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The Boston Globe
Job Doc

Employee's firing for 'behavior' may be cruel, but legal

By Roni F. Noland, 11/13/05

My employer of nine years suddenly terminated me for what they said was ''inappropriate behavior'' but gave no reason as to what they ''think'' I did. As a manager, I did everything I was supposed to, asked the right questions of my manager and the HR manager, then one day, I was terminated. In your column in The Boston Globe dated 10/09, you wrote that Massachusetts is an ''employee-at-will'' state. Can you elaborate on what this means? Can an employee be fired for any reason at all? Does an employer have to engage in progressive disciplinary action before terminating an employee who is performing unsatisfactorily? I was just wondering if my termination was legal or not and if I had any recourse.

Although it seems almost impossible to believe, employers in Massachusetts, or in any other employee-at-will state, can fire any employee at any time for any reason or even for no reason at all. An employer can terminate any employee, with or without notice.

In your case, what your employer did was legal, albeit cruel, and most likely you do not have any legal recourse. Being an employee-at-will means working without a specified end date of employment. This allows both the employer and the employee to terminate the employment relationship at any time.

Union workers are protected according to the terms of their individual contracts. ''While collective bargaining agreements vary, most require that the employer engage in progressive discipline, for all but the most serious offenses,'' said Marc Greenbaum, professor of law at Suffolk University in Boston. Also, union workers can take advantage of grievance arbitration as needed.

Otherwise, the employer-employee relationship is lopsided, clearly tilted in the employer's favor. Some more progressive employers try to redress this imbalance by adopting enlightened personnel practices. These practices may include employment termination guidelines such as requiring notice, progressive disciplinary action, and the opportunity for the employee to improve performance prior to being terminated. Employers who do so benefit by developing the reputation as a fair employer, improving employee loyalty and morale, and reducing turnover.

''No one is helped when a person is fired without adequate warning,'' said Robert W. Murphy, the president of Human Resource Partners, ''but it is legal to do it in Massachusetts and in many other states. There is no requirement for progressive discipline either, unless a company has bound itself to do so in its employee handbook or policies.''

Some individuals are considered to be in a protected class, based on age (over 40), disability, race, ethnicity, gender, and/or sexual orientation. If you are a member of one or more of these groups, and believe you were terminated because of your membership in that group, you might want to seek legal counsel.

Why your employer allegedly acted so harshly and precipitously after your years of service to the organization is indeed difficult to fathom. If you haven't already, perhaps you could try to get some answers from human resources. Explain that you are not interested in trying to get your job back, but that you are looking for some information. Request an explanation of what your employer perceived as ''inappropriate behavior'' so that you can avoid repeating this behavior in the future.

Professional follow-up may lead to interview

I am not sure what the best course of follow-up would be after submitting my resume to a prospective employer. I generally sit back and hope for an interview, but they are not always forthcoming. What options do I have without feeling like a nag, or appearing desperate?

Knowing when to follow up with an employer and when to wait patiently for the phone to ring is a question many job seekers have. Cold calling an employer is intimidating especially if the ad says ''no phone calls please'' but adopting a hope-and-wait strategy doesn't feel quite right, either.

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Try to overcome your fears about following up, because, when done well, the payoff is big: Each contact you have with an employer will help distinguish you from the pack. Any contact that you make will enable the employer to see you as a human being, rather than just a piece of paper.

Here are some tips on presenting yourself as a sensible, assertive, and enthusiastic but not aggressive or desperate job seeker.

Be selective. Focus only on the jobs that you are most interested in or that best fit your background and experience and don't waste time on the jobs that you apply to ''just for the heck of it.''

Always be clear about why you are making a follow-up phone call or sending a follow-up e-mail. Have a reason for each contact that you initiate and a desired outcome in mind before you begin. Think about how this contact with the employer will help get you to the next step which is to schedule an interview.

Follow up with human resources to ask logistical questions. For example, ''I'm calling to make sure that my resume and cover letter arrived.'' Or, ''What is your time frame for interviewing and hiring?''

If your resume and cover letter have disappeared in cyberspace or in fax never-never land, then you have a chance to resend your materials.

Another effective strategy is to find out the name of the hiring manager for the position you are interested in. Then, send a copy of your cover letter and resume directly to that person, in addition to sending it to human resources.

This doubles your options for follow-up. You can try calling or e-mailing the hiring manager, who may be more willing to talk with you about the position and your candidacy than a human resources representative would be. Try selling yourself on the phone. Tell the hiring manager how interested you are in the position and what a good fit it is for your background and experience.

You can learn the name of the person doing the hiring for your particular position by checking the company website or doing some sleuthing through your professional association or your network of contacts.

Make your first call a day or two after you send your resume, so that your credentials are still fresh in the employer's mind. Call again a week or two later. If you do not reach a human being, don't leave a message right away. Try calling several more times. If you are still reaching only voice mail, then leave a message. Call again in a week or a week and a half: same drill, leave only an occasional message, and try varying the time that you call.

A common mistake many job seekers make when following up on job leads is calling repeatedly and leaving a voice mail message each time, often escalating in frustration. Mask your anger if the employer ignores your requests to be called back. Try calling strategically, at various times of the day. Be politely persistent. Remember that your goal is to create an impression of you as an energetic, qualified professional, not a nag.

Whenever you do talk with someone, make sure you have the correct pronunciation and spelling of their name. Thank them for their time. Ask permission to contact that person again to determine the status of your application. Ask: ''May I follow up with you again in a week? May I call you again, or would you prefer that I send you an e-mail?'' Then, depending on their answer, ''What is the best time to reach you? Is this the best phone number to use?'' Or, ''Which e-mail address should I use?''

If the interim between submitting your resume and the start of interviews is long, you can try calling or e-mailing the employer with additional information. Sometimes, after you have submitted your resume and cover letter, you think of a relevant professional accomplishment that you neglected to mention.

These supplemental materials can only enhance your candidacy, and keep your name and resume in the employer's mind. This is especially important if you find that the hiring process is delayed or that the search is prolonged.

Well-timed, professional follow-up will not guarantee you a job offer, but it can make the difference between being one of many resumes in a pile and one of the few individuals called in for an interview.

Roni F. Noland is a career counselor and coach in private practice.

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Got a question for the Job Doc? Tell us what hurts and we'll try and find the remedy for your career woes, every Sunday in the BostonWorks section of the Sunday Globe. E-mail your questions to or mail to Job Doc, The Boston Globe, PO Box 2378, Boston, MA 02107-2378. Letters may be edited for clarity and length.


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