If you need a big picture, snapshot understanding of the historical origins of American employment law, look no further than the master-servant relationship.
“Master and servant” is a legal term ported over from English common law, centuries ago. It is what it sounds like, a term deeply rooted in hierarchical, subservient personal and occupational relationships. Black’s Law Dictionary (6th ed.), an authoritative legal source, defines it this way:
The relation of master and servant exists where one person, for pay or other valuable consideration, enters into the service of another and devotes to him his personal labor for an agreed period. The relation exists where the employer has the right to select the employee, the power to remove and discharge him and the right to direct both what work shall be done and the manner in which it shall be done.
Dig into legal digests used by lawyers to research points of law and you’ll see that “master and servant” continues to be used as a topical index heading. Furthermore, the dictionary definition above connects directly to the rule of at-will employment, which allows an employer to terminate an employee for any reason or no reason at all. The U.S. is one of a few industrialized nations to retain the at-will rule as its presumptive employment relationship.
Two previous articles help to illustrate the one-sidedness of at-will employment and its significance to the modern workplace:
[Law professor Lawrence] Blades noted that the underlying assumptions supporting the dominant rule of at-will employment — which allows an employer to terminate an employee for any reason or no reason at all – were no longer applicable:
Such a philosophy of the employer’s dominion over his employee may have fit the rustic simplicity of the days when the farmer or small entrepreneur, who may or may not have employed others, was the epitome of American individualism. But the philosophy is incompatible with these days of large, impersonal, corporate employers; it does not comport with the need to preserve individual freedom in today’s job-oriented, industrial society.
In the U.S., the combination of at-will employment and the lack of protections against workplace bullying make for a brutal combo punch that often leaves mistreated workers legally powerless.
In October I wrote a short post criticizing the rule of at-will employment, which allows an employer to terminate an employee for any reason or no reason at all. In America — in contrast to many other nations — at-will is the presumptive employment relationship.
This leaves workers especially vulnerable when they are subjected to severe workplace bullying by a supervisor, enabled by the employer. Because most bullying falls outside the protections of current employment law, workers have scant legal recourse, and employers have little incentive (at least from a liability standpoint) to act preventively and responsively.