“Revenge of the Nerds” — What the Most Highly Recruited Computer Science Students Need to Know about Their Employment Rights Part I : At-Will Employment

Though the American employment market as a whole continues to stagnate, for the best computer science students, the current technology labor market echoes the high tech boom of the days of the dot com bubble. A recent report by Spencer Ante published in the Wall Street Journal this weekend, “Revenge of the Nerds: Tech Firms Scour College Campuses for Talent” discusses the race to snap up the best tech students in America, with companies promising enormous starting salaries, free food and other perks to woo the most sought-after students. For many students from undergraduate and PhD computer science programs, the promise of starting salaries reaching the six figures and bonuses in the tens of thousands is enough to lure them away from completing their degrees and moving directly into the workforce.
But for many of these most highly sought-after students, the excitement of high starting salaries and fun company perks should not take away from the serious business of carefully weighing their options and ensuring they protect their rights under the employment laws. This is the first part of a continuing series that will hopefully highlight the most important issues that might face these students as they embark into a new chapter in their lives and enter the workforce. From the negotiation stage to the employment contract and from a summer internship to a permanent employment offer, there are a number of considerations and issues that many students may be unaware of and which we hope to address in this series on the San Francisco Employment Lawyer Blog.
The first issue we will address today stems from the increasing pressure many of the top computer science students face to leave school early and start working directly with a start-up or other technology company. While computer science PhD students have faced such pressures for years, with the increasing demand for the best talent this pressure has become an issue for undergraduate computer science students as well, as highlighted by the report in the Wall Street Journal. One issue that many students faced with such luring offers should carefully consider is the nature of at-will employment in the United States. Many Americans who have worked for decades do not even fully understand the implications of this default rule in American law. At-will employment means that unless otherwise contracted for, an employer can fire her employee for any reason at all, as long as it is not otherwise restricted by the antidiscrimination laws or other very narrow exceptions. For many students who might decide to leave school early, this is an important consideration because unless the employee contracts otherwise with her employer for a more permanent employment contract, this may be a very large risk. Students may find themselves in a situation where they have left school early for a great job with a fat salary and benefits, perhaps leaving behind a substantial undergraduate scholarship or prestigious PhD fellowship, and then find themselves out of a job a few months later. While this situation may be rare, it is certainly something that must be kept in mind by many students faced with such an option.
At-will employment certainly affects the rights of employees in many other ways, which we will hopefully explore in future posts in this series. This brief discussion however hopefully highlights one of the many employment issues that the most sought-after computer science students, and indeed any person newly entering the workforce, must begin to familiarize themselves with.

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