You know the basic tenet of employment at-will: the employer or the employee may terminate the employment relationship at any time, for any reason, with or without notice. The employment relationship continues only at the will of both parties. We also know that "any reason" may not include a reason otherwise made unlawful under federal, state or local law or regulations such as on the basis of protected status like age, race, religion, sex, nationality or disability. Nor may the basis be any legally protected activity like trying to form, join or assist a union.
So when is an employee fired in violation of public policy? Take the case of a groundskeeper who also took on the duties of caring for two horses at her employer's place of employment. She believed the horses were being turned out to pasture in a field that may have had poisonous plants. When her supervisor ignored her concerns she stated that if anything happened to the horses as a result she would "tell everyone" that he ignored her complaints. The next day she was fired for "threatening conduct." She then sued for wrongful discharge in violation of public policy.
What is public policy anyway? This court describes it as, "...the community common sense and common conscience, applied and extended throughout the state to matters of public morals, public health, public safety and public welfare...it abides only in the customs and conventions of the people - in their clear consciousness and conviction of what is naturally and inherently just and right between and man and a man." Huh? Put that in your Employee Handbook!
Practically applied. This may be a bit easier to follow. The court looked to the law of the state and found it penalized many forms of animal cruelty. The found the employee's complaint advanced that state policy even though she did not call any state authority or private agency like the Humane Society at any time during her employment.
Lesson learned? Even if you follow the letter of the law that does not mean your employment actions are lawful. Listen to your employee. Consider the timing of your action. Let your business needs drive your employment decisions. After the fact the employer said they fired this employee because she neglected her groundskeeping duties in lieu of her care for the horses. Excuse me but that rationale came out after the horse was out of the barn! Mayhew v. Hermitage Club, LLC