my boss fired me over email, then refused to let me collect my personal belongings

by Ask a Manager on October 31, 2011

A reader writes:

My boss fired me via email at 9 p.m. on Thursday night without warning. In early October, I requested time off for two days at the end of the month to take care of personal business. He wanted to know what personal business I would be conducting and I told him it was to appear as a witness in court. I was on standby for court, and the person accused accepted a plea. I did not have to go to court, so I worked my normal hours on the first day I scheduled off, and then left three hours early on the second day I had scheduled for personal time. My boss learned that the time I spent when I left early was not for the original reason that I had requested, and fired me via email for being dishonest.

In the email, he said that I was to no longer come to his office and he would have my things delivered. I received three boxes of things, including spoiled food from the refrigerator (because it was sitting on my door step). However, he did not include many items. I also have electronic pay stubs and other personal/work related emails saved on my work email that I am unable to access.

Should I be able to pack my things at the office? If I request copies of such emails, (pay stubs, incentive schedules, saved discussions about problematic situations, the raise he gave me last week) is required to supply them? I feel like cowardly email has robbed me of any documentation I may need to get my unemployment.

Wow, your boss is an incredible jerk in multiple ways — from the belief that he’s entitled to know how you’re going to spend your time off, to the firing you for a senseless reason, to the refusal to let you return to the office to get your things, to the leaving of food on your doorstep.  I’m guessing that this isn’t the first time he’s behaved like a complete ass, right?

Anyway, he’s entitled to have the company handle the packing up and delivery of your things if that’s how he wants to play it, but he’s not entitled to keep personal items of yours. So send him an itemized list of whatever items weren’t delivered, and tell him that he can either arrange their delivery in the next couple of days or you will collect them in person yourself. Be polite, but assert yourself.

Any physical property of yours absolutely must be returned to you.

However, electronic items that you were keeping on your work computer aren’t technically yours. The company owns the contents of your work computer, even personal items that you were keeping on there. You can certainly request that specific electronic items be forwarded to you, but he’s not required to do so … and almost certainly will not forward you the more sensitive ones, like “discussions about problematic situations.”  Asking for those will sound like you’re contemplating using them in litigation, and since he has no incentive or requirement to give them to you, I doubt that he will. (This is why it’s a bad idea to keep your sole copies of important, personal items on a work computer.)

As for collecting unemployment, I wouldn’t worry that you won’t have sufficient documentation. In most states, unemployment eligibility is heavily weighted toward the employee, and as long as you clearly present your side of what happened, and the fact that your time off was approved in advance, you should be fine in that regard.

This guy is a jerk of epic proportions. I hope you find somewhere better soon.

You can read an update to this post here.

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{ 50 comments… read them below or add one }

Joanna Reichert October 31, 2011 at 1:26 pm

Wow.

Hopefully you can later reflect on this as one of the best things that could have happened – because now you’re away from a crazy, immature and vindictive person who has no business being in a position of power.

The hardest thing I’ve found in the working world is to appropriately detach my emotions from business. I wear my heart on my sleeve, I’m absolutely dreadful at being fake, and when I’ve been wronged in the workforce (and *wow* I’ve been wronged) it just goes into a folder in my brain that I never clean out. It’s not exactly a grudge – call it building character and becoming gunshy. : / Anyways, my point to all of this is don’t do this to yourself – wash your hands of the situation and be as objective as possible.

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Jen M. November 2, 2011 at 12:21 am

OMG. Me, too! It makes work so hard to deal with sometimes.

I’m getting better, but it’s more that I’m just expressing it less than anything else.

You’re definitely not alone.

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Interviewer October 31, 2011 at 1:42 pm

“the raise he gave me last week”

That part stood out to me. Seriously? Then fired a week later?

Maybe he expected you to be at work both days since you didn’t end up in court, and you even worked that first day. Did you tell him that your plans had changed, and you would only need part of one day instead? Knowing when the ees are going to be at work is the priority for any boss. While this firing sounds messed up on several levels, if you were not up front about what he could expect in working hours on those 2 hours, then maybe he decided one lie or miscommunication would lead to more. Maybe this was part of a larger pattern that he didn’t like. Who knows.

