“Can we enforce an employer’s promise to employ us ‘for life?'”

Question: My husband and I worked for the same employer for 20 years. We then resigned to work for a friend we had known for many years. When we spoke with our new employer, we were told that “You will have a job for the rest of your lives.”

We were both laid off last fall, and since then we have both been replaced. Is this legal?

Jasper, Alabama

Answer: As a general rule, employee and employers are free to reach agreements on the details of their employment relation. One of the details they may agree on is how long they will work together; we generally refer to that as the “term” of the relation. Some employment relations are by agreement intended to last for one year. Most employers and employees have a relation in which they agree that either can end the relation whenever they wish; we refer to that as an “at will” relation.

In most states, an agreement to employ an employee by any “reasonably measurable” time period is enforceable. On the other hand, if a period of time is “indefinite duration,” it is not enforceable. In a leading case, the top New York court said that boxer Mike Tyson’s agreement to employ his boxing manager “so long as I am a boxer” was sufficiently definite as to time period, and thus enforceable. Those words cost “Iron Mike” a lot of money.

In most states this is the rule: “If you can measure the time period in any way, it is enforceable.” On that basis, in most states your employer’s promise to employ you “for life” would be enforceable. I am not admitted to practice law in Alabama, but my brief review of Alabama law suggests two important things: first, that in Alabama an employee who claims a lifetime employment contract needs to prove it with pretty good evidence; second, an employee who leaves a job to take another job has an easier time proving that the new job is a job for a lifetime. Thus, if you can prove your employer did, in fact, make that a promise of lifetime employment, you can enforce it. Again, though, you need to consult an attorney licensed to practice law in Alabama, and preferably one with employment law experience.

Before consulting with a lawyer, I strongly suggest you politely and respectfully write to your (former) friend, and tell him or her that you relied on his or her promise when you left your former employer, and you believe it is better to come to some agreement before both of you have to spend money on attorneys. Hey, you have nothing to lose in doing so.

If that doesn’t work, then it’s probably time for a legal consultation.

Hope that helps, I really do.

Best, Al Sklover

© 2009 Alan L. Sklover, All Rights Reserved.

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