a hiring manager isn’t what you think, and other vocabulary lessons

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 a reason related to their work or their conduct (i.e., their job isn’t simply being eliminated as with a layoff).

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.

{ 189 comments… read them below }

      1. J*

        Curious, anyone know what the rationale is behind the age class only including people over 40? Seems like it should be just as illegal to discriminate against someone for being too young.

        1. fposte*

          A quick look suggests that that’s because that’s the range where most people were being discriminated against solely because of age, and not because of a difference in experience. As usual with legislation, 40 was a compromise; flight attendants, for instance, wanted the threshold to be younger because they were being pushed out in their thirties (this was in 1967).

        2. Helka*

          It has to do with people getting close to retirement age and therefore perceived as less desirable; it was bigger when most companies still paid lifelong pensions, but it’s still notable because there’s this perception that if you have an equally qualified 45-year-old vs 35-year-old, the 45-year-old is going to be a more expensive employee in terms of wages, healthcare (as people get older, their health tends to deteriorate) and the perceived risk of them getting “senioritis” and marking time till retirement after only a few years on the job.

          That, and it’s incredibly difficult to claim that someone is being discriminated against for being too young, when youth has a very obvious and very direct correlation with years of experience in the working world. That seems like it should be a dodge, but remember that discrimination laws cover things based on disparate impact, not just direct reasoning. So that would get pretty tough for companies who want to make sure they keep seasoned people in their upper-level decisionmaking.

        3. Sara*

          Some employers also use specific language that prohibits age discrimination at all ages. Mine does – I found this out during the “equity” seminar during orientation when I proudly identified age discrimination as only applying to folks >40. (See, I’ve internalized something from this site!)

        4. MLT*

          Sometimes you need someone with years of experience. If you ask for 10 years of experience, you are discriminating against anyone who is too young to have garnered that experience.

          1. Adele Varens*

            Interesting. In the UK discrimination against age has only been illegal for a few years but it covers all ages. If you specify 10 years’ experience in a job ad this isn’t necessarily illegal in itself. But you must be able to satisfy a tribunal if necessary that the job could not be done, say, by some one with 8 years of experience or 15. Much safer and better to just go for best fit. If employers want to get round the age/experience thing they can get this information from the application anyway.

            1. UK HR bod*

              It’s hard to justify in most cases – there’s a rule of thumb that up to 5 years is OK, but frankly in most cases you’re better off articulating the experience you need rather than relying on an arbitrary length of time. If I do the bare essentials to get by, but have the 10 years that’s specified, an employer could be wasting time reading my application when the person with 3 years of experience all of which has been stellar is put off.

        5. Mike C.*

          Older folks vote more consistently and have a large advocacy and lobbying group. The other reasons aren’t wrong, but it’s important not to forget that with regards to the law, squeaky wheels are greased.

        6. annonymouse*

          The reason being:
          Normally older workers cost more in terms of salary expectations and in some places what you legally have to pay. (In Australian for instance minimum wage scales up with age until.. 25 I think)

          Younger workers generally will put up with worse conditions because they don’t know their rights or what’s normal. (Toilet breaks can only be taken on scheduled breaks and no other times for instance)

          Younger workers normally have more working life in them. If you plan on keeping them long term 0ne person can for 30+, the other 10ish it makes sense to take the 30+.

          There are also laws about hiring people who are too young . You know, child labour laws.

    1. J*

      Always strikes me as funny when people say “you can’t fire someone in a protected class” when they think “protected” means “female” or “racial minority.”

      Because even if it did mean that, as if women and people of color are NEVER fired…? Logic fail.

  1. J*

    One quibble: fired “for cause” generally refers to the employee doing something egregious (like stealing, harassing, hitting someone, etc.) and being fire “for cause” can make them inelgible for unemployment. Being fired for performance or “fit” issues is not the same thing.

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      Hmmm, there may be some companies (or countries) that use it that way, but most people in the U.S. use it to mean “there was a reason related to the employee’s performance or behavior” rather than simply a layoff, where the position is eliminated.

      1. Terra*

        The AZ government officially considers being fired for cause as being fired for reasons that invalidate unemployment claims (if you try and file an unemployment claim that’s how it’s explained). I think the problem is that since companies don’t have to disclose the reason for firings to at-will employees they often won’t (possibly for legal reasons?) so you don’t always know why you were fired and if it would constitute a performance or behavior issue.

