“Master and servant”: The roots of American employment law

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:

“On Limiting the Abusive Exercise of Employer Power” (2011)

[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of at-will employment — which allows an employer to terminate an employee for any reason or no reason at all – were no longer applicable: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.

At-will employment and the legality of workplace bullying: A brutal combo punch (2011)

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.

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16 responses

  1. Bad memories…when I was fired a while back the HR drone repeatedly said “This is at-will employment.” The feeling of helplessness was overwhelming.

  2. This so hits home for me. My supervisor, as he was dismissing my services, told me, at any time someone could walk in that door and he could be fired! He explained this whole at-will employment gig. I didn’t understand why he was telling me that then, and do not understand it now, except to say perhaps he was trying to relate to me. Given the fact that he was a black man, me, a white woman~this phrase hits another chord. So who was the true master in this play? Who is the servant? I see it as him being the servant, being forced to dismiss me, and the white diplomats/administrators, the master. It is astonishing to realize how this continues to play out in the work place to this day. He wrote me a letter of recommendation. My floor supervisor~the bully at work, managed to arrange this dismissal, but not to diminish the quality of my work.

  3. I hesitated to respond to this article, although it summarizes the structural and organizational ideologies that is the framework and the fertile soil that sets the stage for particularly pathological personalities to rise through the ranks under the guise of competitive individualism-a trait recognized and honored in hierarchical systems-that is viewed as a person being highly motivated, self confident, and competent.

    Reviewing historical accounts of how indigenous cultures throughout the world have been systemically decimated to Western culture’s hierarchical worldview provides a snapshot into how cruel this worldview can be towards cultures that do not embrace its precepts.

    Genocide as a method that requires native people to either assimilate into the conquering culture-which requires that one’s cultural ways must be abandoned- in die. Enslaving members of these cultures was commonplace. There is some awareness of this practice, of course, and the international community no longer supports, even though countries engaging in civil wars practice it.

    Often the global community does not get involved and, in some cases, exampled by the Rwandan genocide in 1994 where close to a million Tutsis were brutally murdered when the Hutus mounted a organized and planned attack to cut off their arms and legs,known as ‘cutting down the tall trees”.

    These natives-the Tutsis and the Hutus-which were members of a large tribal clan before Western colonialism conquered the country and divided up the tribes according to physical features, making one dominant over the other (the old divide and conquer technique).

    I have a story I would like to share. During a sociology class, my professor-whose ancestors come from a pure English line-he can identify which ancestors arrived in the U.S.-proudly declared during a small group project where he was in my group,that “my ancestors were some of the first to discover the East coast”. My comment, was, “and my ancestors were there to greet you”. Mind you, I am a mix breed, so to speak, but I do have strong Native American ancestory.

    Moreover, the whole notion that Columbus discovered America implies that no one was there before, as if to say that the natives didn’t count as being persons.

    I apologize for the long-winded nature of my comment. This topic is close to my heart, so to speak.

    In a nutshell, we are going through a very dark time in Western history, in my opinion, where the average worker who supports our tax base is vulnerable to toxic subservient practices and the folks who uphold these practices often do not have a clue as to how harmful they have been and continue to be on the human race and it vitality, as a whole.

    • Justice Pending: what do you think of the following “advice” for “Building (and Maintaining) a Professional Reputation” from Bridge Technical Solutions, a Rhode Island job shop:

      “But some of the top traits companies look for in a new hire are being flexible, positive, and easygoing. Employers want employees who are resilient and can let tensions and issues roll off their backs. Anger and other emotions can make people lose track of their rationality, cause workplace disruptions, interfere with productivity and affect morale.”

      So, “other emotions” can make people act more human and less robot-like and therefore, are not acceptable in the workplace.

      This reads to me like some of the accounts by 19th century plantation slaves: to keep from a beating and from having your family taken away, smile and don’t look “massa” in the eye.

      You are so right, it’s a dark time, indeed, for anyone but “Stepford employees” who are no doubt making progress on their way to the 1% while tromping over the rest of us. The power elite would be helpless without their thugs and sycophants.

  4. I appreciate your feedback, Marcia. I agree, that the plantation phase of our country’s own history is an example of the toxic expression of the hierarchical history. There are countless more stories just as tragic, sad to say, throughout the global history of humankind.

    What is particularly puzzling to me and problematic in my efforts to regroup, is that the toxic relationship with my supervisor did not impact upon my high end productivity, as I was a fine example of how a professional needs to act under enormous stress and conflict.

    Having said that, those qualities were the very qualities that infuriated my supervisor (bully) even more. In fact, in order to justify my termination, she had to lie about me, that is how little substance she had to work with.

    The CEO, who was her enabler, simply caved to her wishes in order to make his work life calmer. I am not the only employee who has been targeted by this person and dismissed. I was, however, the only employee who put a name to the behavior, because of the brutal nature of the onslaught.

    I understand what you are saying about how the servants during the plantation era committed to not showing their injuries in order to survive. I would assume that they didn’t dare put a name to the behavior and express it, either.

    As much as I applaud that method of survival, and there are accounts of individuals’ endurance, I question, seriously so, if I can do that. The targeting during the years when I was trying to let it wash off my back, so to speak, was so injurious to me as a person, as a mother, as it severely impacted upon my relationship with my daughter, as I came home so vacant as a human being after many days at work.

    I have some potentially serious health to deal with, as well, now that I am out of that situation and my body can ‘fall apart’.

    So, perhaps, there are those who have particularly strong constitutions and their body/mind/soul can hold my under the years of assaults-mine was for nine years, and vicious assaults at that-but I am not so sure I am one of them, given all that has occurred and how fragile my health is in the aftermath of the experience.

    Just not sure where to go from here and/or how to. Thank you for your interest, I must say, Marcia.

  5. JusticePending: you are an extraordinary writer. I tried to get a summary of all your posts on this blog, will keep trying since I think it would be a brilliant and motivating collection.

    I did just send a Facebook “Friend” request to someone who I am hoping is you. Please check if you don’t mind and if it’s you, please email me if you like at capecoder@capecoder.com

    I wish I had “pull” with the MacArthur Foundation to get you a genius grant so that you would have the economic security to pursue your interest in improving the workplace! You would make an impressive spokesperson for the average worker.

    Thanks so much for sharing your thoughts on this blog and as I’ve written before, thanks, David, for making this available.

  6. ditto everything Marcia said, David. Compelling and inspiring blog and response that addresses the violence / bullying/ power topics I am studying on a micro and macro level – personal and workplace and politics in a developmental theory and context.

  7. Great article. The author really hits the nail on the head when he discusses the effect of at-will employment on workplace bullying. As long as employers can terminate employess at-will for any reason and there are laws in place with respect to workplace bullying, the bullying will continue. The sad part of all of this is that these practices will create a miserable work environment for many workers.

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