Either way, he sounds like a very impulsive person. It sounds like you were compiling dirt on him, too. Lesson learned on keeping the dirt safely at home from now on. And you can say goodbye to all of those saved emails. I wouldn’t even ask for them. It would set off too many alarm bells for him.

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Mike C. October 31, 2011 at 3:20 pm

That’s a load of crap. The days were taken off with approval, if work is done that is something extra for the employer and does not in any way entitle a boss to “know where the employee was”.

If the employer was so damn concerned about why the employee was working, then the boss could have nicely asked what was going on instead of applying arbitrary moral standards to employees.

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Jamie October 31, 2011 at 4:22 pm

I agree that this firing was badly done, and with only knowing the facts at hand sounds crazy.

If this is an indicator of how he managed, then it couldn’t have been a pleasant place to work.

However, I don’t think it’s necessarily out of line to be irritated by the way the OP handled the days off. True, they were approved. But once you arrived to work on the first day because you weren’t needed in court, it is reasonable to expect the time off was canceled. Unless there was very clear communication about taking part of the second day, then this would be an issue for most places.

Time off can be accommodated – but it’s a big deal if it’s unexpected. Once you showed up day one, then leaving early on the second day would be a disruption (assuming no communication.)

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Anonymous October 31, 2011 at 4:51 pm

@Jamie, I agree that the change in plans could be confusing/annoying to the manager. A simple “my plans have changed and I now only need Xday afternoon off” is all that was needed to clear things up.

(And as a side note, at my office I probably would have been allowed to take “administrative” leave instead of vacation for something important and rare like testifying in court–in which case I definitely would be expected to provide an explanation and return to work if my personal business was cancelled)

However, I still wouldn’t fire anyone over it! A little bad communication on the part of the OP doesn’t change the fact that the boss is a complete jack@$$.

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Anonymous November 1, 2011 at 6:19 pm

The OP didn’t say what kind of job she had. And perhaps, that would make a difference.

An example from my past:

A retail employee was fired for not working his scheduled hours. He called HR to complain with the explaination that he “always made up” his time.

I told him the manager had no choice but to terminate him. The manager is evaluated on meeting his budget – so, when the employee wasn’t at work when scheduled, the manager either didn’t have coverage, or might have had to pay someone overtime. And, when the employee was at work when he wasn’t scheduled – the manager’s budget took a hit because he had double coverage.

All the employee had to say at that point was “oh”.

So, depending on the OPs job – if she didn’t communicate clearly with her boss about when she would or wouldn’t be there – after the case was settled – the boss would understandably be upset. I, like other posters, wonder if there is more to this than an isolated occurance.

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Anonymous November 1, 2011 at 6:57 pm

I just saw the OPs posts giving more detail.

Sounds like her boss leaves a lot to be desired.

OP – I hope you get your backpay for the time and a half.

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Anonymous October 31, 2011 at 2:23 pm

You may be entitled to your personal items but be careful, you are not entitled to trespass.

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Joey October 31, 2011 at 2:52 pm

Ask yourself if you really need those personal belongings or you’re just trying to be a pain in the ass. When I’ve had to clean out an employees desk almost all of it always looks like junk/trash. I.e. Do you really need old paystubs? And if you really left something that you need back send a letter certified mail or signature required. As for emails forget it. For unemployment purposes write down everything as you remember it. In a lot of states just the fact that you recently got a raise and were fired without warning for what appears to be something other than gross misconduct will qualify you for benefits. But don’t be surprised if your employer slows down the process (and your benefits) by disputing your claim.

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Mike C. October 31, 2011 at 3:24 pm

Who in the heck are you or any other boss to ask “do you really need your personal items?” Do you really feel qualified to determine what someone should or should not have back? Are you seriously suggesting that asking for tax or proof of employment documents like “old pay stubs” might simply be a way for an embittered employee to “be a pain in the ass”?

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Joey October 31, 2011 at 3:38 pm

C’mon, are you really going to clean out your bag of stale Cheetos, the fingernail clippings you left in the desk, all of your Starbucks receipts, the ketchup packets, your moldy coffee cup and the check stubs that go back to the first check you got? Don’t worry we’ll mail out your w2 by Jan 31.

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Mike C. October 31, 2011 at 8:35 pm

I didn’t say trash, and neither did the OP, you’re making things up.