        1. Ask a Manager* Post author

          Unemployment often has its own rules though (for instance, an employer can lose an unemployment case for reasons that they wouldn’t lose a legal court case over). I wouldn’t take unemployment guidelines as representative beyond the unemployment sphere.

          1. LQ*

            This is absolutely true. In some states the rules are set up to give employees the benefit of the doubt basically if a case is close. This is not at all what would have to happen if you tried to bring the same case before a judge for something like an employment law case.

            Also at least in one state unemployment calls being fired being “discharged”. Some people insist this word is used outside the unemployment sphere but I’ve never heard it. Maybe because it sounds like …a medical term.

            Unemployment is different from everything else and different from each other. Each state sets it’s own rules so the best you can say is “some states” or even “most states”.

              1. LQ*

                But at will and unemployment are sort of unrelated (in most states). Unemployment rules can decide to do whatever they want as far as who they pay or don’t pay. You can be fired for wearing purple shoes and that can be totally legal but in some states you can still get unemployment. You can be fired for stealing a thousand dollars and stealing can be illegal but based on your state you might be eligible for unemployment*. You could quit because people were constantly harassing you because of your gender and you could possibly win a lawsuit but not be eligible in your state*. The rules for unemployment and the rest of everything are basically different.
                *Not saying any state does this but they absolutely could. I don’t know the rules for every state.

                1. J*

                  So it’s more of a rule, not any kind of law, and the unemployment agency could break that rule and deny or grant you benefits even if the rule said otherwise.

                2. LQ*

                  No, state laws will dictate what the unemployment laws are for that state. The unemployment agency has to follow their state laws. But their state laws can be different from other state laws. And their state laws can say whatever the lawmakers in that state decide to say. If you don’t like your unemployment talk to your state lawmakers.

              2. Jaydee*

                At-will employment simply means that the employer can legally fire (discharge, terminate) the employee at any time, for any reason or no reason at all. There’s no requirement that the employer prove they had good cause to fire the employee. There’s no requirement of notice.

                There are exceptions to this. For example, if the employer and employee have a contract that requires cause or sets out a notice requirement or termination process, then the employer must follow that contract. If they don’t, the employee may have a claim against the employer. Likewise, if an employer fires an employee for a reason that constitutes unlawful discrimination based on a protected characteristic as Alison outlined above. Many states also prohibit retaliation for certain things (like reporting issues to an agency that regulates the employer or participating as a witness against the employee in a hearing).

                For unemployment insurance the rules are different. Unemployment is generally payable when the person lost their job “through no fault of their own.” This generally means that employees who quit their job without good cause that is attributable to the employer and employees who were fired for misconduct will be denied unemployment insurance benefits. Each state has some leeway in defining those terms. So they can decide what circumstances are “good cause attributable to the employer” for purposes of quits. And they can decide how to define misconduct.

                A common example in the realm of misconduct is “excessive absences.” In a state with at-will employment, an employer could theoretically fire you the first time you’re absent for any reason. Some employers have a pretty strict “point” system where each absence or tardy has a point value and if you accrue a certain number of points in a certain time frame you’re fired. Let’s assume Teapots R Us has a policy that if you have 5 points in a rolling 6 month period you are fired. Any absence is a point. Any tardy is half a point. In the last 6 months Wakeen has missed two days of work because he was sick and one because his car broke down. He was tardy twice because he overslept, but that was 5 months ago, and he hasn’t been late since his boss told him to shape up. He has 4 points. He wakes up with a fever and vomiting and calls his boss to tell her he won’t be in to work. The next day, he reports to work and is told he is fired because he has 5 points.

                His employer can fire him. But if they contest his unemployment benefits, he will probably win. Properly reported absences due to illness usually don’t count toward “excessive absences” when defining misconduct. So that leaves him with one absence for car troubles and two tardies from 5 months ago. That’s not exactly excessive. So although the employer can fire him, he will receive unemployment insurance benefits while he looks for a new job.

            1. Lindsay J*

              I’ve heard discharge used before, but only really in the phrase “constructive discharge” (when you’ve essentially fired someone by forcing them out via schedule changes etc, but never actually fired them).

      2. BananaPants*

        For unemployment purposes in my state (in the US), being fired for cause means you don’t get unemployment – generally, this is reserved for cases where the former employee stole, harassed or threatened coworkers or customers, otherwise broke the law, or other wilfull misconduct. An employee can be fired for performance or poor fit and that is not considered a firing for cause.

