“Fired for Unknown Misconduct – Any Recourse?”

Question: I have worked for a non-profit organization for 17 years. Recently, I was told by HR that I was being terminated for an “ongoing issue” including a recent “negative event.” I asked the HR Representative what she was talking about, and all she kept saying was “I am not at liberty to tell you.” I was ushered right out the door. The HR person told me “It was the CEO’s decision.”

I have had a well-deserved stellar reputation, always had above-expectation reviews, and was promoted 3 times. For some reason I’ve never understood, our new CEO has not liked me from the first day he arrived. I am 57 years old, with limited savings, and a limited likelihood of finding a new job soon at a level commensurate with my abilities. I’ve been offered six weeks severance.

Do I have any recourse at all?

New York, NY

Answer: When I read emails like yours, it makes my blood boil. It reminds me of a client who was fired for “unsavory habits,” although HR would never tell him or me what they were. Were they referring to picking his nose, or something far, far worse? They would never say.

Whether or not you have signed a severance agreement to get your six weeks of severance, I would consider writing a letter to the CEO, which is entirely respectful and non-accusatory, which raises the questions: (1) “What did I allegedly do wrong?”, (2) “Why did HR refuse to tell me what I allegedly did wrong?” and (3) “When can I have a fair opportunity to defend myself from whatever is alleged?”

I would mention in that letter that you are being given no alternative but to (a) send copies of the letter to each of the members of the Board of Directors (or Trustees), or (b) hire an attorney, if your new request for what is nothing more than basic, simple civility is denied once again.

If you don’t get any positive response, you should consider writing a heartfelt letter to each of the Board Members, and asking them to consider the “Golden Rule” that is part of every major religion: You only ask to be treated as each of them – and their family members – would like to be treated in these circumstances.

A creative, assertive, experienced, courageous attorney might also be able to consider preparing a threatening letter and/or filing a lawsuit on your behalf, although it would not be an easy battle to fight. The legal doctrine that best fits your circumstances is “defamation by compelled self-publication,” which in simpler terms that you are “compelled” to tell future interviewers what happened, and in doing so, you are forced to repeat the unintelligible allegation. If you are denied even one job for this reason, you might have a case in New York courts.

My thought is surely to go to the CEO, and potentially the Board, and an attorney if that does not work. I share your anger at what has happened to you. I hope this has been helpful.

Best, Al Sklover 

P.S.: Want to send a Letter or Memo to your boss or HR, but feel unable or afraid to do so? We Can Provide a Non-Attorney Writer to Write Your Model Letter of Memo for You. Interested? Just [click here].

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© 2009 Alan L. Sklover, All Rights Reserved.

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