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

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.

{ 60 comments… read them below }

  1. Joanna Reichert*


    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.

    1. Jen M.*

      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.

  2. Interviewer*

    “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.

    1. Mike C.*

      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.

    2. Jamie*

      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.)

      1. Anonymous*

        @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@$$.

    3. Anonymous*

      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.

      1. Anonymous*

        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.

  3. Joey*

    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.

    1. Mike C.*

      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”?

      1. Joey*

        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.

        1. Mike C.*

          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.

        2. Under Stand*

          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.

          1. Williamson*

            26 paystubs for the majority of american workers, and proof of income isnt via old pay stubs, nor would ANY (U.S.) employer ever request them, nor should they, for proof of income of previous jobs. W-2’s are all you need, as well your previous employers are federally required to provide you with pay histories and salary change form copies sent to you, upon request – however, the time limit required for you to request and your ex-employers to comply are different in each State. Basically you can request your past employee file – which , legally, will AUTOMATICALLY include copies of your email correspondence directly between you and your employer (generally in a paper AND / OR digital form you request), all memos sent directly to you affecting (negatively or positively) your work performance, all reviews, awards, citations, reprimands, etc. All of those items MUST be part of your employee file.

            The exception to this would be IF you were either contracted OR work-for-hire OR At-will (these terms do NOT mean “part-time”), you will NOT have an employee file available; you can ask, but there really should not be one. When you are at-will, etc, employers are forbidden, legally, from evaluating you – formally or informally – of your work. They are not allowed to keep any files on or about you or your work with personnel – even grievances such as harassment. YOU, on the other hand CAN request that awards, certificates of completion of educational nature, seminar requirements, trips taken for employee improvement be incluided in a file started by you: employees may not add, nor subtract from that file, only you may add or subtract items from that file.

            Employers have one decision to make: if you are good at your at-will job and a position is opening, you may be approached to fill the job or , in most cases, apply for the position (yes, the same position you held temporarily – the bright side of that scenario is you have the experience).
            In this case, the thing to note is: an at-will employee should NEVER create a list of job duties, instruction sets nor job requirements – DO NOT EVER do this. That job is soley between your supervisor, their boss, outside consultants, personnel dept head and company owner to create. Refuse “interviews” from consultants. Consultants MAY be allowed to “shadow” you for a few hours per day, randomly arranged by your employer, and informing you at least a few hours or days ahead – taking into account proprietary concerns of the type of work you do. During such “shadows” you are never required to speak with, nor should you, your observers.

            However, as a further aside and digression, once you become permanently employed (either part time of full time), if asked, you could be compelled or required to list your job duties, descriptions (rare) and instruction sets.

          2. Williamson*

            For federal tax purposes only, electronic access to said tax records must be allowed for a period of at least 24 months from the month of delivery of your last generated 1099 and / or W2 – no other access is required. State regs may allow for up to 6 months after termination of access to OLD company emails, possibly limited access to personnel department as well. Employers can also extend those times, if they deem it prudent, even if you request it. On the other hand, you can request your employer cut off your access, but they do NOT have to comply.

            That can be problematic. Your other choice is to solicit a lawyer, as a lawyer can get copies of all your emails in history from the companies servers (you arent taking the orginals, you are just making copies, which you ARE entitled to), you may also have a lawyer retireve copies of any or all persoanl software you may have installed – there is no statute of limitations. Employers are required by federal CALEA regs to keep all digital copies of all digital files – yes, even voicemails and phone conversations, when recorded – for at least 18 months from time of termination (with the exception of the above fed tax record keeping).

        1. Mike C.*

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

        2. Ask a Manager* Post author

          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.

    2. Jamie*

      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.

      1. Joe*

        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.

  4. Anonymous*

    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….

    1. Anonymous*

      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.

    2. Ask a Manager* Post author

      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).

  5. The fired girl*

    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.

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      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.

      1. Anon*

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

    2. Anonymous*

      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.)

    3. Williamson*

      Ex-cons that have done their time (some havent completed yet, but can work outside of premise with special permsissions at certain jobs) are EX-, hopefully no longer cons.

      That said, as long as an ex-con marks that question on the employee contract or application as YES., and lists for what crime, the law provides that EX-cons can be hired. Obviously an ex-con having done time for cash mis-handling, probably will not be hired as a cashier straight away, but may be handed stock duties at your local grocery.

