Communications in the business world have been growing less formal for years, and the recent significant expansion of remote work means channels like Zoom, email, and even text messaging are becoming more common. For many employees, that change has been welcome. But, there are limits. Or, are there?
You may have seen recent stories about layoffs and terminations that seem both unprofessional and insensitive. There was the CEO of an online mortgage company who gathered 900 employees in a Zoom meeting to let them know they were being laid off and the trendy restaurant chain that cut 40% of its workforce by text message. These stories–and smaller-scale personal experiences–have many Ohio workers asking, “Is that even legal?”
In most situations, the answer is yes.
Firing someone by text message isn’t just bad manners. To many employees, it seems too informal to be effective. It’s certainly not the best delivery mechanism. It’s easy to miss a text message, and depending on your devices the employer may have no way of knowing whether it was received.
But, for most Ohio workers, an employer can use nearly any means of communication to terminate the employee. That’s because Ohio is an at-will employment state. That means that most employees in the state can be fired at any time, for any reason, as long as the reason doesn’t violate the law.
For example, an Ohio worker can’t be fired for a racially discriminatory reason, or because the employee filed a workers’ compensation claim, or due to pregnancy. Of course, this works both ways: employees are generally free to quit a job whenever they want, for whatever reason they choose.
There are generally no legal restrictions on how either the employer or the employee communicates that termination.
As a practical matter, an employer will generally need to let you know that you’ve been terminated. But, there’s technically no notice of termination requirement at all. In most Ohio employment situations, it would be perfectly legal if the employee showed up to work one morning and discovered that their access badge had been disabled.
Although by default most Ohio employees are employees-at-will, employers and employees can change that by entering into an employment contract. The contract may spell out the reasons an employee can be terminated and may require a certain notice period or compensation for early termination.
An employment contract may also specify a particular process for terminating employment. Often, that includes a requirement that the termination be in writing.
Whether or not a text message satisfies that requirement will typically depend on the precise terms of the contract. A well-formulated employment contract will specify what forms of communication are acceptable. Since electronic communication has become near-universal, it’s not unusual for a contract to state that electronic communications such as email will satisfy the written notice requirement.
By agreement, that could be extended to text messaging. If the contract doesn’t specify, a court may have to determine whether the notice complied with the writing requirement in the contract. That’s an area of law that’s still developing.
Some employee handbooks specify the circumstances under which an employee can be terminated, and what sort of notice is required. For example, many lay out a series of write-ups or warnings that will precede termination. In some states, the employee handbook is considered a contract, and the employer is required to follow the steps set forth for disciplinary action before termination.
In Ohio, an employer may generally avoid being bound by the handbook by having employees sign a disclaimer that acknowledges that the handbook does not form a binding contract.
Some Ohio courts have even ruled that a disclaimer in the handbook itself reminding employees that they are employees at will and may be terminated at any time is sufficient, even without a signature.
Wrongful termination generally relates to the reason for termination. Some common examples include:
Of course, every case is different, but damages in a wrongful termination case may include:
In some cases, a court may even order reinstatement of a wrongfully terminated employee. If you believe you may have been the subject of wrongful termination, set up a free consultation with an attorney to review your case.
On the other hand, when an employer in an at-will arrangement terminates that arrangement by text message (or by Facebook message, or by carrier pigeon, or by telling you when you show up one morning that you were terminated the night before), there’s generally no legal remedy available.
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