No Work, No Worth
May 27, 2009 10:36 AM   Subscribe

How to redeem my professional reputation and rebuild my own self-worth after termination for unethical behavior?

I’m posting this question anonymously because I am ashamed of what I’ve done. Eight months ago I was offered a job at the place where I completed an unpaid field experience. Although I never signed a contract stating my salary, I was given a verbal estimate, which we’ll call x. When I received my paycheck, however, I noticed the amount was about 2x. I rationalized the error to myself and did not say anything to anyone. The error was eventually discovered. When I was asked about it, I feigned ignorance. A week later, I was fired.

Although the reason given for my termination was not the above, I know that it was my own failure to act and subsequent dishonesty that led to my removal. Make no mistake: This WAS MY fault. The way I behaved is so unlike anything I've ever done before, and I honestly feel awful about the entire situation. I know that I have learned my lesson and will never do something like that ever again. But now I am afraid that my reputation has been tarnished so badly that no one will hire me. The circumstances of this latest dismissal have got me really questioning my value as an employee and even as a human being.

Recently I have applied for a couple low-wage jobs at places like Target to try to rebuild my work reputation and be more attractive for potential employers in my field. Although there were openings at the time of my application, I was not selected for an interview. This has left me feeling even more fearful and unsure of myself.

I have been including the job as work experience on my resume. I feel that it shows that I was valued enough to be hired on with the company, even if I only lasted three months. I also hoped to demonstrate the overall learning experience I gained from the opportunity. The job that I was hired for was not the area I trained for as an intern; in subsequent interviews I have explained that the job was a different skill set from that which I studied in my internship and academic program. (As a sidenote, I had already begun seeking other employment at least a month prior to my termination.)

My question is Five-fold:

1) Will I ever be able to get a job again? Or have I soiled my reputation and ruined my chances irreparably?

2) Is it a good idea to include this brief (3-month) interlude on my resume? If so, should I continue to explain the premature end the way I have already done, or is there a better way to explain the situation without jeopardizing my chances for future employment?

3) How can I prove myself to my former colleagues? Will I ever gain the respect of this company and possibly be eligible for hire again in a different role? How much time would have to pass before I could be considered for a position with this employer again?

4) This company is affiliated with a greater network of companies with a similar business concept. Will my termination from this company prevent me from being eligible for other companies in the same network?

5) How do I deal with my own guilt about my actions which quite rightfully had these repercussions? How do I face my friends, family, and colleagues who are confused about my sudden departure? How do I get from feeling like “I Suck” to “I am okay and could be a worthwhile member of another team again”?

**Bonus Question**
6) I have just discovered that I am pregnant. I conceived two days after my dismissal. I want to be employable, and am afraid of having a lengthy gap on my resume. Should I look for work now or wait until after my baby is born?
posted by anonymous to Work & Money (20 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
I know that it was my own failure to act and subsequent dishonesty that led to my removal. Make no mistake: This WAS MY fault.

I'm not sure I agree. You were given an estimate. You could have assumed they changed their mind and decided to pay you more. It's their job to make sure you are paid what they want to pay you. I think you're beating yourself up way too much about this. Let it go ... in the scheme of things you could feel bad about, this is tiny. I really do not think that you should worry about this affecting your future career.
posted by jayder at 10:44 AM on May 27, 2009 [7 favorites]

Although the reason given for my termination was not the above, I know that it was my own failure to act and subsequent dishonesty that led to my removal.

I wish you'd told us what they gave as the reason for your termination. I wonder, from what you've written, if you're feeling terribly guilty over this (even though, I have to say personally, on the grand scheme of "unethical things" this ranks pretty low, especially as you were never given any info about your starting salary in writing) when it was, in fact, something else that caused you to be fired. I think your title is telling - you've convinced yourself that you're worthless, and that, more than anything else, is going to keep you from getting a job.

Yes, you'll be able to get a job again. Even convicted felons get jobs.

Congratulations on your pregnancy. That, more than the dismissal, is the real issue here. If you don't disclose at hiring (and I would not, since its so early) then you're in a situation where you'll be taking leave in just a few months. If you do disclose, you're almost certain not to be hired.

In your situation, I would advice two things:
1) When asked why you left The Company say either "I was laid off." They're not going to say why you were let go, its a big legal risk for them.
2) Look into temp work. The best-case situation for you (assuming you have a partner and another income to help support you during your post-partum period) is to find a long term temp assignment - say, six to nine months - so you can work until the baby is born and also have a good reference for your job search afterwards.

