Missouri law tends to favor employers in employer-employee relationships. Generally, employees are usually hired on an “at-will” basis in Missouri. This means that an employer can hire or fire an employee for most any reason, provided that there is no unlawful discrimination or other illegality that exists in connection with the employment decision. Thus, an employer legally has great flexibility over the employees he/she hires.
Employment-at-will is not a legally enforceable employment relationship because it is terminable on a moment-by-moment basis. For this reason, the relationship is often legally described as a unilateral contract because there is an implied promise that if the employee performs work as directed, the employer will way compensation. Despite this, that does not make it a contract of employment that is legally enforceable. The significance of this legal conclusion is that an employee cannot, then, generally sue the employer for breach of contract for being fired.
Similarly, employer employment policies and guidelines (e.g., an employment handbook) unilaterally imposed on an employee are not contracts. Johnson v. McDonnell Douglas Corp., 745 S.W.2d 661, 662 (Mo. 1988). It is understood that the employer reserves the right to discontinue or modify such policies as the employer chooses (e.g, sick days, vacation days, employee hours, employee benefits, etc.).
From an employee’s perspective, it is often safer to have an employment contract. Missouri courts have found that an employment contract does not exist without either an expressed duration or some specified limitations on discharge. While an employment contract can provide more certainty practically and legally for the parties, it can become problematic if non-solicitation and non-compete clauses are included. Such language can restrict an employee’s ability to earn a living and work after the employment. What’s more, there are many fiduciary duties that an employee owes the employer (e.g., duty of loyalty) that exist during the employment relationship that can confuse the situation and nature of the relationship. It is important, therefore, to speak with an attorney regarding employment contracts and your duties and rights with respect to a given employer-employee relationship.