Employment at Will
Tennessee is an "employment-at-will" state.
The employment-at-will doctrine means that employment is voluntary for both employees and employers. An at-will employee can quit her job whenever and for whatever reason she wants to without consequence. This is also true for employers. They may terminate an employee for whatever reason whenever they want to without consequence. They may also alter the terms and conditions of employment for a good, bad, or no reason.
There are many exceptions to this doctrine. Over the years the courts, Congress and state legislatures have created exceptions to this rule which sometimes overshadow it. The most obvious exceptions are the civil rights laws. It is unlawful to terminate a worker because of her gender, age, race, national origin or religious affiliation. Many states make it illegal to fire someone because she served on jury duty, because she filed a workers' compensation claim, or in retaliation for engaging in some sort of protected activity.
Here is a general list of some points to consider if you think you may have been the victim of an unlawful employment action. Remember, though, that each case is different. If you have a specific concern, please contact an attorney.
- Are you in a protected class, such as age, gender, race, etc., which might provide you protection?
- Do you have an employment contract, or are you under a collective bargaining agreement? If so, make sure that your employment contract or collective bargaining agreement does not contain any special clauses that relate to the job action taken against you.
- If you do not have a contract, the employment-at-will doctrine may be enforced under common law.
- Despite widespread use of the term, there are actually very few labor laws that protect you from a generic "wrongful termination" in employment-at-will situations. Just because you think it is unfair that you lost your job does not necessarily mean that you have a cause of action. The action must be unlawful.
- Some states have now adopted the Model Employment Termination Act, which provides that employers have to show "good cause" for terminating an employee. Collective bargaining agreements (union contracts) may also contain "good and just cause" requirements. The reverse is not true, however; the employee may still quit for any or no reason.
- "Good cause" or "just cause" are legal terms which mean that the employer must have a legitimate business reason for firing you.
- Some examples of good cause include:
- Wrongdoing on your part.
- Layoffs instituted to relieve the company during times of economic distress.
- If you reside in a state that has adopted the Model Termination Act and you are fired, the court will consider some or all of the following to determine whether your employer demonstrated good cause:
- Whether or not your employer made you aware of the policy you violated and warned you of the consequences in advance.
- Whether or not your employer gave you a chance to explain your side of the story.
- Whether or not the policy is frivolous. In other words, by violating the policy, did you really do anything wrong that hurt the company or other employees?
- How your employer has disciplined other employees for violation of the same or similar policies in the past.
- Whether or not your employer enacted the policy before or after you violated it.
- Whether or not violation of the policy is described as good cause for termination in an agreement, employee handbook or similar document.
- Your employment record with the company.