        My husband was technically fired from his previous job for not meeting a sales quota – he received a good reference from his former manager and was eligible for unemployment. They liked him and he was a hard worker, he just didn’t sell enough cell phones.

        1. Lindsay J*

          I’ve always heard that called being fired for gross misconduct (or willful misconduct like you said).

          Yeah, NJ is the same way. When my dad was fired for “poor fit” (really, he was old/too senior in the company and too expensive and they could pay someone just out of college half the salary they paid him for the same role) he was eligible for unemployment with no issue.

      3. Sprocket*

        I disagree too. In CT, when filing for UI, there’s a distinct difference in fired without cause (can still apply for and be granted UI) and fired with cause (ineligible for UI). And in interviews with people who have been fired, the question is “were you fired with cause” before getting into the details. To my understanding, this is a direct product of at-will employment, wherein either the employee or the employer can terminate the relationship at any time.

    2. Terra*

      This! I wish there was a term that covered being fired for petty reasons or for reasons that would usually be considered a lay off but they wanted to avoid paying unemployment. This happened at my first job, the company was purchased by a new owner and the three newest employees were all fired. None of us were told why though I assume it had to do with the new owners/downsizing. I would consider it a lay off but if anyone calls them for a reference they say I was fired (though they won’t say why).

      1. Sharon*

        Yeah, that’s the scenario I’ve usually seen at places I’ve worked. They let mediocre people coast until a layoff, and then let them go under the guise of that. I’ve seen that happen when the “lay off” was just two or three people as well as many more. Basically corporate management never wants to admit that they fired someone. They never use the “F” word when explaining that someone no longer works here.

        1. Sharon*

          Actually I MEANT to say that I’ve seen this also for people who were good workers but just got on someone’s bad side one day. I.e. political firings are always done under the guise of a layoff.

    3. Grey*

      From Michigan’s unemployment handbook: “In most states, if you are fired for cause you may still be eligible to receive benefits – and the requirements in this case won’t be as stringent as if you had quit.

      1. J*

        Seems like it is a common enough distinction. Could confuse people if they ever have to apply for UI (or if they have to fire someone).

      2. Dana*

        My mom was fired from her retail job in Michigan after working there 16 years, about one year after new owners took over. It was just explained to her that they were an at-will company and they didn’t need a reason to let her go. She got unemployment benefits no problem.

  2. F.*

    Why do you think “terminated” sounds ridiculous? Note that I don’t mean the employee was terminated. I use the term as “her/his employment was terminated”.

    1. James M*

      “Terminated” is unnecessarily aggressive. Unless you work for the mob, cessation of employment is a mere transition (for both employee and employer) apart from any tangential drama.

      Of course, if aggressive language is part of your everyday life, I won’t say you should change that.

      1. Jillociraptor*

        I worked once with an HR system that had a button that said “Terminate Employee,” which you clicked to end their employment regardless of the reason they were leaving.

        It always evoked “FINISH HIM,” a la Mortal Kombat for me. It’s so dramatic!

          1. Jillociraptor*

            It was a very peaceful teal, if I recall correctly. Might have moused over orange, though. Missed opportunity.

        1. James M*

          “FINISH HIM” is a great punch line, but tricky to set up. I saw one comedian execute it flawlessly… I wish I could remember who that was.

          1. Rahera*

            I have an idea that was David Mitchell, in one of those weird boardroom sequences where he looks like Lucius Malfoy…

              1. Anony-mouse*

                You don’t by any chance mean the Armstrong and Miller sketches do you? That’s where one chap yells ‘Kill them’ into a tannoy system after a perfectly nice/unassuming meeting.

        2. SophiaB*

          Only slightly related, but I work with HR software (though, thankfully only tangentially) and got sent on the introductory course for it as part of my orientation. There was a box in a form where you had to fill out why the employee was no-longer employed here, and then another box underneath for whether the employee was eligible for re-hire.

          I found out that you could tell the software that the employee had died in service, but you could still mark the box to make them eligible for re-hire.

          Hmm, thinking about it, that might explain some of my co-workers…

          1. HRish Dude*

            My old job, death was a “not eligible for rehire” reason. I didn’t really understand it until I saw a woman who “died” walk into the office.

        3. SL #2*

          My old job was like that! Our HR guy embraced it, though, and when it was my turn to be terminated (I was leaving for a better opportunity, not fired), he allowed me to watch him click the button.

    2. Gandalf the Nude*

      Yeah, I tend to default to “terminated” because that’s what so many of my records systems use. Payroll, insurance, unemployment all want Date Terminated or Termination Date, so it’s just easier to sync up with them.

