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HR Compliance: What Does “Employment at Will” Mean in Tennessee?

What does the term “employment at will” really mean in Tennessee? Can you really fire an employee at any time, for any reason?

Not exactly.

The “employment at will” doctrine does mean that employment is voluntary for both parties (the employer and the employee). An at-will employee may quit his job whenever, and for whatever reason, he chooses. Likewise, an employer may terminate an employee whenever, and for whatever reason he wants.

But (and this is a big but) the doctrine does have exceptions. For example:

  • At will employment DOES NOT cover terminations for illegal reasons such as retaliation and discrimination.
  • Even though Tennessee is an “employment at will” state, former employees can still file wrongful termination claims.
  • You can’t fire an employee for refusing to engage in, or remain silent about, illegal business activity.

Being an employer in Middle Tennessee is becoming increasingly complex and risky – especially when it comes to firing workers. Today, Wood Personnel shares a few common-sense tips for navigating at-will employment relationships. While they’re not a substitute for professional legal advice, these tips can help you stay compliant and prevent problems:

  1. Understand Tennessee’s laws. Familiarize yourself with the unique characteristics of Tennessee’s “employment at will” law, as well as the “whistleblower’s law,” which protects employees from being discharged or terminated solely for refusing to participate in, or for refusing to remain silent about, illegal activities.
  2. Make sure that termination decisions are fair. If an employee is not performing to your expectations, warn him about his performance. Be sure he fully understands what he is supposed to do and what you expect from him. Give him an opportunity to improve his performance, and require his signature on written documentation of your conversation.
  3. Create and follow written policies in employee documentation. If you provide an employee with a handbook filled with the dos and don’ts of a job description his job, he has the legal right to rely on that document to tell him what’s acceptable conduct during the course of employment. As a business owner, you are bound by the terms you enter into with your employee regarding “acceptable work behavior” and “job expectations” outlined in the handbook. Therefore, going against the provisions of your own written policies, in effect, violates a worker’s rights. If you fire an employee without following your written policy, that employee may have cause for a successful employment claim.
  4. Never act in haste. Unless an employee is obviously dangerous, there is rarely a need to fire an employee on the spot. Follow your organization’s standard procedures for terminating an employee.
  5. Minimize your exposure by working with Wood Personnel. As the employer of record for our temporary employees, we assume many of the risks associated with hiring, employing and terminating workers.  Simply put, we make it safer and simpler to get your work done!  To learn how we can help you minimize your employment-related risks, contact Wood Personnel, one of the leading Hendersonville employment agencies.