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faqs — at-Will employment

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Below are questions submitted before March 20, 2012:

Q: The website says that you can be fired "unless it is illegal to do so." What is illegal?
A: Federal and state laws prevent employees from being dismissed based on reasons that are against the law. Examples are terminations based on race, sex, color, disability, religion, national origin, age, genetic information and due to an employee's refusal to perform an illegal act.

Q: Why can't the areas that were pointed out in the letter from the chancellor appointing the members of the Employment Policy Review Committee dated January 24, 2011 be addressed under the current
"just cause" system?

A: The Employment Policy Review Committee believed the "at-will" system along with appropriate disciplinary reviews, complaint procedures and appeal process would permit a more comprehensive approach to revising the human resources policies. Attempts to address the deficiencies without adopting an "at-will" status would permit only limited improvements to the current system.

Q: Are the employees who comprised the Employment Policy Review Committee going to be affected by the "at-will" policy if it is adopted?
A: Yes. The members of the Committee will be covered under the "at-will" system, if it is adopted.

Q: Will classified, non-classified, exempt and non-exempt employees be affected by "at-will"?
A: Yes, except for the relatively few staff employees under an employment contract.

Q: Could you explain the rationale for exemption of certain employees?
A: Some employees have entered into employment contracts with the System, UNT, UNT Dallas or UNTHSC.

Q: If a new supervisor comes to campus, can they simply dismiss the current employees who have been doing a good job and replace them with his/her own team?
A: The Employment Policy Review Committee has recommended a procedure that, if accepted, must be complied with before a dismissal can take place. The process recommended by the Committee requires review of the recommended dismissal by Human Resources and approval of the dismissal by an employee at the department head level or above. This would apply to both new supervisors as well as current supervisors. In addition, the employee may appeal the involuntary separation. The only exception to this process recommended by the Committee would be in the case of those employees reporting directly to a president or the chancellor. Those employees would serve at the pleasure of the president or chancellor and would not be eligible to file a complaint or appeal except for allegations of discrimination, harassment, or retaliation which would be resolved through the equal opportunity policy:.

Q: If the "at-will" policy is adopted, will the probationary period be abolished?
A: Yes, the probationary period would be abolished under the "at-will" policy.

Q: Are you saying that under the "at-will" system a good employee's supervisor can go to HR and say "I want that employee gone" and that employee could be dismissed involuntarily? What is the point of an appeal process if an employee can be let go on a "whim"?
A: The UNT System Administration, UNT, UNTHSC and UNT Dallas make a significant investment in staff employees. If the "at-will" system is adopted, nothing in that decision will diminish the importance of staff employees. It is therefore not in the best interest of the System, UNT, UNTHSC and UNT Dallas nor is it consistent with modern HR practices to dismiss employees for frivolous reasons and when it is not in the best interest of the institution. It is for this reason that the chancellor has indicated that he will not approve an "at-will" system without procedures related to review of dismissals and an appeal process. He also has indicated a training component would be instituted if an "at-will" policy is adopted. The Employment Policy Review Committee recommended specific steps before a dismissal could be approved. That recommendation requires review of a proposed dismissal by the Human Resources department and approval by a supervisor at the department head level or above. The recommendation also provides the employee be informed in writing of the reasons for the dismissal. Both HR and the department head would be expected to review the basis for the involuntary dismissal and determine whether the dismissal is consistent with good HR practices and in the best interest of the institution. An appeal would be reviewed by a vice chancellor or vice president under the Committee recommendation. That individual would be expected to examine the facts and determine whether it was in the best interest of the institution to sustain the dismissal. Employees reporting directly to a president or the chancellor would not be covered by this process.

Should an employee believe other review measures should be incorporated into a policy if the "at-will" system is adopted they are encouraged to email or write the chancellor.

Q: Does adopting the "at-will" policy lay the groundwork to get rid of a lot of people?
A: No. Each campus already has a policy for reduction in force.

Q: Is "at-will" a way to make it more feasible to dismiss employees who are nearing retirement so that the university can save money by hiring someone at a lower salary?
A: No. Termination on the basis of age is against the law and an "at-will" system does not allow dismissal of employees based on unlawful reasons.

Q: Does adopting the "at-will" policy mean that if an employee is involuntarily dismissed or part of a reduction in force, an employee will lose their retirement benefits?
A: Retirement benefits are determined by state law and by the Teacher Retirement System or the Optional Retirement Plan ORP: and "at-will" status does not change those benefits.

Q: Does adopting the "at-will" policy permit downsizing without having to cover COBRA costs?
A: Benefits under COBRA are not affected by the change in the "at-will" status.

Q: Does being "at-will" affect pay?
A: Pay is not affected by "at-will".

Q: Does being "at-will" affect unemployment benefits?
A: Unemployment benefits are not affected by "at-will."

Q: Does the "at-will" policy affect employees' current benefits?
A: Employees' sick, vacation and holiday leave and health insurance benefits are
established by state law and will not be affected if the "at-will" system is adopted.

Q: What is the format for the upcoming meetings with campus staffs on November 14th and 15th?
A: After brief introductory remarks by the Vice Chancellor for Administrative Services, the meetings will be open for comments from staff members regarding the proposed change to "at-will" employment status. The main purpose of this meeting is to hear comments from the employees. All the comments will be submitted to the Chancellor in a report. While this will not be a Question & Answer session, attendees may ask questions or submit questions in writing on cards that will be provided at the meetings. The questions will be made part of the record and provided to the Chancellor. He will consider the comments and questions before making a decision whether to move to "at-will" status.

