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I was fired for returning a stolen phone
March 24, 2011 10:15 AM   Subscribe

I returned a stolen phone that a co-worker brought to work. I was fired and the other guy was not. Lots more inside.

Ok, here we go. A co-worker brought in a phone that he had found at a bar the previous night. He was joking about the fact that the owner of the phone had been calling and calling but he wasn't going to answer. He told me he might use it but he was probably going to just sell it. In New York, that's larceny if I have my facts straight. I took the phone, contacted the rightful owner and ultimately returned the phone to her. My co-worker went to his buddy the boss and apparently accused me of stealing. I was fired the next day. I was told by the HR manager that they would not contest my unemployment and that they only tell prospective employers the dates of my employment, not the reason for my termination. So apparently I wasn't fired for gross misconduct even though stealing was ostensibly the reason I was let go.

I just set up a consultation with a labor lawyer for next Monday. I don't think there is any basis for a wrongful termination suit (though every non-lawyer I talk to seems to think so) but I've got so many questions. My main priority is making sure this doesn't affect me going forward. A friend who is a legal secretary talked to her boss about my situation and he suggested that I take an affidavit from the owner of the phone as well as creating one myself and then submitting those to my employer along with a letter from an attorney stating that I'll sue them for libel if they divulge the reason for my termination. Does that seem like a good idea? Any other advice as to how I can limit the effects on my future job prospects?

Finally, can I tell prospective employers that I was 'laid off' and leave it at that or do I have to tell them that I was 'let go' or 'fired' and get into this whole situation. I'm a young guy and I worked at this company for five years. It's the bulk of my work experience.

posted by anonymous to Law & Government (32 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
Personally I'd tell that story in every interview. And maybe to the local news.
posted by anti social order at 10:19 AM on March 24, 2011 [30 favorites]

I have no answers or input but want just want to say thanks for being a good citizen and taking action when you see someone doing wrong. It definitely not an easy thing to do.
posted by litnerd at 10:19 AM on March 24, 2011 [60 favorites]

...or do I have to tell them that I was 'let go' or 'fired' and get into this whole situation?

Don't. The mention of any sort of drama, regardless of whether you get a chance to explain that you were the good guy, was an immediate red flag when I was helping interview candidates. What you did may have been admirable, but I wouldn't want a self-proclaimed law enforcer in my workplace.
posted by halogen at 10:20 AM on March 24, 2011 [4 favorites]

I'd definitely tell the local news about it, and then if it blows up you can use that in interviews. "Yes, I was let go from that job - the circumstances made the news, let me tell you about it..."
posted by FAMOUS MONSTER at 10:21 AM on March 24, 2011

I would not, not, not tell the story in an interview. To make the cliched comparison to a first date, you don't tell a prospective new partner a long story about how crazy your last breakup was, even if it did involve one of their friends engaging in criminal acts and you being a good person.
posted by Tomorrowful at 10:25 AM on March 24, 2011 [18 favorites]

if they're not contesting your unemployment and they say they won't say why you're fired - say you were laid off. you can easily find out what they will say by having a friend call the HR line and pretend to be someone who has interviewed you and see if they can get any dirt.

don't bring up anything negative about your last employer while you're interviewing - it's like a first date, you don't want the other person going on about how awful their last boyfriend was.
posted by nadawi at 10:25 AM on March 24, 2011 [2 favorites]

You should consider filing a police report and ask the phone owner to do so to add documentation to your claim that you were not the one who stole the phone.
posted by grouse at 10:30 AM on March 24, 2011 [17 favorites]

I don't think there is any basis for a wrongful termination suit. (though every non-lawyer I talk to seems to think so).

There isn't. New York is an at-will state. They could have fired you for just about any reason, or no reason at all.

I wouldn't mention it in new interviews.

"Why'd you leave your last job?"
"It just wasn't a good place for me. I don't like to be that kind of person that leaves jobs willy-nilly, as you can see for XYZ reasons in my past work history. But this one wasn't working out for professional reasons. I'm attracted to this job for ABC reasons, which the other place wasn't offering."
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 10:33 AM on March 24, 2011 [19 favorites]

Oh, and ABC reasons can include "professional integrity."
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 10:33 AM on March 24, 2011 [20 favorites]

From the OP:
...or do I have to tell them that I was 'let go' or 'fired' and get into this whole situation?

Don't. The mention of any sort of drama, regardless of whether you get a chance to explain that you were the good guy, was an immediate red flag when I was helping interview candidates. What you did may have been admirable, but I wouldn't want a self-proclaimed law enforcer in my workplace.