      1. F.*

        I do, too, and for the same reason. I don’t see it as being particularly “aggressive”, or at least no more so than “fired”.

        1. BananaPants*

          I agree – I don’t see “terminated” as any more aggressive or negative than “fired”.

        2. MLT*

          Yea, I think “fired” sounds like the employer was mad, and terminated sounds more like it was a business function.

      1. Wren*

        That is “separated” which was my employer’s word of choice until we changed to a different HRIS which uses “terminated.” I can’t imagine being at a company that used “fired” as official language.

        1. J*

          I think “fired” sounds a little too slangy. Obviously in casual conversation that’s what you’d use, but for any other communication I’d think terminated would work better.

      2. JB (not in Houston)*

        I totally agree in some contexts, but there are other situations where you want one word that applies to firings and layoffs just to indicate that, for whatever reason, that person doesn’t work there anymore (like maybe indicating that benefits stopped). I think terminated is fine for those circumstances. But it would sound weird for an employee to use that language, or for an employer to have internal notes on an employee’s file for why the employee left that just said terminated instead of fired or laid off.

        I see it used in court cases a lot when, for various reasons, it’s a good idea to keep the language neutral but factually accurate.

    3. Ad Astra*

      In addition to the other responses to this comment, I’d argue that “terminated” is unnecessarily jargon. It’s the HR equivalent of cop talk like “traveling at a high rate of speed” instead of “speeding” or “multiple individuals” instead of “several people.” Your computer system might say “terminated,” but that doesn’t mean you have to talk like a computer system.

      1. Juli G.*

        Yep. I use it with other HR professionals, especially when it’s system related and the reason that the employee is gone is irrelevant. The couple of times I slip and use it with the general population, they’re very taken aback.

          1. Creag an Tuire*

            I’d be sooo tempted to respond with a long silence and “….let’s change the subject, shall we?”

        1. Not So NewReader*

          I think that the irrelevance of why an employee is not longer there is part of what rubs me the wrong way. It feels cavalier.

          Anyway, the main thing about the word terminated for me is all I can think of is household pests and an exterminator going after the ants/bees/mice/whatever. “Jane was terminated last month.” Cue mental image of guy in a moon suit with a spray tank. Poor Jane.

          1. F.*

            Just to clarify, I use the phrase “Jane’s employment was terminated.” I would never use “Jane was terminated.” I explained this in my original question to AAM above, but apparently a number of people did not read it carefully.

    4. Carrie in Scotland*

      Can you imagine saying (a la Gwyneth & Chris from Coldplay) “I consciously uncoupled from meyemployer!?”

    5. Mindi Lahiri*

      I agree that terminated sounds unnecessarily aggressive and has a negative connotation with it. When i first started in HR I hated saying it, but I struggle now with finding an alternative neutral word and so I default to saying someone termed. Oddly enough, I feel equally weird about saying “she’s no longer employed with us” too…that feels negative and slightly ridiculous to me too.

    6. Fafaflunkie*

      When I read your comment, the image of Sarah Connor saying “You’re terminated, ****er!” as she presses that button on the press that crushes The Terminator to its demise in he first Terminator movie instantly came to mind. I guess this is how it works in the US when it comes to employment. Then again, if I’m not mistaken, it works both ways: the employee can simply tell the boss to go stick it where the sun doesn’t shine and walk out without recourse (in the sense that the employee can’t be sued for causing the employer hardship.) Unless I’m completely mistaken, of course.

  3. fposte*

    The one alongside “hostile work environment” to me is “wrongful termination.” It doesn’t mean you were fired when you shouldn’t have been or based on something that wasn’t true.

  4. Cat*

    Hiring manager confused the heck out of me until I started reading this blog because at a law firm, the “hiring partner” is the partner in charge of hiring generally at the firm.

    1. The Pedantic Lawyer*

      Yes! “Hiring partner” in my world is not necessarily the same as “partner (or other employee) who will manage you if you are hired.”

  5. Decimus*

    Would “laid off” cover a planned end of employment? If you were hired for a six-month contract project and the project just ended, have you been laid off or is there a different term? And does it matter if you were a contractor or simply had an employment contract?

