The CEO of a client with a half-dozen employees recently asked, “We are about to start hiring again. I would like to add language regarding a 90 day probationary period. Is this a good idea?” My answer was “No.” Here’s why.
I had prepared a form of employment offer letter and an employee handbook for the client. Both of these documents state that employment is at-will. This means that either party may terminate the employment relationship at any time for any (non-discriminatory) reason or for no reason. As a result, at-will employment, by itself, allows a company to terminate the employment of an individual whose performance is inadequate during the first 90 days. A probationary period is not necessary.
California courts are known for not enforcing non-compete provisions except under narrowly-defined circumstances (see “California doesn’t *always* prohibit non-compete provisions”). In a case last year (Silguero v. Creteguard, Inc.), the Court of Appeal for the Second District held that an employer may not terminate an employee because of another company’s unenforceable non-compete agreement.
In 2003, Rosemary Silguero began working for Floor Seal Technology, Inc. (“FST”). In 2007, FST threatened Silguero with termination if she did not sign a confidentiality agreement that included an 18-month post-employment non-compete provision. Two months later, FST fired her.
In “Inspection of Employee Text Messages – Be Careful“, I described provisions concerning company-provided technology that every employer should include in its employee handbook. A recent California Court of Appeal case, Holmes v. Petrovich Development Co., shows that such provisions are strong enough to defeat a claim of attorney-client confidentiality!
Gina Holmes brought suit against her former employer, alleging sexual harassment, wrongful termination and other causes of action. The employer presented as evidence e-mails between Holmes and her attorney – e-mails sent from her employer’s computer – that supported the employer’s case.
A software company (“Client”) had to dismiss one of its developers (let’s call her “Alice”). The problem was Alice’s incompetence.
But there was a complication: Alice was pregnant. Adding to Client’s frustration, Alice, without permission or advance notice, was taking more time off than she was entitled to. Client wanted to be rid of Alice but did not want to be charged with discrimination based on sex or pregnancy.
Focusing on the Issue
I worked with Client’s CEO and Alice’s manager. We agreed right away to ignore the unauthorized time off. The amount of money at stake was relatively small, and we were concerned that raising time off as an issue could entangle us in Alice’s pregnancy-related medical needs.
Employment terminations are difficult for both managers and employees. Because of the sensitivities involved and the desire to avoid litigation, managers should take special care in drafting the severance agreement and release and in conducting the termination meeting.
For California employers, one of the most important contract provisions is to require that the employee waive all rights under Section 1542 of the California Civil Code. This Section, which is well-known to attorneys but not necessarily to business managers, states: “A general release does not extend to claims which the creditor does not know or suspect to exist in his or her favor at the time of executing the release, which if known by him or her must have materially affected his or her settlement with the debtor.”