  6. Joey*

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

  7. Joey*

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

    1. The fired girl*

      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.

      1. Ask a Manager* Post author

        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.

      2. Williamson*

        Every state in the US requires employers must give you those documents within, generally, 45 days of your first request. He would be very wise in producing such documents ASAP.

  8. Joey*

    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.

    1. The fired girl*

      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.

      1. Uncle*

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

    2. Mike C.*

      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.

      1. Williamson*

        If you are at-will – which obviously the OP was – your pay must comply with general Federal employment law, and that would be any one week (NOT PAY PERIOD, as many employers screw up on) where you work more than 4o hours, and those hours are less than 4 more per day and are on a week day, you are entitled to 1.5 your base rate – 2x your base rate on saturdays, and 2.5 x rate for Sundays or Federal Holidays (and any other Holidays your employer generally regards as usual).

        This is federal law and all employers – regardless of FSLA – must comply. FSLA companies (any company that ever employeed at any time 10 or more in FullTime positions**) have even better rules regarding OT and Leave pay, as well as job security. Not all States have adopted FSLA additions for their state, but there is a general fed requirement.

        ** This is set in such a way as to prevent employers who at one time before the act was passed, HAD 10 or more FT employed, but changed them all to at-will or PT in order to “beat” the timing of the act passing, can’t get out of compliance. Ever. Unless they declare C-7, then start a completely new company BUT, WAIT! It has to be really new; remember those old Rug companies that constantly had going out of business sales, close shop, then re-open under a different business name, but are still owned by the same group of people? Ya, those dont exist anymore)

        1. Ask a Manager* Post author

          That’s not accurate. Federal law requires pay at time and a half for all hours over 40 in a week, if you’re non-exempt. If you’re exempt, there’s no overtime pay requirement. And there’s no special treatment for Saturday or Sunday or holidays.

  9. Nathan A.*

    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?

    1. fposte*

      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.

    2. Mike C.*

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

      1. Anonymous*

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

  10. Tara*

    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.

    1. The fired girl*

      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?

      1. Williamson*

        Dont get too full of yourself, there are people just like you, as you, yourself, will be looking for a job where someone just like you left, they need someone to pick up the pieces, right? Just. Like. You.

  11. Anonymous*

    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?

      1. Williamson*

        If there is an employee handbook (and apparently there was at least a partial one made), and that handbook lists a method of termination, and “via email” is not explicitly listed as a firing method, then THAT would be illegal. That said, the handbook would have had to have already been in place and in operation during at least some your employment.

        There have been cases, in court, made that an employer must generally release employees in like manner of which they hire, and some states require it: it’s generally called an exit interview.

        Using an email however, worded such as you have presented here, suggests that you were NOT a permanent PT nor FT employee, you were at-will, which means you can quit or you can be fired ASAP with absolutley NO reason. That said, there is a new proposed fed law (I think introduced 2013, HB and passed by the House, waiting on Senate?) that states that IF an employer gives ANY reason – verbally or in writing, that would include any email correspondance once or over time), even only one, why an at-will employee was fired, that employee will be entitled to the typical release-time pay (2, 3 or 4 weeks) , the employee may also be offered to work for the remaining time, but can decline in lieu of direct payment, that payment being delivered in like fashion as with all payroll methods generally deliverd for that position.

        At-will termination must be, when given, instant by either party, if it isnt instant or comes with extenuation, that implies a Part-time (or even FT when considering hours-per-week worked) relationship not conducive to the spirit or letter of work-for-hire or at-will.

        1. Ask a Manager* Post author

          No, that’s not accurate. If your handbook promises that you will be fired in a certain way, then sure — but most don’t. And not mentioning email as a method does not make it illegal.

          No state requires an exit interview.

          Nor does termination have to be instant.

  12. Perpetual Interviewer*

    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!

  13. RC*

    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.

  14. Manager skills*

    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.

  15. David Morgan*

    Hi I was made redundant in December last year after a long period of absence due to a works accident. I have asked for my personal belongings IE. tools which I had to provide myself as an engineer, but the tools have now gone missing and I’m told theres nothing they can do for me. As I left them in there care and could not get access to the site to recover them are the company responsible for my loss.

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