    1. MegEB*

      I don’t think I’d consider using “laid off” to also include a contract or project ending if you knew about it in advance. I feel like saying you were laid off implies that it’s something you had no control over (i.e. the company going bankrupt or a department being restructured), whereas if you were hired for a six-month contracting gig, that’s presumably something you knew about and were okay with going into the position. I’ve worked temp jobs in the past that had a set end date, and when people ask what happened to the position, I’ve simply said that the contract ended.

      1. Ad Astra*

        Agreed, though it may sometimes be relevant to mention that someone’s contract wasn’t renewed. Like teachers, who sign annual contracts and generally expect to be offered a new contract every year. Choosing not to renew a teacher’s contract is similar to firing them for performance or fit problems, unless the district specifies that it’s a layoff.

        1. fposte*

          Right, I’m in that position myself. However, I think that it’s an ambiguity that isn’t ambiguous within the field, as you note; if people are transitioning outside of the field, I’d rather the terminology erred on the side of generosity anyway.

    2. Meg Murry*

      Also, for non-US readers: even when people here in the US say they were hired for a “6 month contract position”, it almost never involves a contract between the employee and the employer. Most of the time, it is limited term at-will work, with a defined end date. So if a person is not working out, they can still be fired from a contract position (usually without being paid for the remainder of the time) and a person can also quit during a contract position. All the “contract” part usually means is the defined end-date, although even that isn’t always true, as some companies will re-hire a person for another term after the first ended.

      1. Adele Varens*

        Thank you. This sounds pretty much like being hired for temporary work in the UK via an agency. Probably there are slight differences but it sounds quite similar.

        1. Liane*

          I think in some cases it is, because many companies get their temporary employees through an agency.

    3. mander*

      I just had a discussion with my colleagues about this last week. We’re all on short-term contracts that may or may not be renewed depending on whether or not the company has a project for us to work on. About 40 of us were on contracts that expired Friday for this reason. It’s not that the employees weren’t working out or the position was being eliminated, just a lull in the work.

      Several of my younger colleagues were talking about being fired, though. I explained to them (especially those who speak English as a second language) that they shouldn’t describe it this way, since it implies that they did something wrong. I was surprised that they didn’t get the difference between “laid off” and “fired”.

    4. Lindsay J*

      I’ve worked a lot of seasonal jobs (amusement parks in the northeast generally aren’t open year round) so for them I just list my reason for leaving as “seasonal position”. In your case I would use “contract position”.

      However, if I am forced to choose between “fired” “quit” or “laid off” I choose “laid off” as it seems the most true out of the three options. I wasn’t fired for performance or other reasons. I didn’t quit because I didn’t like the work environment. The position ended.

  6. Grey*

    The difference between hostile workplace and discrimination is a bit confusing since one is required for the other.

    If you’re the victim of petty slights and annoyances based on your race, for example, it’s not a hostile workplace. Is it still discrimination, or is it just your boss “being a jerk”?

    1. J*

      You can be discriminated against without having a hostile workplace (like if you were fired, not hired, not promoted) and you can be a victim of a hostile workplace without anyone actually discriminating against you specifically.

      1. Cordelia Naismith*

        Yes — if the people harassing you are co-workers, not people with hiring/firing power, then you aren’t being discriminated against even though you are in a hostile workplace.

    2. Ask a Manager* Post author

      It sounds like that would be harassment rather than discrimination, and it would need to be severe or pervasive to rise to the level of violating the law.

    3. neverjaunty*

      “Hostile workplace” was originally meant to distinguish workplace actions that aren’t quid pro quo or harassment by somebody with the power to hire and fire. It’s different from a boss saying “sleep with me or I’ll fire you” or “if you complain about the racist jokes we’ll assume you’re not a team player”. Instead of being the harasser, the boss is allowing co-workers to create an environment where they are engaging in harassment.

  7. The Expendable Redshirt*

    Thank you! I love definitions.
    In proper terms, I was once “terminated without cause.” As in Old Job let me go for reasons unrelated to stealing/wild insubordination/or murdering clients. And yet, if I say Old Job was “terminated without cause,” no one knows what I’m talking about.
    Thus, in everyday conversations I just use the word “fired.” Even though I know perfectly well that I’m not using the proper terminology. It vexes me.

    1. Elizabeth the Ginger*

      “Terminated without cause” sounds like you were the victim of a robot assassin even though you weren’t the intended target.

      1. TootsNYC*

        I actually wish you’d defined “let go.”

        I don’t think of “let go” as applicable to being fired.

          1. Windchime*

            Me, too. When people say they were “let go”, I usually think of them being fired unless their position was eliminated or there was general down-sizing.

