On my way in to work this morning, I was listening to NPR’s Morning Edition, and caught an interview with Lewis Maltby, president of the National Workrights Institute. The interview was ostensibly to promote Mr. Maltby’s new book, “ Can They Do That?” in which he discusses employment termination cases that were deemed legal, but seem, in his opinion, to be disproportionately severe or unjust.

What Mr. Maltby appeared to decry (without using the proper terminology) is the American presumption of “at will” employment—the notion that an employer may terminate an at will employee’s employment for any reason or no reason, so long as it’s not otherwise illegal. A couple of Mr. Maltby’s examples demonstrate that concept well. For example, he mentioned instances where it was permissible for an employer to terminate an employee based on the political bumper sticker on the employee’s car, and for a school to terminate an overweight teacher’s employment because the teacher did not project the correct image. As there are no laws that specifically protect individuals from discrimination based on political affiliation or weight, these terminations were in fact permissible. (I would caution, of course, that terminating an overweight employee does carry risk to the extent the employee might be considered to have a disability under state or federal law.)

Mr. Maltby’s credibility, however, ends there. Mr. Maltby incorrectly made the assertion that there are no laws at all to protect employees—and his other examples demonstrate a lack of understanding of the law.  For instance, he implied that there is no recourse for an employee whose employment is conditioned on having sexual relations with a superior. That is, of course, false. Such behavior constitutes impermissible quid pro quo sexual harassment under federal law and the laws of nearly every state (if not all of them). He also cited an example of an employee who was seen by his boss drinking beers at a bar after work, and where the boss fired the employee because drinking is “a sin.” While the outcome of a lawsuit would depend on the specific facts, such a scenario could constitute discrimination based on religious belief—another category protected by federal law and the laws of most if not all states.

Every state and locality has a variety of employment laws already in place that protect employees from a wide range of impermissible employer conduct.  Rather than engaging in hyperbole by stating that no laws exist to protect employees, a more useful discussion revolves around whether, as a policy matter, it makes sense to pass new laws protecting additional personal characteristics or affiliations. The challenge, of course, is striking the right balance between protecting those few things we all (or mostly) agree should be protected, with the interests of employers who should have the right to conduct their businesses as they see fit.

A copy of the NPR story is available here.