Follow the Chain of Command? Yeah, but…

Most employers want their employees to “follow the chain of command” and not go “over the head” of their immediate supervisor. But a recent case from the Tennessee Supreme Court illustrates the pitfalls of being too rigid about this requirement. In Williams v. City of Burns, a police captain was asked to “fix” a speeding ticket at the request of the chief of police, and complained to the mayor about the chief’s conduct. The police chief fired the captain, who sued for retaliation under the Tennessee Public Protection Act. The City’s defense was that the captain was not fired for reporting illegal activity, but for not following the proper chain of command. The Supreme Court held this reason was merely a pretext for retaliation. This case involves a public employer, but private employers can fall into the same trap very easily. And there are other traps, too, such as heightened exposure to harassment claims if the employees don’t have a way to go over the immediate supervisor. Every rule needs exceptions.