It’s been a while since I’ve talked about this and I see these words confused all the time, so let’s straighten out some vocabulary issues.
1. Fired vs. laid off vs. terminated
Fired: If someone is fired, they are being let go for cause.
Laid off: If someone is laid off, they’re being let go for reasons other than performance — the company was restructuring or having financial problems and eliminated the job. (In other words, it’s about the job itself, not the person. At least officially.) So don’t go around telling people that you were fired if you were actually laid off, and vice versa.
Terminated: Covers all possible scenarios. But don’t say it — it sounds ridiculous.
2. Recruiter vs. hiring manager vs. HR
Internal recruiter: This is an employee of the company who focuses on filling jobs there.
External recruiter: This is someone outside the company who has multiple clients that they fill jobs for.
Hiring manager: This is not a manager of hiring. This is the person who will be your boss if you’re hired for the job. They manage a team or department or entire organization. For instance, if you’re applying for a job as a communications assistant, the communications manager is probably the hiring manager.
HR: HR handles benefits, compensation, ensuring compliance with labor laws, and so forth. They often do initial interview screens and facilitate the hiring process, while hiring managers do (or should do) the substantive interviews and make the hiring decision. HR often does reference checks, although good hiring managers will insist on doing their own.
3. Hostile workplace
In a legal sense, a “hostile workplace” isn’t at all what it sounds like: It’s not about your boss or your coworkers creating a hostile environment for you by being jerks. The term refers to conduct that’s based on race, religion, sex (including pregnancy), national origin, age (40 or older), disability, or genetic information.
In the U.S., for a workplace to violate hostile workplace laws, the EEOC says that the hostile conduct — in addition to being based on the categories above — “must be severe or pervasive enough to create a work environment that a reasonable person would consider intimidating, hostile, or abusive … Petty slights, annoyances, and isolated incidents (unless extremely serious) will not rise to the level of illegality.”
In other words, if your boss or your coworkers are intolerable jerks but it’s not based on your race, religion, sex, or other protected characteristic, that’s not illegal. Unwise and unkind, but not illegal.
4. Wrongful termination
People often think “wrongful termination” means that you were fired for wrong or unfair reasons. But legally speaking, wrongful termination means that you were fired for an illegal reason — such as because of your race or religion or for another reason forbidden by law (like taking legally protected FMLA leave or in retaliation for other legally protected activity).
5. Protected class
I sometimes hear people say something like, “So-and-so is in a protected class” or “we’re worried about firing him because he’s in a protected class.” But everyone is in a protected class. The law doesn’t just protect people of Race X or Gender Y; it bans discrimination based on race and gender, period (as well as religion, national origin, and the other classes I listed in #3). So both men and women are equally protected from discrimination based on gender, and all races are protected from race-based discrimination, not just some races, and so forth. The only exception to this is age, where age discrimination laws only apply to people 40 and up.
6. At-will vs. right to work
Unless you have an employment contract, in the U.S. you’re considered an at-will employee (except for in Montana). That means that your employer can fire you at any time, without warning, without having to establish just cause (as long as the reason doesn’t violate discrimination laws, or laws against retaliation for reporting discrimination or harassment), and that you can quit at any time without notice.
People often use “right to work” when they really mean “at-will.” “Right to work” refers to state laws saying that employees can’t be compelled to join a union or pay union dues as a condition of employment.