And maybe you haven’t been looking for work recently, but those pay stubs are pretty much required if you want to prove you are currently working somewhere antagonistic to the idea of an employee working elsewhere. There are also tons of places that require someone to verify income.

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Under Stand November 1, 2011 at 6:43 am

You do realize that legally you have to give employees the pay stub, correct? And if you fire them, that is THEIR property, not yours. So whether you think it is a waste of time to put the 52 pay stubs in the box, from a legal standpoint you are stealing. And if they do not have that pay stub, they have no proof if the W2 has an extra thousand listed as pay.

The pay stub was electronic. They cannot legally block access to it for a certain period of time. I believe it is the end of the year, but am uncertain of exact date.

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Jamie October 31, 2011 at 4:15 pm

The question would be why you’d keep pay-stubs at work.

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Mike C. October 31, 2011 at 8:36 pm

Who cares? If it’s an electronic system, then you don’t get to take the server home with you, now do you?

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Ask a Manager October 31, 2011 at 8:52 pm

I think the point is that anything that’s really important to your life outside of work shouldn’t be kept at work. The system could crash and you could lose it (something you don’t control), or you could experience what happened to the OP.

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Jamie October 31, 2011 at 4:14 pm

If I were fired unexpectedly like this and I had forgotten my spare glasses or IPad at work I’d want them back…ditto with the picture of my kids.

Other than that they can just toss the toothpaste and personal items in my bathroom drawer…same for the lip gloss and hand lotion I keep in my desk.

Leave the Maalox and Excedrin migraine for my replacement – s/he might need them.

It’s an old sitcom cliche that when someone gets fired they walk out with a box of their belongings. I’ve never kept more at work than I can toss in my purse – I don’t live here.

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Joe November 10, 2011 at 3:13 pm

It’s not just a cliche. When I got fired from a job once (long story, won’t go into it here), I walked out with a bag of my stuff (because I didn’t have a box handy). I keep quite a few things at my desk that I would definitely want to take if I were fired. A partial list: 2 mugs, a sweatshirt, speakers and headphones (mine, not the company’s; I bought ‘em myself), several Rubik’s Cubes and other puzzles, a spare umbrella.

Getting fired (especially unjustifiably) is bad enough without the additional hassle of the company stealing your belongings. I sympathize with the OP, and hope they get their stuff back.

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Anonymous October 31, 2011 at 4:15 pm

Ummm…yeah… you need the current year’s pay stubs! (note: previous years’ paystubs are not necessary). There are still three months until W-2s are due, and sometimes employers don’t send them on time. Or send them to the wrong address. They serve as proof of employment, income, payment of taxes, etc. I hope you aren’t responsible for your company’s document retention if you are putting a key financial record in the same category as fingernail clippings….

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Anonymous October 31, 2011 at 5:09 pm

I think that Joey’s point is, if the W2 somehow doesn’t match the paystubs, that’s going to be the employee’s problem, and not his. At least, it will be, if the employee doesn’t have their paystubs to show to the IRS.

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Ask a Manager October 31, 2011 at 6:11 pm

Yeah, and you often need pay stubs for other purposes — like getting a mortgage, for instance. OP, if you have trouble getting these, another option is to get copies from your payroll company (if your company uses one).

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The fired girl October 31, 2011 at 4:57 pm

The main personal items I am referring to include a floor lamp and a painting. I would prefer to pick the painting up or schedule a time for it to be delivered when I am here so there is no weather related damage. After receiving the first drop-off of my things, I sent another email requesting to meet him at the office to recover the remainder of my things. I even offered to call the police department for an escort should he be concerned for his safety or his property. He declined my request, saying he didn’t think anything else was mine.
I sent another email with the itemized list of what I am missing and I have not received a response yet.

The pay stubs were sent to me via email, so I stored them in my work email in a personal folder. This firing happened without any warning of any kind. I haven’t ever really needed to reference back to a pay stub, but after doing a little bit of research on the workforce commission’s website, I realized paying employees time and a half is not optional. I’ve definitely worked lots of overtime hours, and I would like to be able to prove that.