Don't beat yourself up about this. I honestly think that, had the real reason for dismissal been the salary thing, they would have asked you to repay it. Since they didn't, I suspect that the "something else" - whatever it was - may have, indeed, been the real reason.
posted by anastasiav at 10:48 AM on May 27, 2009 [1 favorite]

Yeah, I'm not convinced that you did anything dishonest. Moreover, I am curious what reason was given for your termination, as I suspect that that was probably the true reason for the termination. I recommend that you stop beating yourself up.
posted by The World Famous at 10:50 AM on May 27, 2009 [1 favorite]

They fired you because they over paid you? Seems like there is a lot more to the story than has been told. I seriously doubt that they would give any information to anyone about your dismissal and open themselves up to liability. I agree with anastasiav to get temp work into your pregnancy. Then after you are ready to go back to work, this episode is in the past and you have other more recent history. Then you can just say you were laid off. Everyone understands good people being laid off these days.
posted by JohnnyGunn at 10:54 AM on May 27, 2009

Ok...let's start with some basics.

Without knowing the reason given for your termination (versus what you expect to be the reason), it's virtually impossible to know what impact that will have on future employment. (maybe you can mail a moderator to add that bit of info?) On the plus side, former employers can rarely say anything about an employee when called for a previous employment reference due to lawsuits. They can state documented facts, which they can prove in a court of law, so they may say you were terminated due to but that is about it. In the most paranoid of companies I've worked for, they will only validate that someone worked there. In the more lax small businesses, they may give more details. However the paycheck issue is very unlikely to come up.

Second, I think you have some paranoia going on. Prospective employers generally only call previous places of business at the end of a job search. If you've been interviewed, are liked, and are to be likely given an offer, then they may check references and previous employers. Given that you haven't even gotten interviews, your termination from previous employ likely has nothing to do with it.

Honestly the fact that you have not gotten interviews at retail stores may be due to you being overqualified, not due to this snafu. They may think you have no intention to stay, or they may think your salary request would be too high. And keep in mind we're in a HORRIBLE economy where there may be 100 or more applicants for every open position. So don't stress over those.

Now to your specific Qs:

1) You will be able to get a job again. Even felons are able to get work. Without knowing some details (were authorities involved? Did you repay the money? What was the stated reason for your termination) I can't say if this incident will make it more difficult than it would have been, but you are not unemployable for life.

2) I would only include this on your resume if you were applying for a job that would benefit from the specific experience this company gave you, or if your resume is weak and needs some more filler. The stated reason for your termination also plays a factor in this. If it was just downsizing or something, then it's not as bad as tardiness, etc. As for explaining the premature end, lying is always bad. However guessing that the stated reason is not the REAL reason is equally bad... Only talk about it if asked, and then what you should say...again depends on the reason you were given for your termination.

3) Prove yourself to your former colleagues in what way? Odds are only your manager and a few select HR people have any clue what went down. The rest probably have no idea and it's all gossip and guessing.

As for being hired again at that company...AGAIN it depends on why they said they fired you but I won't hold out hope for that too much.

4) Without knowing the industry and the type of affiliation I can only guess, but a business affiliation would not stretch to revealing private HR matters and employee situations so I would think the affiliated companies would be unaware of any of this.

5) THIS is the big one. You have guilt and self-doubt and issues stemming from this event leading to some (justifiable perhaps) paranoia. Time will help this quite a bit. If you have not yet repaid the overpayment, doing that may help ease your mind too. But really, I say the only thing you can do is give it time.

As for friends, family, and colleagues? That is all so dependent upon the types of people they are and your relationships with them. But again I say, depending on the STATED reason for departure, if its' better than "I was overpaid and tried to keep it" then just say "They told me X, so I guess that's it".

Because HONESTLY, you are GUESSING that the overpayment was why you were fired. You're reading into it. It COULD be coincidence.

6) gaps on resumes are never good. Depending on if you need the money/health insurance or not, I'd say apply now. If you can go without, pregnancy and birth is as good a reason as any to explain away that gap.

