Employers’ rights vary when it comes to employees who leave the company and end the employment relationship. Although some state laws provide certain rights to employers, many other states are silent on what rights an employer has when an employee walks out on the job. In this case, issues such as job abandonment, the employment at-will doctrine, unemployment compensation and employee reputation are issues to consider when examining employers’ rights.
Employment At-Will Doctrine
Under the employment at-will doctrine, the employment relationship may end at any time, for any reason or for no reason, with or without notice. Employers are generally known to publish this disclaimer on their employment applications and employee handbooks as one of the first rules of the employment relationship. However, an employee may exercise her rights under the employment at-will doctrine just as easily as the employer. This means an employee can simply decide to end the working relationship – provided she’s not under contract of employment – without notice and without reason.
The definition of job abandonment varies by state law; however, many employers define job abandonment as an employee’s failure to show up for work for three consecutive business days. Since the employment at-will doctrine doesn’t require notice, the definition of job abandonment may also be construed as an employee exercising his rights under that doctrine.
When an employee’s working relationship ends, he has the right to file for unemployment benefits. A common misconception about unemployment benefits is that an employee must be terminated or discharged to receive unemployment benefits from the state. However, unemployment benefits are available to employees who quit or resign from their positions voluntarily. The caveat is that the reason an employee resigns or quits must be one that’s accepted by state law as valid. An example of a valid reason would be the employer asking the employee to engage in unlawful behavior. If an employee refuses to do so and then quits for fear of be forced to participate in unlawful or illegal activities, that could justify the state's decision to award unemployment benefits. The employer always has the right to rebut an employee’s claim for benefits or appeal the state’s decision to award benefits to an employee who has walked out on his job.
Many employers create policies to prevent employees from abandoning their jobs or leaving their positions without what the employer considers sufficient notice. Provided state law doesn’t prohibit such policies, employers can withhold payment for accrued vacation or consider employees who walk off the job ineligible for rehire. There appears to be little, if any, data to prove that such policies actually increase employee retention or minimize employees deciding to exercise their rights to end the employment relationship, however. Rendering an employee ineligible for rehire after she abandons her job or exercises her rights under the employment at-will doctrine can have lasting effects for former employees.
A common question on employment applications and in interviews is whether the applicant is eligible to be rehired by their previous employers. For recruiters who are knowledgeable of how and why certain workplace policies are developed, an applicant who answers “no” to being eligible for rehired may signal an applicant who may have abandoned or quit a previous job without notice.
Employer's Right to Fire Walkouts
Although an employee walking out on the job is usually considered a resignation, job abandonment or exercising the employment at-will doctrine, the term "employee walkout" is generally used when employees act collectively to make a point about working conditions. In March 2011, Wisconsin state legislators voted to approve a measure allowing employers to fire employees who engage in this kind of collective activity.