Academic journal article Public Administration Quarterly

Reinventing the Public Employer-Employee Relationship: The Just Cause Standard

Academic journal article Public Administration Quarterly

Reinventing the Public Employer-Employee Relationship: The Just Cause Standard

Article excerpt


American are inveterate reformers. Their belief in the efficacy of reform dates back to at least the Declaration of Independence and one could probably make the case that the so-called Mayflower Compact constituted a reform of the original charter governing the Crown's peripatetic passengers (Lutz, 1988). In fact, Americans' affinity for reinvention of their public governance processes has led one author to argue that American democracy is the analog of science--a self-corrective system (Ricci, 1985). This reformist outlook has extended to the bureaucratic institutions in recent years as scholars of public administration have attempted to reconcile the institution with radical changes in the social, economic, and legal elements of the American society (Fox, 1996; Osborne and Gaebler, 1992).

The authors argue that reformation of the bureaucratic institution requires reinvention of the superior-subordinate relationship. Although bureaucratic orthodoxy has been under conceptual siege for almost a century, it has yet to be supplanted (Fox and Miller, 1996; Goodsell, 1994; Hood and Jackson, 1991; Wilson, 1989). The authors posit that superior-subordinate relationship is the critical element of the bureaucratic structure. They base their assertion on the simple observation that, irrespective of the theoretical school of thought, most scholars of reinvention cite some form of behavior associated with the authority relationship as evidence of an inherent flaw in the Weberian model.

Further, the authors take heed of Douglas' (1986) argument that an explicit transformation of formal authority is necessary to eradicate the bureaucratic institution as it resides in the collective memory of Americans. Accordingly, the authors put forth the concept of just cause as a "first principle" in the decision calculus of public employee discipline or dismissal. If, as Douglas argues, institutions work because the transactions balance out, then just cause can be seen as a method to achieve a balance between the interests of both the superior and subordinate. In this article, they seek to provide some counsel to public administrators by first laying out the case for just cause governance of employer-employee transactions, then clarifying an operative definition of just cause, and finally providing guidelines for implementation of such a strategy.


The last several years have seen a lively debate in the employee relations literature regarding the law of employee dismissal in the United States. Most industrialized democracies provide their workers with protection from unjust dismissal. In stark contradiction, the United States does not. The permissibility of an employer's discipline or dismissal of an employee varies greatly depending upon whether the employer is a private company, the federal government, or a state or local government; whether there is an employee union; whether the employer has well established personnel procedures regarding grounds for discipline or dismissal; and in which state the dismissal takes place. In public employment, civil service law and regulations govern the conditions and circumstances for which an employee might be dismissed, although these protections vary by state for local and state employees.

Because of the variation in state law and court decisions regarding employee dismissal, the National Conference of Commissioners on Uniform State Laws adopted the Model Employment Termination Act (META) in 1991. The Model Act is intended to provide guidance to state legislatures in altering their employee relations law.l Legal scholars have also debated what direction the courts are taking with respect to just cause or good cause for employee termination (Fabiano, 1993; Verkerke, 1995). Historically, American courts have ruled according to common law theories that, in the absence of an explicit employment contract, employees hold their jobs "at will. …

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