Doesn’t It Seem Unfair That My Wife Was Fired?

Question:
My wife loves her (former) job and has great rapport with all the nurses and doctors at her location. The employer deals with outpatient procedures and has multiple locations. She trains all new staff and has made several referrals that have all worked out for the company.

But today, she just got fired for spreading rumors. It started more than a year ago when she noticed two doctors she works with being overly friendly and suspected a relationship. Both doctors have spouses. She is very good friends with one of the doctors (Doctor Y) so she asked him directly if there was something ‘there’. The doctor confirmed but then backed walked when he realized how direct he had been, but also followed up that he’d never let it get too far. They discussed this relationship for a while.

After that the other doctor (Doctor X) must have been made aware of my wife’s conversation and became very passive aggressive toward her, and created situations where it was difficult for her to do her job and was as petty as having staring contests with her in the break room.

My wife has not told other people at work, but recently other employees she’s friends with at another location started asking her if there was inappropriate interactions between the doctors at her location. She said she played it off because she didn’t want to get involved and she knew too much so she didn’t want to be confirmation to other people. She says she has tried hard to protect Doctor Y and has warned him in private that other people have approached her asking about Doctor X and Y

Last week she was scheduled to work side by side with Doctor X and my wife has gotten tired of dealing with Doctor X’s quiet aggression so she asked another nurse to swap places with her as there was another Doctor working at the same location. That other nurse also happens to be the manager of that location and she pressed my wife for reasons why she would want to swap Doctors. My wife assumed based on other people asking her about it would at least be aware of this ‘rumor’ and mentioned that Doctor X seemed to not be comfortable working with her sense she knew of the ‘rumor’. The manager did NOT know and it quickly went up the chain to the regional manger and HR manager. Today my wife was terminated for spreading rumors and they never asked my wife her side of the story. They even said they ‘know her side’ when my wife offered to explain or answer their questions.

As additional but relevant information, there was another event at work my wife was involved in. Two years ago, her work hired a temp employee as a tech and he was finding ways to touch all the girls at work, whether it was blocking their path in hallways, touching them to get their attention, and generally invading personal space. He was also known to follow girls into procedure rooms and shut the door behind him and they would have to walk around him to open the door. He also incessantly asked one of the girls out on dates.

She confided in my wife she was very uncomfortable and he was following her out of the building after work to her car as well. My wife had recently been promoted to assistant manager of her location and she felt it was her duty to protect other employees so she is the one who finally went to HR and filed a complaint. HR acted like it was a personality conflict between my wife and the tech. The other girls downplayed how uncomfortable he made them feel. They did not terminate the tech, but after the Covid shutdown he did not come back to work. After Covid, they demoted her back to a standard nurse claiming Covid forced them to restructure and eliminate redundant positions. Soon afterward they hired a new manager for her very location and she was not considered for the position.

To me, it seems like HR was potentially looking for a reason, any reason, to terminate my wife after the sexual harassment event, perhaps she was seen as a liability or overly sensitive. But it also appears that Doctor X was waiting for an opportunity to strike. What are your thoughts?

Answer:
I agree it is likely the doctors involved would have been happy to find a reason to remove someone who might cause embarrassment for them. However, it sounds as though the manager your wife talked to went up the chain of management in the organization and at some point a higher level manager asked HR to take action. The doctors may not have known about it right away and might not have been directly involved.

An employer can dismiss for any reason and in most states for no reason, but it sounds as though your wife did, in fact, continue a rumor even if she didn’t start it. As a result, managers will have justification for the dismissal if they are questioned about it.  

I think the site or maybe the entire company where your wife worked has the same problems that are present in far too many organizations: Some people are allowed to get by with many things while others are quickly chastised or dismissed. Also, some infractions are routinely ignored while others are responded to severely. 

The other thing that is a problem in most organizations, as your wife found out, is that employees may complain about something such as the temp worker who was lecherous and embarrassing, but when a manager tries to do something about it they deny it all or minimize it, so the manager is left looking badly. 

Your wife bore the brunt of all those problems! In the most recent situation, it was easy to use a specific statement she made as evidence of a violation. Others may have said worse, but no one had reported it, so nothing happened to them. There may also be other aspects to the situation about which you are not completely aware.

I wish there was some advice I could offer to get your wife’s job back, but it sounds as if it’s over. I hope your wife can find another job where her knowledge and skills can be used and fully appreciated. Perhaps some of the companies with which she interacted before would be good to check. It may also be possible for her to obtain good reference letters from the doctors and nurses with whom she had positive relationships. 

Best wishes to both of you as you work through this together.

Tina Rowe
Ask the Workplace Doctors

Tina Lewis Rowe

Tina had a thirty-three year career in law enforcement, serving with the Denver Police Department from 1969-1994 and was the Presidential United States Marshal for Colorado from 1994-2002. She provides training to law enforcement organizations and private sector groups and does conference presentations related to leadership, workplace communications and customized topics. Her style is inspirational with humor.