It should raise red flags when an elected official with less than a year of public service under her belt who is already trying to claim authority to fire state employees without cause. Cindy Hill was elected to the office of State Superintendent of Public Instruction only last November. Before even meeting some of her employees, Hill is already demanding the right to discharge any Department of Education employee without cause. She wants all Department employees to serve “at-her-will.”
What does that mean and why should you care? The so-called “at-will” employment doctrine allows employers to discharge anyone for any or NO reason whatsoever. There are limited exceptions such as discharging because of gender or race but for the most part the doctrine deprives even the best employees any protection from abusive employers.
At-will has been described this way, “The doctrine of employment-at-will emerged in the nineteenth century in the United States in a climate of unbridled, laissez-faire expansionism, social Darwinism, and rugged individualism. It is often referred to as Wood's Rule, named after Horace C. Wood, who articulated the doctrine in an 1877 treatise Master and Servant. No doubt the title of the treatise says all that need be said regarding Wood's view of employment relations.”
For a reason that made more sense a century ago than it does today, the person chosen to manage education policy in the state is an elected official with a four year term. The Superintendent of Public Instruction is also a partisan. When Hill, a Republican, was elected she found most of the career employees who actually make the office function are protected from whimsical discharge. She’d like to change the rules.
I have served as a state agency head and am familiar with the common belief that it is “impossible to fire a bad state employee.” Not true. State employees, other than those who are “at-will” earn the right after one year of probation to be fired only for cause. If Ms. Hill or another agency head wants to deprive a person of their ability to earn a living, they must have a good reason. The state rules require the use of “progressive discipline” in order to give wayward employees an opportunity to improve performance. The requirement that an agency work with the employee to improve is hardly onerous given the amount of time and money it costs to recruit and train a replacement. If the employee fails to respond, the rules allow for discharge.
Other state agency heads are appointed by the governor. They understand they serve at the pleasure of the governor and that elections have consequences for policy makers. But the state personnel system has always recognized the importance of protecting employees below that level from political whims. For employees of the Department of Education it is all that much more important because this is the one state agency where the boss is elected on a partisan ballot.
It’s not too much to ask that Hill have a reasonable cause before firing employees. This basic protection serves the interests of the public by assuring state employees can speak up, be innovative and not simply slink around the office hoping to make no waves. It also protects us from political cronyism. Without collective bargaining, this protection is the system’s only conscience.
State government functions best when employees are protected from arbitrary, political decisions. Applying the “at-will” doctrine to every employee of the Department will damage both morale and performance. Voters, legislators and others should be deeply concerned about a rookie elected official whose first act is to seek the power to fire dedicated employees for no cause at all. What’s that really all about?