I absolutely do not want to get into it. But I'm concerned that saying I was laid off is misleading and that I'll get busted for it when they contact my former employer.
posted by mathowie at 10:35 AM on March 24, 2011

I would agree with Cool Papa Bell -- be vague but positive, focus on the work experience that you gained there and redirect to how you hope those work skills will be an asset to the new company. You can also talk about how you are looking to advance and be specific about where you want to go. You can say that you just didn't see a future there and the company was not expanding. Which is true because they are asshats and no future there would be a good future.

But do not go into the story. Even I look at your version and think, "Really? There must be more to it than that!" and I'm not even someone that you need to convince. So, just stay away from it. You're trying to get a new job not win people to your side. Good luck!
posted by amanda at 10:39 AM on March 24, 2011 [2 favorites]

I think your labor lawyer's suggestion is a good one if for no other reason than that it might make the company take a good hard look at your former co-worker and his manager and make them wonder why he is firing good employees for bogus reasons.
posted by VTX at 10:45 AM on March 24, 2011 [4 favorites]

Not exactly your question (and I have no real legal understanding), but I feel like you should be able to "prove" your innocence and cast plenty of doubt on your accuser's story if you wanted: the phone owner testifies when and where she likely lost the phone, a witness places your coworker there then, while an alibi confirms you were somewhere else at that time.
posted by glibhamdreck at 10:46 AM on March 24, 2011

Go to the media or Consumerist.
You probably won't get your job back but it will give them the bad press and would make them think twice about divulging any information to your new employer prospects . Also, you might get some job offers from people who read about it.

here's some similar articles.
posted by KogeLiz at 10:50 AM on March 24, 2011 [1 favorite]

Yeah, agreed. No reason to get into it on subsequent interviews. Plenty of people quit jobs because their manager was a dick who had it in for them, but trying to explain that your manager was a dick who had it in for you hardly ever goes well.
posted by electroboy at 10:53 AM on March 24, 2011 [4 favorites]

I recommend your lawyer demand that they give you a good, factual reference letter. Write a draft for them. By cooperating in you collecting unemployment, they are laying you off. Do Not tell this story to potential employers. If they ask why you left your last job, just say you were laid off due to staff reductions in your area. This is appalling treatment, but may be legal. Thank you for doing the right thing.
posted by theora55 at 10:56 AM on March 24, 2011 [2 favorites]

As everyone said, avoid bringing this up in any way, shape or form to prospective employers. Later on, it can be a funny story you tell co-workers, once they know you're an OK guy. But even then some people might turn against you or become wary.

You're concerned about saying you were "laid off". You don't have to say that, especially in this economy. Just say that it was time for you to look for something more challenging, etc. You can use wording like "let go" in a case like this.
posted by dhartung at 11:00 AM on March 24, 2011 [1 favorite]

This situation screams lawyer to me. Seriously. Get stuff in writing from the phone's rightful owner. Maybe get the owner to file a police report, etc., but I would check in with an employment lawyer.
posted by elpea at 11:11 AM on March 24, 2011

If they said that they would not be providing anything more than the dates worked, that seems likely to be what they do. Especially if it's a largish company and folks will be contacting HR. If you need to provide references, use folks you worked with that you know understand the whole story and will talk about your Work, instead.

I like the wording "let go" there. And I agree that folks won't be too worried about "laid off" versus "let go".

Good luck, and may your good karma come back to you!
posted by ldthomps at 11:11 AM on March 24, 2011

And unless you have a lot of money and energy for dealing with lawyers and news crews, I would let it go. It stinks, but it will be very expensive and difficult to get justice. The idea of the affidavit from the phone owner is the most I would do, but even that seems excessive if the HR folks are unlikely to say anything other than your tenure.
posted by ldthomps at 11:13 AM on March 24, 2011

[A few comments removed. Do not fuck around in askme for lulz.]
posted by cortex at 11:20 AM on March 24, 2011 [11 favorites]

I would most definitely get an affidavit from the phone owner (get it notarized, etc..)
It may come in handy to preserve your good name in the future if the story comes up and everyone's' memory is hazy.

I would do it for my own peace of mind and on my own dime.

Is the boss the owner?
posted by bottlebrushtree at 11:24 AM on March 24, 2011 [3 favorites]

I think dealing with news and trying to publicize this is a bad idea, if your name gets out there you risk looking like some sort of vindictive ex-employee. Just do what the lawyer says and don't bring up any drama at job interviews.
posted by yeahyeahyeahwhoo at 11:24 AM on March 24, 2011 [1 favorite]

Is the boss that fired you the head boss? Is there someone you could talk to over his head?
posted by amicamentis at 11:41 AM on March 24, 2011

Just curious, how did you 'take' the phone from the asshat coworker? Because that may come back to haunt you, if it was a physical altercation.