Q: Will employees need to stay for the entire meeting?
A: If employees cannot be present at the beginning of the meeting or cannot stay for the entire meeting, they are welcome to come at any time during the meeting to make their comments. They are welcome to, but need not stay, for the entire meeting.

Q: At the upcoming meetings, will the time for comments be extended if everyone who wants to speak has not had a chance to do so?
A: Yes, time will be extended so that everyone who wishes to do so may comment as long as the room is available.

Q: Where did the "at-will" concept come from?
A: In Texas "at-will" is the default employment status for employees including public employees. An employer may modify that status as have UNT, UNTHSC and System Administration.

Q: Do other universities and systems in Texas have "at-will" employment status?
A: Major public and private universities and systems within the state have the "at-will" system. Most recently, UNT Dallas adopted the "at-will" employment status for staff when it became an independent institution last year.

Q: What does "at-will" employment status mean and how does it differ from the current status?
A: The current UNT, UNTHSC and System Administration policies have modified the "at-will" status by providing that after completion of a probationary period, employees may be involuntarily terminated for cause after going through certain procedural steps. Under the proposed "at-will" employee status, staff members who are not under contract could be dismissed for any reason as long as it is not an unlawful one. "At-will" employment status also does not require an appeal process. In the case of UNT System, the Chancellor has indicated that if the System adopts an "at-will" policy it will incorporate a review process when serious disciplinary action is taken.

Q: Would an "at-will" employment policy have a process to review a decision to dismiss an employee involuntarily before the termination became final?
A: The Chancellor has indicated that if the System moves to "at-will" employment status, individual involuntary dismissal actions for most positions would be reviewed before a termination could be carried out and after a dismissal became final if the employee sought review of the action. The requirement for review of certain involuntary dismissal actions would be established in the System-wide policy, which would be adopted if the System moves to "at-will" employment status. Each campus and the System Administration would then develop their respective policies consistent with the requirements of the System policy.

In addition to considering all comments individuals submit about including a review process should the System move to "at-will" employment status, the Chancellor will consider the Employee Policy Review Committee's recommendations that:

(1) involuntary dismissals be reviewed by the human resources department before employees are notified of the action
(2) a supervisor at the department head level or above approve an involuntary dismissal before the notice is given to the employees and
(3) employees be informed in writing of the reasons for the involuntary dismissal, and that they be given an opportunity to seek review of the action through an appeal procedure.

The Employee Policy Review Committee made the following specific recommendations to the Chancellor concerning appeal of serious disciplinary action:

"In order to achieve timely and meaningful appeal of involuntary demotions, suspensions without pay, and dismissals, the committee recommends that, except for employees who report directly to a vice president, president, vice chancellor or the chancellor, each entity have an appeal process that provides a minimum of two levels of review, the second and final level being the vice president, vice chancellor, or equivalent position that has authority to reverse the decision. Direct reports to a vice president or vice chancellor will be able to present any matter that would otherwise be a proper subject or a complaint or appeal to the president or chancellor, respectively, for review directly, or to a third party selected by the president or chancellor. All employees reporting directly to a president or the chancellor, except those under contract shall serve at the pleasure of the president or chancellor and should not have complaint or appeal rights (except for allegations or discrimination and harassment which shall be resolved through the equal opportunity policy.)"

You may read the entire section regarding involuntary dismissals here. The recommendations will be among the options the Chancellor will be considering.

Q: Would employees continue to have the opportunity to address concerns about working conditions under an "at-will" employment system?
A: Yes. The basic process will be established in the System-wide policy which will be issued if the "at-will" system is adopted. Each campus and the System Administration will then develop their respective policies consistent with the basic requirements of the System policy.

The Employee Policy Review Committee made specific recommendations to the Chancellor about a process for employees to address their concerns about working conditions:

"In order to achieve the objectives regarding working conditions (except for allegations of discrimination and harassment which are resolved through the equal opportunity policy), the committee recommends that each entity have a complaint process that includes two levels of review beginning with the employee's immediate supervisor and ending with a second and final level of review by a second supervisor at the department head level or equivalent or above. Direct reports to a vice president or vice chancellor will be able to present any matter that would otherwise be a proper subject of a complaint or appeal to the president or chancellor, respectively, for review directly, or to a third party selected by the president or chancellor. All employees reporting directly to a president or the chancellor, except those under contract shall serve at the pleasure of the president or chancellor and should not have complaint or appeal rights (except for allegations of discrimination and harassment which shall be resolved through the equal opportunity policy)."

These will be among the options the Chancellor will be considering. Your comments on these recommendations
are encouraged.

Q: If "at-will" employment status is adopted, would there be any reviews to prevent employees from being terminated for fiscal reasons (cost cutting or budget shortfall)?
A: Employees can be laid off for fiscal reasons under the current campus and System Administration reduction-in-force policies. Each campus and the System Administration would continue to have a reduction-in-force policy under an "at-will" employment system.

Q: Will employees who have successfully completed a probationary period be exempt from this
proposed change?
A: If adopted, the "at-will" employment status would apply to all current and future staff employees who are not
contract employees.

Q: How will a change to an "at-will" employment status affect staff who are nearing retirement?
A: A change to "at-will" employment status would not have a different effect on staff nearing retirement. All staff employees who are not on contract will be affected the same.

Q: Will a move to "at-will" status have an effect on employee benefits, such as longevity and payment for unused vacation at the time of departure effected?
A: No. Employee benefits such as longevity and payment for unused vacation would not be impacted by adoption of "at-will" employment status.

Q: Has consideration been given to phasing in this change, as opposed to implementing the change for everyone (both current and future) all at once?
A: The Employee Policy Review Committee did not recommend a phased-in transition to "at-will" employment status. However, the Chancellor could consider a proposal based on this concept.

 

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