Fired For A False Accusation About Violence

Question to AskĀ  the Workplace Doctors about being fired:

I was reprimanded 2 years ago for breaking company property of insignificant value. I successfully completed 1 year of probation for “workplace violence”. I was fired when a co-worker accused me of making a “violent comment”. I explained the comment which had no negative intent. However, the previous incident outweighed my explanation and the lack of witnesses or hard evidence. I was fired. I have no record of previous “violence” on other jobs and no police record. How can I explain this to prospective employers?

Signed, Moving On

DearĀ Moving On:

Hello, I’m sorry you’re dealing with this problem during this time of year (or any time) and I hope you find another job soon.The main thing a potential employer will want to know about will be why you were fired. Your previous employer will probably only say you were dismissed, without giving any details. Or, they may just give your employment dates and nothing else. The event that happened two years ago or other aspects of your work history, won’t be part of that. So, your concern will be about the last event, the one that led to the dismissal.

If you were dismissed under a rule that sounds more generic, use that rule when you explain it, as a way to present it as a less problematic thing. Follow the explanation with an assurance that you have learned better ways to deal with frustration or anger. For example, “I was dismissed for discourtesy and disruptive behavior. What happened was that I got angry at a coworker and said something to him that he reported as being threatening. I didn’t mean it as a threat but there weren’t any witnesses to the whole conversation, and the company has a zero tolerance, so I was let go. I’ve sure learned to focus on work, instead of letting side issues get to me and to call for a supervisor if I think a conflict is getting out of hand. You can depend on that.” (You’d say it in your own words, based on the situation, but that would be one way to do it.) Or, you could say, “I got frustrated and I said something that another employee took as sounding like I was talking violence. Even though I didn’t think my comments rose to that level, there weren’t any witnesses and the company has a zero tolerance for violent talk, so I was let go. You can be sure that you’ll never hear me sounding angry or upset at work, I learned a very difficult lesson.”

Your potential employer may ask you exactly what you said, and that will put you in an awkward situation. If you say you won’t discuss it, it makes it sound worse. If you tell the truth, that may sound badly too; according to what you said. Consider saying what you said and immediately follow that with what you meant, then what the coworker thought you meant. You could then say, “I learned how words matter and I can’t assume other people know I’m not serious if I vent my frustrations. I won’t ever make that mistake again.”If you have copies of any of your evaluations or if you recall phrases on the evaluations that present you differently than that last situation, mention that, to offset the final incident. For example, “What is so ironic is that in my last performance evaluation my supervisor said I was cooperative and always pleasant to get along with. Then, that situation happened. He told me he knew it wasn’t like me, but I understood they didn’t have any choice.”The idea is to be truthful without feeling an obligation to tell every single thing that happened and without taking on more blame than is appropriate.

You also want to present yourself as someone who is sorry for a bad experience but ready to be great employee. Consider making a final statement in that discussion, in which you sincerely say how the situation made you feel and how you’re going to do things if you get the new job. “I can honestly say, that whole experience was the most humbling one of my life. I’ve always worked hard, not taken days off, and I’ve gotten along with everyone, so I was crushed. But, I know I can be a great employee here and I hope I’ll have that chance.”All of those thoughts would have to be adapted to your situation, but they may be helpful. If there are changes you need to make in your reactions to things that upset you, I hope you have already made those. Even if parts of this work situation were reported falsely, it sounds like something unpleasant was said and no good came of it. Most of our mail is from or about people who don’t pay attention to their impact on others. It becomes obvious after awhile that self-censoring is usually needed by all of us, both in our words and our actions. Best wishes to you as you move forward with your life and work. If you have the time and wish to do so, let us know if you are asked about it and how you explained it. We can use the suggestions if we are asked about such a situation again.

Tina Lewis Rowe

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.