Good luck.

posted by arniec at 10:54 AM on May 27, 2009

Please provide us with the reason they terminated you. The story you've presented doesn't add up.
posted by vincele at 10:56 AM on May 27, 2009

Heh... should have previewed before I posted... anastasiav said exactly what I did about the felons.
posted by arniec at 10:56 AM on May 27, 2009

I was once let go because the company thought I was committing mail fraud. I didn't really commit mail fraud - it was all very innocent, but I was young and stupid and taking bad advice.

I WAS hired again, and pretty much in the same field (admin assistant). I got back into it by working temp jobs. I was really clear and honest with the temp company interviewers about what had happened and what I had learned. I found a perm job on one of my temp assignments.

SO - this isn't the end of the world, and don't get all caught up in the belief that you are worthless. Don't talk to interviewers about this brouhaha with the paychecks, particularly if that wasn't the reason they let you go. If you were looking for work a month before the termination, it obviously wasn't a fit. I think your current interview explanation is fine. I had to talk about what happened to my interviewers, because that was the explicit reason they gave me for letting me go. You don't need to bring it up.

Target, etc. may not have called you in for an interview because they want someone who they think will stick around for a while. If you are college-educated with some professional experience, they probably think you'll be out the door as soon as you get a "real" job. And then they have to recruit and train someone else.
posted by jeoc at 11:00 AM on May 27, 2009 [1 favorite]

Think about this if the tables were turned; if you overpaid a bill you would expect the overage to be returned to you. From my point of view, had the company "overpaid" you they would have asked for the money back or made some attempt to recover it. Since they said nothing when they terminated you regarding the money AND they never gave you a solid number that was agreed upon by both parties (let alone on a legally enforceable document or something) you are making a big assumption that money was the issue. I agree with everyone else that in the absence of concrete evidence to the contrary money wasn't the issue.

As an aside, I don't really see what you did as dishonest. They didn't say we will pay you x. They said we will pay you something in the neighborhood of x. Its entirely within the realm of possibility that 2x is the number they arrived at. Since you don't indicate anyone ever said anything to the contrary, why assume it? The only way this would be dishonesty would be if it was crystal clear you were being overpaid, which based on your post it just isn't.

I agree also with anastasiav, if they inquire about why you left your previous position saying something like "I was laid off" or "The opportunity wasn't right for me" is in your interest because its sufficiently vague and most companies will not even approach something that could be construed as slander or libel by going into details about why an employee left, so I wouldn't be concerned about a new company trying to dig into the past.
posted by zennoshinjou at 11:00 AM on May 27, 2009 [1 favorite]

As unethical behavior goes, this seems fairly benign. Payroll mistakes happen, and although it's good for employees to verify that the information is correct, and the most ethical thing to do when you think you've been overpaid is to alert payroll, it is ultimately the payroll department's obligation to disburse paychecks in the correct amount. I have known a couple people who have received larger-than-expected paychecks and it turned out to be legitimate (a one-time bonus, an un-announced raise, etc.). Yes, of course you should have checked on it when you noticed that your check was higher than you expected. You made a mistake. But I don't understand this self-flagellation. I also don't understand why you would be fired for this rather than simply asked to repay them, unless there was something wonky on their side. Any time I've heard of someone being overpaid, the biggest question is whether the employee is obligated to pay a lump sum back, or if some type of payment plan can be worked out.

You will be able to get another job, provided you learn from this (always check with payroll if your check looks wrong) and stop the self-loathing. Someone who once made a mistake is still worth considering for a job, but someone who doesn't seem to believe she is capable or worthy of employment isn't exactly a strong candidate. You can certainly omit this from your resume if you'd prefer. Personally, I wouldn't include a job that lasted such a short time on my resume, unless I had a very special reason to do so (great reference, etc.).

On the off chance that you ever have to explain it to anyone, I would think this would be both honest and appropriate: "I received a verbal estimate of my salary at Acme Corp., but was never given a contract stating the exact amount. When I was paid, the amount was significantly higher than I had been quoted and I failed to follow-up with the payroll manager to see if it was an error. That was a mistake, it cost me my job, and I sincerely regret it."
posted by Meg_Murry at 11:05 AM on May 27, 2009 [2 favorites]

You seem to be assuming that your actions, and the intense shame you feel as a result, have been broadcast far and wide to all potential employers and that they can all see the scarlet C (for "cheat"?) on your chest. I really doubt that this is the case; in all likelihood, you're projecting. The job market is extremely tough out there, and getting a job requires both patience and persistence.

