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At-Will Worker Can Be Terminated at Any Time

April 26, 1998

Q: After working for a travel agency for about two months and two weeks, I was unexpectedly let go. In fact, a week before I was dismissed, I received a positive review. Even on my last day, I was told I had been doing an excellent job with the computer, which is what they hired me to do.

This has left me puzzled, humiliated and embarrassed. Do I have any legal recourse? I know they did not let me go for financial reasons, because they are trying to hire someone else.

--D.F., Mission Viejo

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A: Unless you had a written contract of employment for a specific period of time, you have no legal recourse.

The basic rule in California is that employees are employed at will, which means that either the employer or the employee can terminate the relationship at any time for any reason, with or without notice.

Some courts have held that several years' worth of employment and positive evaluations may overcome the at-will presumption, creating an implied contract in which an employee can be terminated for good cause. Two or three months on the job will not suffice.

There may have been any number of reasons for your termination, even though you were proficient on the computer. Perhaps your former employer did not feel there was a good "fit" between you and other employees. Perhaps there were conflicts between you and your supervisor. Perhaps your employer felt you were not as productive as was necessary for efficient operations.

Often, employers will terminate short-term employees simply because things "are not working out," without giving detailed specifics. There is nothing unlawful about this.

--James J. McDonald Jr.

Attorney, Fisher & Phillips

Labor law instructor, UC Irvine

Effective Stress Management

Q: I am a customer service operator, and working with difficult customers on the phone is a very stressful job.

Our manager held a stress management workshop for all the operators, but it was really a time management class. We learned how to better use our time, but I don't think this is going to deal with the stresses of our jobs.

Is this really all there is to managing stress? I'm feeling even worse after the workshop.

--R.E., Long Beach

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A: Although some work stress is caused by poor time management, it doesn't sound as if this is the heart of the stress problem in your department.

The greatest single source of stress in the workplace comes from interpersonal factors--interactions with co-workers, supervisors and/or customers.

Stress occurs when there are conflicts and breakdowns in communication. It sounds as if the operators in your organization would benefit from a stress management workshop that focuses on dealing with difficult customers, improving the effectiveness of telephone communications and the like, rather than just time management.

Effective stress management programs need to be tailored to the particular needs of the organization, the department and the workers involved.

--Ron Riggio, director

Kravis Leadership Institute

Claremont McKenna College

Legal to Require Proof of Charges

Q: My husband's company makes him pay for business expenses that are charged on a company credit card, then reimburses him after he submits his expense report and proof of payment. Is this legal?

Can he charge the company interest because every day we are not paid we are losing interest on our personal money? The charge card is in the company name, with his name on it.

--J.G., Woodland Hills

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A: It is perfectly legal for a company to provide employees with a company charge card for business expenses and to require proof that they incurred the expenses they claimed.

Are you really losing any use of your money when your husband uses the company credit card?

If your husband has about 25 days from the statement date in which to pay off the credit card balance without incurring any penalty or finance charge, and if he submits his expense report--including proof that he incurred the expenses--in a timely fashion, and if the company reimburses him within the 25 days, you have not used any of your money for his business expenses.

Some companies permit employees to receive cash advances for expenses that may not be paid with a company credit card, such as cab fares. Your husband may want to find out whether his company provides such advances.

--Josephine Staton Tucker

Employment law attorney

Morrison & Foerster

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If you have a question about an on-the-job situation, please mail it to Shop Talk, Los Angeles Times, P.O. Box 2008, Costa Mesa, CA 92626; dictate it to (714) 966-7873; or e-mail it to shoptalk@latimes.com. Include your initials and hometown. The Shop Talk column is designed to answer questions of general interest. It should not be construed as legal advice.

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