I applaud your integrity in giving the rightful owner back the phone. I am also impressed with how calmly you seem to be approaching your next step. My original thought was, "Yes, go to the press," but then I worried about the situation with your getting the phone from your coworker and how that actually panned out. Only you know the answer to that. If it does not reflect poorly on you, it could mean job offers, as noted above.

So I would work on getting the best reference out of your former employer, including using a lawyer if you need to. Let's face it, you don't really want to go back to work there, anyway, after the way they responded to this whole situation. And I wouldn't go into the whole story at an interview, but go along with the response Cool Papa Bell suggests.
posted by misha at 11:42 AM on March 24, 2011 [1 favorite]

I'm 99.9% sure that in NY, HR can only confirm your dates of employment. So you are safe there. It's the 5 years of employment without a good solid reference from the company for your resume that seems to be at issue.

Can you secure that reliable reference from a superior at your former place of employment?

I like the notary and lawyer suggestion. Don't just roll over and accept this treatment, whatever you do.
posted by jbenben at 11:53 AM on March 24, 2011 [2 favorites]

I'm wondering, like several others here, how you ended up in possession of the phone. Your actions were definitely well-intentioned and ended up with the right result as far as the phone went, but how you went about it may be the issue here. If you just took the phone from your coworker's desk, or physically took it from him, then I would assume that was how it was presented to your management.

Were you actually fired for returning a phone, or for taking a phone from your coworker's possession? If it's the former, then this place sucks and I would say that you were let go when you acted after finding out that a coworker was acting unethically. If it's the latter, then I would say that you disagreed with the actions of a coworker, thinking them unethical, and management resolved that by terminating your employment rather than addressing the disagreement.

Not knowing how you came into possession of the stolen phone, it's hard to determine your course of action. In any case, it may be best to report such an incident to management and/or even the police rather than acting directly.
posted by mikeh at 12:19 PM on March 24, 2011

I was also wondering if the phone's owner might not report the co-worker for theft, but didn't suggest it because it might be too much DRAMAZ.

Maybe check in with your local precinct on the details (you can just walk in) and see what the law says about your actions regarding the return of the phone? Or check it out with a lawyer??

If I were you, I'd like to know definitively if anything I did to get the phone back to its owner was actually illegal!
posted by jbenben at 12:24 PM on March 24, 2011

I'm 99.9% sure that in NY, HR can only confirm your dates of employment.

IANAL, but I'm 99.9% sure that you are incorrect about that. A previous employer is allowed to give out any information about a previous employee, so long as it is true, non-confidential, and not meant to harm the former employee. Providing false or malicious information would open an employer to charges of defamation, so many businesses have internal policies of not providing substantive references, but the law doesn't prohibit them from doing so if they choose.
posted by decathecting at 1:16 PM on March 24, 2011 [1 favorite]

Did you get a chance to present your side of the story to someone at your company, such as the boss your co-worker went to, or someone in HR, or someone over the head of the boss in question?

I'm also curious as to how you obtained the phone. If you wound up going through your co-worker's desk or property to get it when you could have gone directly to law enforcement, they may have a point.
posted by alphanerd at 1:28 PM on March 24, 2011

For a start it sounds like you got fired for stealing a phone. I mean your friend found a phone that was left in a bar, and that you then stole the phone from him (you took it without his permission, essentially, and for all they know, you could have sold it for cash yourself).

Your previous employer has already said they won't mention the reason for firing you: presumably they know like you do that the situation could cause complications, I'd suggest that you mention nothing of this to anyone else either. Do you actually have to tell them the reason for leaving your last place of employment, that you were fired rather than that you resigned voluntarily? I would agree the most productive direction of the conversation would always be, as stated by another poster, "I want to work here because of great things A B and C!" rather than "my last place sucked for X Y and Z and by the way I was fired for stealing even though I totally had good intentions and they were all wrong and crazy".

The fact that you had 5 solid years employment will be reassuring to future employers, they'd assume that if there were major issues you'd have left / been fired within a year or two. If they ask about why you left it's more that they're curious and want to know your ambitions and goals, so you can talk about that. If they're asking someone who left their last job after less than a year then it's definitely to find out if they're crazy or have personality issues.
posted by xdvesper at 3:48 PM on March 24, 2011

While you did the right thing, you might not have done it the right way. As far as HR knows, you stole this guy's phone, and they basically can't NOT fire you for that. Everything else is he-said-she-said.
posted by gjc at 5:52 PM on March 24, 2011

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