        1. Elizabeth the Ginger*

          Let them go, let them go!
          Can’t pay them all any more
          Let them go, let them go!
          The budget’s just too poor
          I don’t want
          It to be this way
          But I’ve got no choice…
          It’s time to go update your resume.

      1. Terra*

        Not the person you were asking but since I had a similar situation: three people fired after a merger. Were not told the cause even when we asked. The closest I have is that one of my co-workers threatened to sue and eventually got an official answer of “not fitting in with company culture.”

      2. The Expendable Redshirt*

        Reasons weren’t given! The manager kept repeating “You are being terminated without cause.”
        The position wasn’t a contract. There was enough work to do, I actually met my successor a few weeks later. I wasn’t fired according to the definition above. My last performance review was very positive.

        I’m in Canada. Maybe incidentally hit a director with a snowball?

        1. Ask a Manager* Post author

          Hmmm. If they hadn’t replaced you, “laid off” would be reasonable. But I see why you’re stumped. I think the best you could do is “let go, but they clearly stated it wasn’t for cause.”

          1. The Expendable Redshirt*

            Sounds good.
            That job loss experience is what inspired my identity as The Expendable Redshirt. As an employee, I was so completely unimportant to the business plotline that I could be “killed off” without warning or explanation! lol

      3. Lindsay J*

        Mostly unrelated, but what do you do when you know you were fired, but don’t know why?

        A lot of applications ask you if you have ever been fired or asked to resign, and then ask you to explain if you select “yes”.

        I don’t really have an explanation that doesn’t me sound like I’m an idiot or hiding something (because seriously, who doesn’t know why they were fired?) or doesn’t make me sound like I’m badmouthing the company.

        I have a gut feeling that since I was the highest paid person at my level in the department, and my boss and I didn’t exactly have a stellar work relationship that I was basically a fall-guy. From what my boss and the other managers I worked with said, and what I know of the company culture, my boss was basically told that either he needed to do something to fix the department immediately, or that they were going to fix the department by firing him. And so he fired me to show he was doing *something* to fix it.

        I signed a document that basically had every possible reason for firing checked off, including, insubordination (when I asked about that I was told “You were told when I hired you not to let people fuck up, and you let them do it anyway,”) failure to report an incident, (“people fucked up and I wasn’t told about it,”) and about 8 other things.

        I was offered a job back at that company about 6 months later, and declined for obvious reasons.

        Usually when asked I just kind of say it was a bad personality fit. However, pretty often I’m pressed for details after that and I don’t really know what to say. And I don’t know if saying it was a bad personality fit is okay when there may have been other reasons that were not correctly articulated to me at the time.

        I had never been written up prior to being fired or anything, had been brought it as a change agent with a group that didn’t really want to change because they thought that their way was fine (and basically hired in at a high wage and put in my manger’s department by his boss without his input), and was generally well liked and respected by the other managers besides my own. (My manager and I were friendly out of work, but he had internalized the idea that being a boss mean being an ass somewhere along the line, and so liked to curse, bark orders, and basically expected you to ask “how high” when he said jump. He made one of my employees cry by telling them “If you don’t want to be treated like a fucking retard, don’t act like a fucking retard,” and gave me the silent treatment for a day and a half one time because I asked him a work related question.

    2. Rat in the Sugar*

      I would take that to mean “We really didn’t like you but didn’t catch you stealing anything.” “At cause” was a very common phrase when I worked in the service industry.

  8. ZSD*

    I believe the right-to-work definition is slightly inaccurate. My understanding is that the Supreme Court has ruled that no one can be forced to join a union as a condition of work. Rather, in right-to-work states, you can get the benefits negotiated by a union without choosing to join that union. In non-right-to-work states, you only get the benefits negotiated by the union if you’ve joined the union.

    1. Creag an Tuire*

      No, Allison’s right, it’s the other way around. By Statute, a union has a duty of fair representation to everyone in the bargaining unit, member or not. Because of this, unions will insist on a “closed shop” clause in the contract, in which case you absolutely can be forced to join the union as a condition of work. “Right-to-work” makes closed shops illegal.

      You may be thinking that nobody may be forced to participate in -political- activities as a condition of work (which is why unions have separate “political action” funds for campaign contributions and what not — a worker can’t be required to contribute to those). Or that the SCOTUS is hearing a case that could basically extend Right-to-work to the entire public sector under the logic that any collective bargaining with the government is inherently political.

      (Suffice to say I know a great deal about this subject.)

