If you have the unfortunate experience of being let go, before you pack up your belongings and leave your office for the last time, ask for an appointment with the human resources department. When you start looking for a job, you're entitled to know what your previous employer will say to prospective employers. Ask point-blank questions, such as, "What does my employment file indicate is the reason for my termination?" and "What does the HR department say to prospective employers who call to verify my employment?"
You should receive documentation that indicates why you are being fired. Granted, most employers can exercise their rights under the employment-at-will doctrine that says they don't need a reason for terminating an employee. However, HR practices recommend that employers give an explanation, provide documentation or justification for terminating your employment. It may be as simple as, "We just can't afford to keep as many people on staff."
Ask questions about why you were fired. Get clarification on circumstances involving an investigation, or copies of performance appraisals that indicate you failed to meet your employer's expectations. If the HR staffer says you aren't entitled to it, assert your right to proof of the reason given for your termination. Failure to do so could result in misinformation provided to prospective employers. Don't be shy about discovering what your employment record reflects as the reason you were fired, particularly if you suspect that it indicates untruthful or biased statements about your termination. Taking a proactive stance in understanding what your employer will say about your departure is wise and will save you time and confusion as you embark upon the search for a new job.
It's not illegal for your employer to tell prospective employers why you were terminated; however, it's not in your former employer's best interest to give specific details about your termination. And it's certainly not going to benefit your former employer to provide information that it can't back up with irrefutable evidence and verifiable information. That's why many employers either outsource their employment verification services to a third-party company or they strictly limit the type of information they provide to companies calling for information. For example, if you were involved in a workplace investigation concerning sexual harassment and the outcome of the investigation led to your termination, your employer should never tell a prospective employer, "Mary was accused of workplace harassment and we terminated her based on our investigative conclusions." Instead your former company is likely to report, "Mary Doe was employed with our company from May 1, 2009 until April 2, 2013 as the sales department manager. Our company doesn't provide any further details about former employees."
While it's not illegal to give the precise reason why you were fired, the reason must be truthful. Employers don't want to expose themselves to potential claims based on defamation, libel or slander. If you don't receive a job offer because your former employer said you were fired from your previous job because an investigation revealed that you might have engaged in improper behavior, you could conceivably file a lawsuit against your former employer for making libelous statements. One of the few things an employer wants to do is get embroiled in litigation about its employment decisions or justifying employment decisions about current or former employees, according to California-based lawyer and legal blogger Tanya Roth in her January 2010 post "Speak No Evil: What Can a Former Employer Say About You?"
Ruth Mayhew has been writing since the mid-1980s, and she has been an HR subject matter expert since 1995. Her work appears in "The Multi-Generational Workforce in the Health Care Industry," and she has been cited in numerous publications, including journals and textbooks that focus on human resources management practices. She holds a Master of Arts in sociology from the University of Missouri-Kansas City. Ruth resides in the nation's capital, Washington, D.C.