My husband recently relocated us to South Carolina from Florida. We had just had a new baby, and I began work with a large law firm as a legal secretary/floater, which required me to have oncall hours one weekend per month, and one day per week. Since starting the job 15 months ago it has gone to 2-3 nights a week with some nights ending at midnight or later. My husband is a 3rd shift officer and we have two small children so I really can't work past 9 pm any longer.
I have also been subjected to yelling and cursing from other secretaries and it has escalated to a point where this job just doesn’t work for me.
I emailed my boss (who was portraying herself as a good friend, even calling me outside of work and always acting concerned about my family life and well being) and told her something along the lines of, "This really doesn’t seem to be working so well. The oncall hours are too much and I can't handle being cursed and yelled at. I think I need to start looking for another job." She replied “I want you to be happy and I will support you in any way I can.” I also told her I was not giving notice of resignation, and that I'd like to stay at the job until I found another one.
Weeks went by and I got called into the HR manager’s office. I was told “things just aren’t working out and we need to agree your last day with the firm will be the 30th” (30 days from the day of the meeting). I was shocked. I had been told what a great team player I was, how helpful, and professional, etc. I asked my boss, “Am I fired or what?” She replied, "No, I don’t think we look at it that way; it just isn’t a good fit anymore." A week later I inquired as to whether I will be paid for my remaining vacation time, as the manual states. I was told, "No." So, I started using up my sick time, and I put in a request for vacation time, which didn't get approved.
I went about my interviews, but I didn't get any calls after I submitted my references. I went to a staffing agency, which requested a letter of recommendation. I called my boss to ask for one, and she said, "I can’t give you one in a situation like this. All inquires have to go through the HR manager.” So, I emailed the HR manager, requesting a letter of reference.
Then the emails started coming, “Since we mutually agreed you would be leaving…”. I wrote back, “I never mutually agreed to anything. I told you that I was going to start looking for another job because of the oncall hours and constantly being yelled at by co-workers. But I never resigned or said I was giving notice, and I didn’t set the date of the 30th -- you did.” I don't want them to screw me out of unemployment, saying I “mutually agreed” to leave, especially when the job market is the worst in 22 years and I have 2 small children to care for.
Can you help me make some sense of all this? I am so worried.
by Garla Smith, Smart Moms®, LLC, smart-moms.net and smart-moms-online.com
Dear Mom with Bad Reference,
This is indeed a tough time for you. There are a couple of issues that I can address that may be motivating.
The first and foremost issue at hand is how do you get a job when you may not have a strong reference at your previous employer? I think the first course of action would be to find out exactly what the employer is saying about you. By law, the employer can legally only verify job title and dates of service. They have the option to decline to answer the questions concerning eligibility for re-employment, verification of duties and others. Because this is a law firm, I suspect they are providing references by the book. What may be a challenge for you is that they have a tone in their voice or are unwilling to give enough information to make the employer feel comfortable about hiring you.
As you already know, it is difficult for you to get a truthful answer about what is being said. However, you can hire someone to verify your references. There are professional agencies such as Allison and Taylor that can check your references. For instance, if you learn that the employer only answers questions about job title and dates of service in a very brief manner, you can alert your prospective employer that this is their policy so it will not be construed as a bad reference. If you learn that the employer has a particular tone (signifying displeasure) while answering the questions, this information may be admissible in court. Is there one peer (at the law firm) that would serve as a personal reference? You could provide a cell number or home phone and instruct the prospective employer that she can discuss your relationship but it is best to reach him/her after work hours. Make sure to speak with this reference about how you would like them to address your departure as well as those relevant skills. Did you do any volunteer work during this period or have another part-time job? Perhaps this avenue can provide a positive and talkative reference who can speak about your relevant skills.
Always handle things in a professional manner no matter what. When you are speaking to a prospective employer do not bad mouth the prior employer. It is always received as a bad sign, always. Don’t blame, don’t bad mouth, don’t appear to be the victim. You should tell them the truth of why you left but in a non-blaming fashion. It may be presented something like, ”I resigned from that position because they needed someone to support them after-hours and I was unable to do that with a new born baby...” Keep it brief, professional and never bad mouth the employer.
For the future, it is important to put things in writing. For instance, when you begin to feel you were being mislead about the hours and what was communicated, putting it in writing (via email) to your supervisor lets them know you are serious about that concern. The correspondence also helps to legally protect you. If you decide to correspond via email simply turn on the read-receipt option (via Outlook). Make sure you print out the email and file for your records. Any kind of abuse, especially verbal, should be documented to someone above you to alert them about what is going on. If all else fails, you have a paper trail if you need to file a law suit or proof to ensure you secure unemployment.
You may still have some recourse for receiving vacation pay. Some states require that employers pay remaining vacation time. Check these sites for rules and regulations about SC Labor and Employment Laws Link 1 and Link 2. Save your existing pay stubs and policy manual for documentation. Research to find a lawyer or someone familiar with employment laws to provide their professional opinion as to whether you have a case.
You can obtain a job after experiencing a challenging time with an employer. Commitment to finding a new job, resolve to not settle for unemployment, research to determine your rights and best practices will all help you eventually land another job. Best of luck!