I cannot agree more with the comment that his decision was impulsive. He is completely different with women than he is with men. He had three male employees within the last year that were terrible. One turned out to be an ex-con (if that isn’t dishonest, I don’t know what is) who abandoned his job for a week (no call, no show) and then returned without any problem. Another employee (who was invited to play basketball on many occasions) frequently slept while at work and pretended to make sales calls. He had at least 5 warnings about his sales quota before he was terminated. And the most recent one asked me several times for pain pills in the first week of his employment.

So for him to fire me without warning…at 9pm at night…was definitely impulsive.

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Ask a Manager October 31, 2011 at 6:15 pm

If you’re a non-exempt employee (which is defined by federal FSLA standards; it’s not up to your employer), then yes, you are entitled to be paid overtime. If this is the case and you weren’t paid overtime, your employer may need to pay you back wages. If it’s something you want to pursue, your first stop should be a call to the Department of Labor for guidance. (Keep in mind this can be a long and exhausting process, and can potentially scare off other employers if they hear about it. That’s not a reason not to do it, but go into it armed with full information.)

Very minor point, but ex-cons aren’t dishonest by definition, and if no one is willing to employ them, society is going to have a large problem on its hands.

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Anon October 31, 2011 at 7:35 pm

Actually it’s pretty easy to file a complaint since the new dol head came on board as long as you have specifics.

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Anonymous November 1, 2011 at 10:49 am

I would like to say in regards to unemployment (in the US) make sure that you fill out all the paperwork they send you in a very timely manner. Chances are good someone like this will contest your UI so you want to make sure all of your ducks are in a row, so to speak. Fill things out completely, neatly, and on time and you’ll definately get your benefits based on what I’ve seen here. He can appeal, go thru the process. UI is definately biased toward employees so fill out the appeal information and go forward with that, it shouldn’t have to go to far before he gives up if he is impulsive like that. But fill out all your paper work on time. (This is the reason most employees don’t win UI cases, they just don’t fill things out when they need to.)

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Joey October 31, 2011 at 5:21 pm

Assuming you’re non exempt go to dol.gov/whd/ to find the nearest office to file a wage complaint.

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Joey October 31, 2011 at 5:24 pm

By the way your check stubs likely won’t show the hours you worked, only the hours you were paid for.

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The fired girl October 31, 2011 at 5:46 pm

Yes, I am aware of that. I also requested a copy of my time sheet folder that includes the PDF of time/sales/incentives that were submitted at the end of each month to request payment.

He has not responded to this request, and I am not sure if he is obligated to do so.

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Ask a Manager October 31, 2011 at 6:18 pm

He probably isn’t, but he is obligated to pay you everything that you’ve earned. You might want your next letter about all this to come from a lawyer.

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Joey October 31, 2011 at 7:40 pm

Im not saying this is the case with you, but it amazes me how many people wait until they’re unemployed to bring up wage issues. Don’t be afraid to bring them up while you’re still employed. I certainly want to know if a manager has been incorrectly submitting your hours so I can fix it.

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The fired girl October 31, 2011 at 7:58 pm

This is a small business owner. When I asked him about the overtime, he said he did not have an extra benefits for overtime. That I was able to work the extra hours at my regular hourly rate. He alluded that time and a half was just an optional benefit that some employers pay.

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Ask a Manager October 31, 2011 at 8:02 pm

It’s not up to him; the law doesn’t make it optional. That’s IF overtime law applies here — meaning that your position is non-exempt and the employer is large enough for the FSLA to apply. Here’s a good explanation:
http://www.nolo.com/legal-encyclopedia/employer-pay-overtime-laws-29928.html

But if your position is exempt, it’s a moot point, since exempt employees aren’t entitled to overtime pay.

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Uncle November 2, 2011 at 7:29 pm

hhaaaahhhaaaa! that’s good one. I’m not sure which is more disturbing that he said it or that you believed it.

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Mike C. October 31, 2011 at 8:41 pm

In an environment where someone can be fired for “no reason” at anytime, and where people are generally ignorant of the finer points of law, this is what happens. It’s not really their fault, we have an entire profession dedicated to understanding the law after all.

I used to work at a place which would hire tons of H1-B visa workers, and make them work 6 to 7 days a week, and they were all deathly afraid that if they crossed the boss they would be fired and immediately deported. These weren’t dumb people by any stretch of the imagination, but lawyers aren’t cheap and the laws that are supposed to protect us aren’t always easy to use.

