Notes for Employees Who Have Been Notified that They’re Being Fired

I recently posted a few tips for employees who fear that they are on the verge of being terminated. Check those out here if you missed it. Today, I want to address the obvious next question facing those employees for whom the worst has unfortunately come to pass – employees who have been notified that they are being terminated, laid off, downsized or otherwise discharged from their employment: What do I do if I have been told I am being fired?

  1. Find out the Reason

First, do your best to get a reason for the discharge. I’m sure that this sounds obvious, but we frequently meet with potential clients who have no understanding of why they were fired. Employers have become increasingly reticent about setting out the reason for a termination in writing. This strikes me as odd. If a company has a valid reason to discharge an employee, it should be easy to explain. When a company chooses not to do so, it might mean that their justification for the discharge is unjustified, unreasonable, or – worse – unlawful. So do your best to get your employer to tell you the reasoning behind your termination.

The best case scenario is that your employer will provide you with written notice of your termination which clearly sets forth the justification for the adverse employment action. If you’ve got that, you’re set. If not, make sure to ask the question. Ask the person who notifies you of your termination. Ask your boss what he or she understands the reasoning to be. Ask the Human Resources representative who meets with you to discuss exit procedures. And if you are given a substantive answer that just doesn’t seem right to you – or if you are given multiple different answers from multiple different sources – make a note of what you are told. This information may prove helpful in applying for unemployment compensation and/or deciding whether your termination was lawful.

  1. Request Your Personnel File

Second, submit a written request to HR for a copy of your personnel file. There is a statute in Illinois which gives all employees a right to inspect and/or make a copy of their personnel file during or after their employment. So go ahead and ask for a copy – either before you leave the office or by email once you are home. Once you receive the file, review it to determine whether anything contained in those documents strikes you as surprising, untruthful, or otherwise concerning. For instance, does the reason for termination included in your personnel file differ from what you were told at the time you were notified? Are there disciplinary or performance based warnings in your file which you have never seen or which have been revised or amended to include new allegations? Are there false accusations about you in your file? If so, you may want to consider talking to a lawyer about your rights.

  1. Verify Your Accrued Vacation

Generally, employees in the state of Illinois are entitled to payment of their earned vacation time upon separation. This applies even if you have been terminated. So if you have a chance, try to calculate how much vacation time you have left as of the date of your separation and to confirm it with HR. This may help you avoid having to argue with a former employer about whether your earned vacation payout was sufficient.

  1. Don’t Sign Any Agreements

If you are offered a severance agreement or any other legal document which your employer would like you to sign upon notification of your termination, don’t simply sign it on the spot. Tell your former employer that you need to review and consider the terms before you make any decisions. Take the documents home, read them over thoroughly, and think about whether you need to have a lawyer advise you on the terms you are being offered before signing. Often even a generous severance offer will include broad non-competition restrictions or other onerous obligations that you may want to think twice about before accepting. It’s also just important to clearly understand what is required of you under any agreement you may want to sign.

  1. Don’t Take Anything that’s Not Yours

Despite any frustrations you may have about your termination, it is unwise to take any company property on your way out the door. This idea applies to actual tangible items (like computers and office supplies) as well as intangible items (like electronic files). So don’t walk out with your work-issued cell phone and don’t copy your hard-drive or email confidential documents to your personal email address before you leave the premises. These sorts of actions may put you at risk of violating confidentiality agreements you may have signed or even state and federal statutes.

If there are personal files or photos on your company-issued computer or phone, talk with HR about how you should go about copying those to some medium you can take with you and/or deleting them from the company equipment. If, on the other hand, there are potentially confidential work-related files or items which you believe you need in relation to potential legal claims or for some other reason, consult with an attorney before printing, copying, or emailing them to yourself to retain after your discharge.

  1. Consider Your Right to Unemployment Compensation

Finally, be sure to contact the Illinois Department of Employment Security and apply for unemployment compensation. There are only a few exceptions to an employee’s right to unemployment compensation and most people are surprised to learn that a straightforward performance-related termination does not bar you from that crucial income supplement while you look for your next job. So go ahead and apply for those benefits. Chances are you will be approved. And, if not, you may have valid grounds to appeal the denial.

Terminations are hard for everyone – whether you saw it coming or not or not. I hope that these tips can provide a little peace of mind in knowing some best steps for how to react when you receive that disheartening news.