Q: I worked as an administrative assistant to my boss at a small, privately held company that had no written rules or policies. My boss never warned me about my performance lacking, but he did periodically ask if I could get more done in a day without errors. He also pointed out miniscule things, like missing commas or mistakenly used semicolons, all before I finished proofreading. He never wrote up performance issues, and he was always kind and polite, not sarcastic. I valued his attitude and the way he treated me, so I was in shock when he let me go. I didn't defend myself other than to say that I liked my job and was disappointed.
I applied for unemployment, but I already updated my resume and am applying to new jobs like crazy. I know I will get interviews because I have a good job history up to this point. What concerns me is being let go. I have never been fired. When prospective employers call my boss for a reference, what information can he give?
A: First, talk to all your past bosses to let them know you are job-hunting and would like to use them as references. No one likes surprise requests for references. Many company policies require references to go through HR, so if you have a particular boss you know was pleased with your work, ask him or her for a personal reference letter. Staying in touch with former bosses and co-workers is important and is the key to creating a network.
Many states restrict what information can be released about an employee or former employee without the employee's authorization. Note that most if not all applications ask if the company can contact past bosses under each of your employers. (Check "no" if you must, but it is best to check "yes.") When you give authorization, those employers can tell prospective employers why an employee was fired, as long as it's the truth, but they take great risks in doing so since circumstances are often subjective. This is especially true where there were no written warnings.
A well-managed company will instruct its human resources department and managers to confirm only employees' employment dates and positions held and to not offer additional information, even when authorized by the employee. Individual reference letters greatly help an employee along the career path, and a boss should be willing to do this for an employee who always delivered a solid work product.
Most states are "employment at will," which means an employer can terminate an employee's employment for any reason without explaining why, as long it was not discriminatory in any manner. Companies with 15 or more employees are subject to the laws under The Civil Rights Act of 1964, and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission oversees those laws. An employer cannot terminate employment for discriminatory reasons — race, color, religion, gender/sex (including sexual harassment), national origin, age, disability or retaliation — or for any other reasons prohibited by federal or state laws (though it does happen). Employees also have an equal right in that they may quit at any time, also without explanation, though walking off the job in anger will obviously be detrimental to one's potential for a good reference. That is when marking "no" for permission to contact a boss on an application is recommended.
Many states allow for charges of "wrongful termination." If an employee thinks the termination was due to discriminatory reasons, they can file an EEOC discrimination charge against the former employer and provide a detailed account describing the situation leading to the charge. Any employee wanting to file an EEOC charge should — in advance of filing — write a description relating their experiences as examples of discriminatory treatment.
Filing a discrimination charge should not be taken lightly. It is not an easy matter and is not something one should put together haphazardly, no matter how obvious the discrimination appeared to be. Prepare for a long, arduous journey trying to prove the matter. In addition to filing an EEOC charge, the employee should consult a highly experienced attorney concentrating in this employment law. Law has diverse areas of concentration, and hiring a lawyer without relevant experience may not go well. As you can imagine, the EEOC office is weighed down with numerous cases. A personally hired attorney can take charge by asking the employee the right questions, preparing and representing the employee for trial.
Email your workplace issues and experiences to [email protected] For more information about career and life coach Lindsey Novak, visit www.lindseyparkernovak.com, and for past columns, see www.creators.com/read/at-work-lindsey-novak.