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Nathan A. October 31, 2011 at 8:53 pm

I have a feeling this isn’t an isolated scenario. The thing I wonder is, why didn’t you see the warning signs before this?

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fposte November 1, 2011 at 10:43 am

Maybe she did. Maybe she was already looking for a job at the time. Maybe there was a sane person there who usually keeps him in check. We don’t know, and it’s not like it’s the OP’s fault for not averting this.

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Mike C. November 1, 2011 at 2:14 pm

You’re actually asking why someone wasn’t able to predict the future? Are you being serious here?

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Anonymous November 13, 2011 at 2:17 pm

Um, what? Haven’t you ever heard of people setting patterns of behavior in which something like this can be an end result?

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Tara November 1, 2011 at 10:42 am

Did your company have any sort of Employee handbook? Perhaps termination is covered in there. Is it possible there is a reason that he doesn’t want you come by the work place (like he hired/ promoted someone behind your back and was waiting for his “chance” to fire you?) I am assuming none of your ex-coworkers were on okay enough terms with you to do some recon and report back. This just seems like a truly unfortunate situation, but at the same time something just doesnt appear right in the whole thing.

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The fired girl November 2, 2011 at 4:50 pm

This is a small business. When I was hired there was not an employee handbook. I recently starting writing one in June. However, we were so understaffed that I had to put that project on the back burner.

A close friend of mine still works there, and she says it is a mad house right now. We were both doing the workload of 2-3 full time people…and now I guess she is doing the work of 4-6 full time people.

I am pretty sure he is a coward, and does not want me to come to the office because that would require him to have a conversation with me in person.

He is going to have a VERY difficult time replacing me. Not only because I’ve worked there for so many years and now how to do everything in the office (while he is still clueless), but also because I was the person who trained new staff. Who is going to train them now?

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Anonymous November 1, 2011 at 2:39 pm

Allison – A few months back, you did joint postings with an employment lawyer. If you ever did it again, this would be a great topic. What are the employee’s legal rights to her belongings on company property?

I actually wasn’t as sure as Allison that the employee’s personal property absolutely must be returned to her – there may be some disclaimer in the fine print when you were hired that the work space is owned/controlled by the company. At the same time, my boss can’t just go through my wallet in my purse (can he???) but he can certainly go through (and claim??) anything in my desk, etc. and absolutely can go through computer files. Where are the limits?

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Ask a Manager November 1, 2011 at 3:23 pm

You should definitely feel free to send questions like this to Donna Ballman directly! Her blog is http://employeeatty.blogspot.com .

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Anonymous November 7, 2011 at 8:02 pm

Just want to know is firing an employee by e-mail even legal??

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Ask a Manager November 7, 2011 at 8:11 pm

Yes, it’s legal. There are no laws governing the methods by which a firing is conducted.

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Anonymous November 25, 2011 at 1:43 pm

Eric Bischoff fired Steve Austin via FedEx.

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Perpetual Interviewer November 10, 2011 at 12:47 pm

This sounds exactly like my old boss… when I got a new job the old employer/President called my new employer/President and tried to disparage my character with untrue “tales” to get me fired and THEN asked my new employer if they could do any business together! HA!

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Jeff July 2, 2012 at 3:59 pm

My boss and I were both fired due to some politics on an unrelated matter not fun.

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RC April 19, 2013 at 4:27 am

How can people even be happy to just walk away from this only to be bitten by another incident of the same sort? The problem is the employment at will law here in the US. At least some changes need to be made otherwise an employee is like a toilet paper.

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Manager skills August 23, 2013 at 10:56 am

The worst thing that an employee would experience is being fired for a petty reason, and much worst is being fired only through email. The manager must really have no intentions of talking to you anymore because he had all your stuffs delivered at your doorstep. Well, call this a blessing in this disguise. You certainly don’t deserve to have a boss like this one. I just don’t know how long you have been in the company, but with a boss like this, it’s a waste of time to be working for him. He can ditch an employee anytime with his whimsical reasons. There are lots of job opportunities available out there, just think of it this way it’s not your loss, its your boss’ loss.

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