Terminated Without Proper Investigation

A question to Ask the Workplace Doctors about terminated without proper investigation:

I joined a large company last June to head a large technical team. The person leaving my position went to another area of business, probably out of frustration. I wanted to start new and brought in fresh ideas and equitable work distribution. Some of the folks apparently did not like this as they were used to taking it easy.

One of those employees – usually a good worker – did not like one scope of an improvement sentence in his mid-year review. So he went and complained of frivolous things (and untrue of course) to HR in Feb. this year. HR apparently did not take it seriously. Then he rallied a few of his peers (that also reported to me) since they come from same region in Asia. They added their backing to this employee. HR started an investigation. HR however would not reveal who complained (as expected).
One of my employees was a low performer. However, when I knew that she was pregnant, I rated her as “Satisfactory” for year-end review. During calibration for the year end across our group, my manager and my peers raised an objection and wanted her to be marked as a poor performer. The HR representative in the call also agreed that she could be marked as low since she is not on maternity leave yet and her evaluation was for a time before her absence. So, I agreed with the team to mark her as low.

Apparently she was one of the folks that filed a complaint against me (which I was unaware). HR perceived this as retaliation and “terminated” me from my job. If HR had done a thorough investigation, they would have known that the decision to flag this employee as low performer was a team decision and not a personal one by me. In addition, I was not aware that this person had complained against me. So this should not have been perceived as retaliation.
I called wrongful termination attorneys and they said wrongful terminations cases can be filed in NJ only if:
1. There is evidence of a racial/religious/sexual orientation/gender/age bias
2. The retaliation occurred as a result of someone raising a concern (whistle blower).
I am considered a high performer in the team. My manager (apparently) was unaware of the decision to terminate me till a few hours before.
What are my options? —Signed, Wrongful Termination
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Dear Terminated Without Proper Investigation:

If only we could push back time, you would still be employed as head of your technical team. I regret the way your termination was handled. They certainly seem less than what is sound employment practices. Your displeasure regarding your firing appears, as you say, to have resulted for inadequate investigation and false assumptions as to what had occurred.

You asked, after being told by labor attorneys that you have no legal cause for a case against wrongful termination, what are your options? It should be understood that we at Ask the Workplace Doctors respond to communication-related matters, not legal; therefore, my comments pertain to other than seeking another attorney, one who might think a suit is justified.
1. If your position was considered management and if there was no union contractual agreement, the hard fact is that an employer can fire for either a good reason or no reason.
2. H.R. represents the employer even though it is thought that they are a voice for all employees. But you still might ask for a reconsideration opportunity. I would make that both in writing and orally and also make it to your boss and/or the one who hired you.
3. The specifics you provide regarding the complaints and the assumed “retaliation” indicate that communication with your team, boss, and HR prove that misunderstanding is the rule—in short that misinformation results from lack of information and failure to generate “ownership” of decisions. It does not matter now who is to blame.
4. First it is up to you to examine mistakes you might have made and/or alternative ways of communicating that you might have missed. Second, learn if there is any possibility for reconsideration. I don’t know if there was an exit interview, but mature organizations don’t want employees to be fired unjustly. So even though you might be at a point in which it is best to let the past be past, I would not give up on re-connecting with your immediate boss and/or the appropriate channels. Organizations are reluctant to apologize and rarely to challenge what was done, but when wrong was done, they should be made aware of it.
5. Companies don’t like to be sued, and although attorneys have stated there is no legal cause for a wrongful termination, management mishandling an investigation, might be cause for an attorney to request severance or review of what occurred.
6. Don’t allow this unhappy experience to sour you. You had earned the right to be hired as head of a tech team; you soaked up experience of how big organizations function and learned first-hand about some of the in-fighting politics. Therefore, apply for jobs with that savvy under your belt. You don’t have to detail what led to your termination, but neither should you lie or dodge questions about it. Generally, statements will suffice, such as, “I learned a lot in my short time with X company, leaned enough to know I have much to contribute.”
7. Just as you have done in the past you need to talk about projects completed and ways you have learned to cut wasted supplies, time, money and also ways to innovate. Moreover, remember that there are good companies to work for, ones that want people such as you with technical know-how.

Please let me know if any of these remarks makes sense for your particular situation and future. Working is not walk in the park. Work is work. Yet we also know the exhilaration that comes from work well done. Working together with hands, head and heart takes and makes big WEGOS.

William Gorden