      1. ZSD*

        Thanks! I definitely read an article recently that explained it the way I put it above, but I don’t remember where that article was, so it may not have been a trustworthy source. Alas.

      2. Doreen*

        You can’t ever be forced to join a union. In non-right to work states, you can be required to pay a fee for representation ( usually called an agency fee or fair share payment) but fee payers don’t contribute anything towards political activities or organizing other workers etc. They cannot participate in things open only to members- everything from running for a union office to discounts on theme park tickets- but they are represented.

        Right to work states prohibit agreements between employers and unions that require the payment of fees of any kind to the union.

        1. Creag an Tuire*

          Technically true, though the terminology is muddled in that most unions will refer to Agency Fee-payers as “members” when stating their membership numbers, and union contracts mandating union “membership” as a condition of employment are considered legal as long as they do not enforce requirements beyond what the law allows (i.e. payment of agency fee).

      3. Retail HR Dude*

        You’re using the term “closed shop” but I think what you really mean to be using is “union shop”. A closed shop is one in which the company can only hire those already in the union, and are illegal in most industries (not just in right-to-work states). A union shop, on the other hand, is one in which the company can hire whomever they want, but then that person has to join the union once hired.

        1. Creag an Tuire*

          Ah, so I do.
          And evidently the “closed shop” by that definition is completely illegal in the US — the closest we have is the old-school “hiring halls”. (Which are basically union-run staffing agencies; still fairly common in my neck of the woods for electricians and plumbers and whatnot.)

  9. Elizabeth the Ginger*

    What’s different in Montana?

    Also, don’t most states have laws protecting you from being fired for being a whistleblower on other illegal activity, not just harassment or discrimination? For example, if someone reported unsafe working conditions to OSHA, aren’t there laws prohibiting that employee being fired in retaliation?

    1. ExceptionToTheRule*

      Montana does not recognize “at will” employment. In a brief nutshell: if you want to fire someone in Montana, it needs to be for cause. Google “at will employment montana” and the State’s FAQ should be the first link.

    2. Ask a Manager* Post author

      Montana passed its own state law modifying at-will employment; the state law only allows firing for “good cause,” which it defines as “reasonable job-related grounds for dismissal based on a failure to satisfactorily perform job duties, disruption of the employer’s business operation, or other legitimate business reason.” Montana courts have defined “legitimate business reason” as “reason that is neither false, whimsical, arbitrary or capricious, and it must have some logical relationship to the whims of the business.”

      Whistleblower protections vary by state. Here’s a good summary:


      1. LBK*

        I know they mean it in the sense that the firing can’t be impulsive, but it cracks me up that the reason can’t be “whimsical”. It’s good that Montana protects your right to wear sparkly fascinators to the office or have gnome figurines at your desk.

      1. Creag an Tuire*

        How strong is this provision in practice? Does the employer need a -specific- reason to fire, or can they just say something like “poor fit”?

    1. Terra*

      For anyone curious it looks like a “constructive discharge” is when you are essentially forced to resign because your employer has made it impossible for you to stay/perform your job. Usually the employer is trying to get the employee to quit so they can get rid of the person but not have to pay unemployment.

      An example would probably be in retail where they stop giving you hours or only giving you one shift every two weeks.

      1. Anon for friday*

        Constructive dismissal in the UK. The last paragraph would just be a zero hours contract though :(

        1. Terra*

          Ah, I’m in the US but the above example if semi-common in retail as a way of getting rid of employees without having to pay unemployment, although some states do have laws regarding this.

      2. Anon for this*

        With regards to the hours part… It depends on where you are if reducing hours counts as constructive dismissal/discharge.

        For instance– I had my hours at my job cut without warning (from 2 regularly scheduled days plus occasional floating to just floating), and when I vented about it online I was told it looked like constructive dismissal. I went to look up my state’s laws, and saw that I wouldn’t meet the threshold for constructive dismissal. It was a very upsetting time for me, as it happened at one of the worst possible times, plus the way it was handled permanently soured me on that manager.

  10. Hostile?*

    Does anyone know of a website that has examples of real hostile work environment cases? I’m starting to think even if you are in a legitimate hostile work environment not a lot can be done but maybe someone can set me straight?

    1. J*

      I always thought it was stuff like having racist/sexist stuff around, making inappropriate jokes, etc.

    2. fposte*

      I think you can just Google for successful cases.

