Theft of 2 Cents of Electricity Not Firing Offense
A court in Germany recently ruled that a German firm could not fire a worker for stealing 2 cents worth of electricity. The firm accused the worker of stealing from the firm by charging his Segway at work. Before you decide to recharge all of your appliances at the office, let’s speculate how US employers and courts might respond to a similar case.
- Unauthorized use of company resources can mean trouble
- Two cents small change, but result might be different in US
- Most US workers serve under the at-will doctrine, may be fired at will
Employment Subject to At-Will Doctrine, Contract
The German court called the firing disproportionate to the offense. Two cents is not a lot of money. The man had worked for the firm for 19 years. Other employees actually charged small appliances at the office too. Pencils and paperclips are things of the past but we’d all like to think that using the company’s phone lines or Internet access occasionally for personal purposes won’t get us fired.
European laws are notorious for vesting something like lifetime employment in full-time employees. US laws, not so. Had our voltage-scarfing colleague worked in the US, the courts might not have been on his side. The employment relationship here is governed either by an employment contract or by the common-law doctrine of employment-at-will. A contract might spell out grounds for termination, such as misuse of company resources. Or it might say that the employer can fire the employee for any reason, or no reason at all.
This would incorporate the employment-at-will doctrine into the contract. This doctrine, which is applicable to any employment not subject to a contract, means that employees serve at the will of the employer. Thus employees can be fired at the employer’s whim. The only limitations are that an employee cannot be fired for some illegal reason, like racial discrimination or something else the law prohibits. There’s a hybrid between the two types of employment, where there’s no contract but the employer has an employment policy manual or employee handbook applicable to employees. Regardless, it’s probably best to get permission to charge your iPod at work.
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