As to your ability to rehabilitate your image with the company you just left: Much of that depends on the stated reason for the dismissal and the level of animosity demonstrated at the termination. Based on what you've related to us here, I think your assumption that the salary issue was the basis for termination should be tested somehow. After all, the overall amount of money you were overpaid is relatively small. Even if they never want you to darken their door again, I would be surprised if they broadcast specifics about the event to other companies in the same industry as it would reflect more poorly on them than on you.

My advice: Address your sense of shame which, as jayder points out, seems to be excessive given the circumstances. Use whatever resources you need or can access in order to put this into a proper perspective. Yes, you screwed up. Yes, you learned a lesson from it. No, you're not an awful person who never deserves anything good ever again.

When you've gained a better perspective, then you can re-start your job search. At that time, you can decide whether to cite the experience working for that company. Much of it will depend on how far down the road it is. (For example, if you sit out of the workforce until your child enters grade school, there's probably no need to cite such a short stint.)
posted by DrGail at 11:07 AM on May 27, 2009

As some one that just went through something very similar, I too had dark thoughts about my self worth and what have you. Doing constructive things unrelated to jobs or job hunting had the most positive impact for me. It's tough to think you're worthless when you've finished a project you're proud of. And with a baby incoming, you should have ample opportunity.


1) yeah, you can be hired by someone somewhere. Keep in mind with the economy as it is, there are tons of applications for any open jobs and your resume might get dismissed out of hand as "over qualified" before anyone even begins calling references. FWIW, in my experiance those type jobs never called any of my previous employers.

2) either don't list it or say you were laid off and leave it at that. Some people will understand, some won't care, but no point in giving future employers a reason not to interview you.

3) I would not hold your breath. Reach out to those that you view as personal friends, preferably not though the job (no calls/emails to work) and you can get a better picture from them of the full reasons behind the dismissal. FWIW I've never seen any company fire someone for cause and then rehire them.

4) Depends on how close the companies are, but if you get a bad reference then it could be you're blacklisted in that community. Moving may be an option.

5 & 6) I don't know. for the little it's worth, I've heard getting a job while obviously pregnant or with a small child is harder than without. Might as well try to get a job now.

Good luck.

and on preview, pretty much what they said.
posted by anti social order at 11:28 AM on May 27, 2009

So you screwed up. Get over it, but learn from it. As for future jobs you are probably fine. Many employers never call your references or previous employers. Most employers have policies that greatly restrict what can be said about ex-employees. Often they will merely confirm the dates of service.
posted by caddis at 11:34 AM on May 27, 2009

i wouldn't list the job on your resume. that's too bad--going from intern to paid staff is a really good thing to have on a resume. too bad your poor judgement got in the way. it would be very difficult to give a plausible explanation.

it doesn't really matter why they fired you. quite simply, when you work for a company, you need to work hard to put their interests forward. not reporting an obvious payroll error was a pretty severe breach of this ethic, and illustrated your lack of dedication to the company. you weren't fired for not reporting the money ... you were fired because you didn't care about the company.

going forward, learn from your mistake. work to be a stellar example of workplace ethics. be motivated and driven for the company.
posted by lester at 11:34 AM on May 27, 2009

A word about job searching while pregnant: it's going to be rough/impossible to land a job post-interview if you're at all showing.

I had a friend who interviewed for a job that she was MORE than qualified for, and she had her interview when she was 7 mos. pregnant. Not only did they not hire her, but they decided to leave the entire position vacant. Now, several months later, her daughter is 6+ months old and they've offered her the very same job that she interviewed for.

It may turn out to be best to wait until *after* you have the baby if you want a permanent position. Temp work is probably your best option for now, both to boost your resume and to cover gaps in your employment history. In the end, you can explain this away as "got pregnant, had baby" after the baby's born. NOW is going to be the hardest time to find permanent work. It will be much easier when you can explain the gap by pregnancy and you're, well, no longer pregnant.

I've done temping in the past, and a lot of temp positions can lead to permanent gigs. If you can pass a typing test and answer a phone in a Professional Sounding Voice, you should seriously consider it.
posted by grapefruitmoon at 1:56 PM on May 27, 2009 [1 favorite]

Take a deep breath and call the HR Dept. to ask if they will simply verify dates of employment, and not give a bad reference. The truth is usually legal, but most companies will not give bad references for fear of lawsuits.

