courts in some states are ruling that employees have the right to rely on oral representations made before hiring or during the working relationship. Interviewers, recruiters, and other intake personnel are often careless and make statements that can be construed as promises of job security. They sometimes use words such as “permanent employment,” “job for life,” or “just cause termination” and make broad statements concerning job longevity and assurances of continued employment (such as “Don’t worry—no one around here ever gets fired except for a good reason.”) or specific promises regarding career opportunities.

When such statements are sufficient to be characterized as promises of job security, when you can prove the actual words were spoken, and when you can demonstrate that you relied on such statements to your detriment, you may be able to contest the firing if you work in a state that recognizes this exception to the employment-at-will doctrine. The following actual case is a good illustration.

An executive worked for a company for 32 years without a written contract. The man was suddenly fired. He sued his company and argued that he had done nothing wrong to justify the firing. At the trial the executive proved that:

  • The company’s president told him several times that he would continue to be employed if he did a good job
  • The company had a policy of not firing executives except for cause
  • The man was never criticized or warned that his job was in jeopardy
  • He had a commendable track record, his employment history was excellent, and he had received periodic merit bonuses, raises, and promotions

The executive won the case because the facts created an implied promise that the company could not arbitrarily terminate him.

STRATEGY: Try to remember and document what was said, when, where, who said it, and the names of any witness(es) who were present whenever such promises were made. This may help your case at a later date if you are fired in a manner inconsistent with such promises.

A word of caution: Some employers design employment applications or contracts that specify that employment is at will, that no one has made additional promises regarding job security, and that you acknowledge not receiving such promises. You may have a difficult job arguing this point (regardless of verbal promises) when you sign such a document.

Written Promises of Job Security in Company Manuals

If company manuals promise job security, has the employer followed stated policy? It is important to review all manuals, handbooks, memos, correspondence, benefit statements, “welcome aboard” letters, employment applications, policy statements, and disciplinary rules. Know what they say regarding firings. For example:

  • Can you appeal the decision?
  • Must the employer give you a warning before firing?
  • Are there specific rules regarding severance?
  • Can you be fired at will or only for cause?
  • Is there a system of progressive discipline, or can you be fired immediately without notice?
  • Are there internal grievance policies?
  • Can you arbitrate the dispute rather than litigate?
  • Do you have the right to receive a written reason for the firing?
  • Do you have the right to review your personnel file after the firing?

You may be able to contest the firing and sue for damages if the employer has favorable policies in writing that aren’t followed. Thus, review all company policies as soon as possible to determine if promises have been broken.

STRATEGY: Sometimes it is difficult to review these materials after a discharge. You may not be on the premises and may be unable to obtain such documents because many employers insist that ex-employees return all company property upon being fired. If this is the case, ask friendly coworkers to lend you their materials for review. Photocopy relevant text as soon as possible. Better still, if you have suspicions you may be fired, plan ahead by gathering copies of these materials before you are asked to leave. Bring this information to your lawyer at the initial consultation. This will enable him or her to give you a more accurate opinion as to whether the employer has violated an implied contract term. For example, if the employer has a written policy allowing terminated employees to appeal the firing to a grievance committee, you may wish to do so. If the employer refuses to allow you to file such an appeal despite its stated policy, you might be able to contest the firing as a result.

Whenever an individual is fired, the author seeks an advantage for a client by scrutinizing all company policies regarding firings to see if they were followed. If not, this is used as leverage in negotiating for additional severance and other benefits.

For a full depth analysis on this topic and many more, visit to purchase “The Employee Rights Handbook” today!

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