Receiving the news that you lost your job is shocking and sometimes downright depressing.  I’ve seen too many clients in this position in the last year who have excellent evaluations, numerous customer compliments, and really good numbers for objective performance measures (such as sales, profits, or whatever objective measures the employer may use).  What then, is the explanation?  In many cases, you may never know.  Employers are reluctant to give you the real truth about this.  Employers can behave toward the separated employee the way a super-model treats a nerdy admirer, “If I tell you why we cannot be together, you’ll just want to argue that you can change — and we both know that you can’t.”

But if you are to have career success in future, it may be important to find out the real story.  I have myself been reluctant to tell people the truth, which usually — and counter to what most people believe — has nothing to do with job performance.  These are also truths that job candidates sometimes do not want to face.  If you want the position, however, you need to acknowledge the fact that you are part of a larger culture.  We all have biases, and we ALL have less than perfect appearance, personal habits, maturity, personal lives and the other myriad ways in which we judge each other.  Your challenge is to find out which of your less than sterling qualities caught the attention of your co-workers, supervisor, or Human Resources department.  Here is a partial list of items I have collected from professional and personal experience over the years:

1.  Did her job well, but spent too much time on the telephone with her personal matters.  I don’t care that it was on her breaks.  I didn’t want to hear her making dates, disciplining her whiny kids, or talking to her mother.  [The person about whom this was said was incredulous — that WAS on my break time.  It never affected my job performance!  Can they fire me for that?  ANSWER:  Unless protected by a union contract or civil service rules governing public employees, the answer is YES.]

2.  He hit his sales numbers, but he sent emails out that were angry, hostile and eventually felt threatening.  [The employee responded, “I was angry because my co-workers were consistently violating the policies that impacted my own job performance and evaluations.  Can they really fire me for that?”  In his case, no.  He was a civil service employee, and termination for top secret reasons  unrelated to job performance violated the civil service rules.  He was reinstated, but now knew that his co-workers perceived him in a very negative way.  He did not stay in that job long, and he learned to approach this problem differently in his new position.]


How do you find out what the REAL story is?  You can: (a) Ask your employer for a truly meaningful exit interview.  Advise, “I obviously made some serious mistakes here.  I understand and accept that I need to move on.  For me to do that, can you please be very honest with me about my shortcomings?  It clearly isn’t those specific items listed on my performance evaluations.”  (b) You can send a written request to your employer demanding the reason for your termination.  The letter can be perceived as a pre-litigation device, however.  It is less likely to be a serious, in depth and helpful response.  (c) You can, and should, ask your former supervisor and co-workers for their feedback.  Let them know this is purely for your own personal and professional growth, which you take seriously.  Do not hint that since it wasn’t performance related it “must” be some type of discrimination.  That mind set is common, but isn’t true.  You are just as likely to be fired for poor personal hygiene, refusal to wash your own dishes, angry outbursts or hostile emails as you are to be fired for specific performance-related issues.

In Washington state, as in most states, termination for poor inter-personal relationships and lack of good judgment in any specific occasion is a legal basis for termination.  Even civil service employees can be discharged for this if the proper steps are followed.  Many employers have difficulty facing the terminated individual and saying, “Honest to goodness, I just couldn’t be in another meeting with you when your breath is so bad and your clothes smell like cigarette smoke.”  It becomes your own sleuthing responsibility to figure it out.  If you cannot without assistance, then it may be a good career investment to hire a professional to help you with this in an honest, but compassionate, manner.

If you STILL believe that the reason for your termination was unlawful (based upon your race, religion, sex, sexual orientation, disability, pregnancy, whistelblowing, etc.) — THEN you will have more success engaging counsel to pursue it if you have worked through the above exercise.  Good luck!