Go to a temp agency, tell them your job at XYZCo. ended, and gte some temp work. Rebuild your confidence. You can temp while pregnant; some temp jobs become permanent. Temping can be demoralizing because people expect you to be a brain-dead bimbo. Some jobs will be really fun, others will suck, but you get to leave. Good luck.
posted by theora55 at 2:31 PM on May 27, 2009

I don't know what field you work in. I don't know what your plans are for childcare, if you do have a job. But you might embrace this situation as an opportunity, as dark as it may seem right now. If you could get into temping, contracting, freelancing or consulting, you could build up experience -- even if it's a couple of hours a week at first -- and build toward a future. If you could build up some work over the coming months, you could set things up so that you could only need part-time childcare when your baby is born. Perhaps you could get by with even less. I mostly run my business during naps and after bedtime and sometimes on weekends.

One of my friends embraced a layoff as a way to stay home with her children. She started a business that allows her to make about $30k a year while only needing a babysitter for a few hours a week. Given that daycare for two kids is $30k here and now she's in a lower tax bracket, she's making the equivalent of $75k or more.

Something like this situation might allow you to build more of the future you want.
posted by acoutu at 9:37 PM on May 27, 2009

How about this:
Have someone you know pose as a potential employer for the same type of position and call this place for a reference. Have these one or two people both call the office and see what the personnel department will say and also specifically call your boss (or whoever there you might have on your resume) and see what they will say.

Maybe they aren't saying anything. Usually the 'official' answers that previous employers give are the dates of employment and if they would hire you back. Usually no details are released.
posted by CodeMonkey at 4:29 PM on May 28, 2009

follow up from the OP
Many of the responses I received mentioned something about repaying the money. In the initial meeting with my boss and my boss's boss, where I was confronted about the overpayment, I feigned ignorance. The boss's boss said that the overpayment was an error and would have to be repayed. She asked how I intended to do that. I didn't know what my options were, so I told her I would need to discuss the matter with my husband. It was then that she had me sign a salary correction (for an amount that was 25% greater than the verbal estimate given in the first place) and also a weekly deduction for six months to repay the amount owed. I told her I would get back to her as soon as I was able to discuss it with my husband.

Following the meeting where I was initially confronted, my immediate boss sat me down and told me that if it had been up to him/her, I would have been terminated immediately. When s/he also said that some companies intentionally overpay their employees to test their integrity. I automatically responded, "That's Terrible!" My boss informed me that a company has to know that it has honest employees.

After I spoke with my husband about the situation regarding the repayment, I sent the boss's boss several e-mails indicating my intention to sign the paperwork allowing for the deduction. She is a very busy and important person and I didn't want to intrude on her work, so I requested that she let me know when would be a good time to sign the remaining paperwork. My emails went unanswered for the five days until I was dismissed.

Many people are wanting to know the reason given for my termination. The answer to that is, "We're sorry, we know you did your very best but it's just not a good fit." They were both very kind and gentle during the termination, but I still have to wonder. I will admit there were many problems with this position that were not limited to pay. I had full-time responsibilities on a part-time schedule, my bosses and I did not have good rapport--neither of them had worked with me during my internship (they made me nervous and one actually made me cry), and there was some question as to which department my job actually belonged under. I essentially had two bosses fighting a custody battle with me in the middle. In the end, they both were the ones in the room with me when I was let go.

The thing that makes me think it was the payment issue is the timing. Although I had my misgivings and was still on a learning curve, I was not a trouble maker nor did I have any bad habits, like tardiness, taking long breaks, etc. They couldn't officially fire me for the real reason because technically, legally, I had not done anything wrong, and it really Was the accounting department that was responsible for the blunder. But in an at-will state, it doesn't take much, and they can let you go for any reason. The reason they gave me was the kinder and more legal reason.

My sense of self-worth is suffering because I am in a career that is exceedingly rigid about its ethical standards. Once my ethical virtues come in to question, it will be difficult to salvage my career. I work in a small city where the professional community is quite small.
posted by jessamyn at 8:14 PM on May 28, 2009

"the reason they gave me was the kinder and more legal reason"

there is NO WAY that they are going to give your potential employers the "less legal" reason. their #1 priority will be covering their own asses, not punishing you further.
posted by swbarrett at 5:59 AM on May 31, 2009

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