It’s Friday morning and there is an eerie feeling going around the office. People seem on edge, and your boss is communicating with you via sternly worded emails that are direct and to the point. Some of these emails may even criticize your recent job performance. You may even know that you’ve made a serious mistake, or you may have been the target of an unruly supervisor or manager who has made your life extremely difficult for weeks, months, or even years. All the signs add up to the last email of the day telling you to come up to the human resources manager’s office, where he or she informs you that your employment with the company is being terminated. What now?
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A host of emotions will likely run through your head, and you may want to lash out verbally at the company for mistreating you. Even though this is a natural reaction, the first thing you need to remember, if you find yourself in this situation, is to remain calm and listen to what the company is telling you. Only after digesting the conversation can you fully understand the company’s reasons for letting you go and whether there is anything illegal about the company’s conduct.
An important misconception is that employee terminations are “wrongful” if the employer does not articulate a particular “cause” for the termination. This is utterly incorrect. All 50 states have adopted the principle (either by statute or case law) of “employment at-will.” This means that either you or the employer can terminate the employment relationship for any reason or no reason at all, so long as the reason for the termination does not violate a law. Therefore, if your employer tells you they are terminating you because they do not like your attitude, the termination is likely “clean” unless the employer has engaged in harassing, discriminatory, or otherwise illegal conduct.
Although federal law does not require employers to pay terminated employees on the day of termination, many state laws set forth specific requirements (e.g. before the end of the next payroll period or even the day of termination) that carry substantial penalties if they are not followed. When you are told that your employment is ending, you should always ask the human resources professional when you should expect to receive your last paycheck and should always check with an employment attorney to make sure that the payroll process complies with the law.
Unemployment Compensation and Neutral References
Most (although not all) companies have eliminated severance packages as a means of preventing lawsuits. Assuming you are not offered a severance package of any kind, you should still immediately ask if your termination can be characterized as a layoff (or at least a termination for less than gross misconduct) so that you will be eligible for unemployment compensation (assuming you have worked at the job for enough time and meet any other requirements). Additionally, there is nothing preventing you from getting a termination letter in writing indicating that the employer will not contest unemployment. Finally, a conversation with the employer seeking a neutral employment reference is something most employers will entertain.
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