Let me be clear from the very beginning of this post that I have no formal legal training and I recommend that any questions on this subject should be discussed with someone well-versed and qualified in labor and employment law.
A key to success for every municipality is a strong, up to date employee handbook or personnel manual. And, although the handbook or manual will cover many topics, an essential element of a well-written manual is a clear “at will” employment policy. Essentially, “at-will” employment status allows an employer to terminate an employee for any reason that is not deemed to be unlawful. This protects the employer from legal liability stemming from the termination.
Let's put this in simpler words with an example from the viewpoint of a township manager who saw this process unfold. The township had an excellent personnel policy that was regularly reviewed in order to remain current with ever-changing laws. As an aside, I highly recommend a regular legal review, as will your workers’ compensation insurance company. The handbook made clear the “at will” employment status of all employees, and all employees were required to review and sign an acknowledgment that they received the handbook.
Another section laid out in detail those infractions or violations that allowed management to dismiss or discipline an employee – including tardiness, theft, fighting, sleeping, and misuse of equipment. Written warnings were typically given, and employees had a clear option of going to the board of supervisors for an appeal. The infraction had to be pretty severe for immediate dismissal by the manager.
These policies were helpful to set expectations for employees and helped protect the Township as well. Due to the " at-will " policy, the board or council had considerably more discretion in dismissing without fear of any legal repercussions. However, termination of an employee still required a majority vote by the board to be approved and finalized. I saw this unfold with the removal of an administrative employee when four out of five council members voted for the dismissal. The minutes did not reveal the exact reason for the removal, and the employee did not have any immediate recourse to appeal the decision. Putting it in simple terms, if a majority of the governing body feels the employee isn't performing to their expectation, they can be dismissed. Again, I am simplifying a serious situation and strongly encourage you to work with a professional to be sure you have met the requirements of the law.
If your municipality does not have a personnel policy, or it hasn't had a proper review in a while, perhaps it is time to contact Keystone Municipal Services and get this important document updated for your operation. As I always say, "fire this thing up," and be sure your municipalities "at-will" status is safe and secure.
About the Author
David L. Anthony is a member of the Keystone Municipal Solutions team of experts. He is a veteran of municipal government, having served more than 33 years in various positions of public service. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org. To learn more about David and the Keystone Municipal Solutions team, click here.