      In general, I think you’re right that when a workplace has allowed a hostile work environment to exist and failed to intervene when it’s brought to their attention, an employee isn’t likely to be able to fix that workplace. By the time they’re cases, it’s too late to fix the workplace for that employee.

    3. AnonymousaurusRex*

      My partner was in a hostile work environment, and ended up quitting. I’ll give you her example. She was in an environment of pervasive sexual harassment that made her extremely uncomfortable. (e.g. daily comments about her body, coworkers watching porn at work and comparing her to the actors, coworkers describing their sex lives loudly to each other in front of her with the expectation to get a reaction from her, boss refusing to allow her to move her desk away from the creeps, even when it was clear she was super uncomfortable and had requested to move repeatedly. This went on for 2+ YEARS.) She feared retaliation from the good ol’ boys club and so didn’t report it for a long time. Eventually she reported it to HR, which to their credit stepped up and started firing people, but my partner still feared for her job and later her physical safety when multiple women who worked in her department had their tires slashed. We suspected that it might’ve been one of the employees who was fired. Everyone was trying to figure out “who the rat was” and eventually the pressure got to be too much and she quit. She probably could have had a decent lawsuit, but was seriously emotionally traumatized from the experience and just wanted to be out of there without having to interact with these people again.

      1. Hostile?*

        This is pretty similar to what I’m going through right now… I just feel gross, upset and creeped out all of the time but after doing some research it seems like it’s really hard to win in these situations and moving on is always the best bet :/

        1. AnonymousaurusRex*

          Yuck. I’m so sorry to hear that. It was really hard on my partner (and me too, incidentally). I’m thankful every day that she got out of there. Get out now! This kind of situation isn’t worth your mental and emotional health.

        2. LawPancake*

          I would still recommend talking to an employment lawyer. Even though a lot of the published cases you can find seem like they’re really unfavorable to the employees, the vast majority of employers are going to settle as soon as their internal investigation shows any merit in your allegations. Between the potential award, attorneys fees, and bad publicity it’s very rarely in the company’s interest to defend a bad case. I’m sorry you’re in a bad situation and hope you find something better soon!

          1. neverjaunty*

            Yes, this. Remember that what you find online are usually published cases or extremely way-out-there cases; you are not going to see cases where the employer quietly settled to keep dirty laundry from being aired, or cases that settled for a reasonable amount before trial.

            1. Liane*

              No, you will almost never find information about cases where there was a settlement for the plaintiff, because the terms of the settlement will generally bar both sides from disclosing the details.
              About the only situation where such settlements get publicized is if the case was a major news item and it was settled close to the trial/hearing date–but you would still only find out there was a last-minute settlement in Engineer Alice vs. Catbert Corp., not how much Catbert Corp. settled for.

    4. hbc*

      I found some interesting cases on findlaw (link to follow.) Once of the examples that was found to just barely make the cut was pretty horrifying.

      1. AnonAcademic*

        ”For example, in Hostetler v. Quality Dining, Inc., 218 F.3d 798 (7th Cir. 2000) an assistant supervisor at Burger King claimed a coworker, Payton, grabbed her face one day at work and “stuck his tongue down her throat.” Hostetler pushed him away and left the store. Payton approached Hostetler the next day, and in an attempt to keep Payton away from her face, Hostetler put her head between her knees. Payton proceeded to unsnap her bra. When Hostetler told Payton to take his hand off her, Payton just laughed and said he would undo it all the way. Payton left the room only after another employee suddenly entered. Within a week or two of these incidents, Payton stated in front of customers that he could perform oral sex on Hostetler so well that she would “turn cartwheels.” The Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals described this case as “a close one,” but ultimately held that the “physical, intimate and forcible” nature of the acts rendered the conduct severe enough to alter Hostetler’s work environment. – See more at: http://corporate.findlaw.com/human-resources/how-much-is-enough-difficulties-defining-hostile-work.html#sthash.o7efGnZX.dpuf



        “a close one”

        1. The Pedantic Lawyer*

          I read the opinion after I saw your comment because I wanted to know what the context was for the court’s use of the phrase, “a close one.” It turns out that it was not a direct quote from the decision. (I did a control+F search to be sure I didn’t overlook it.) Instead, it was likely a poor paraphrase of the following:

          “Whether Hostetler’s work environment objectively could be described as hostile is a somewhat closer question.”

          In a sexual harassment case, the plaintiff must prove (among other things) that the conduct involved was both subjectively and objectively offensive — subjectively as in the plaintiff herself was actually offended by the conduct and objectively as in a reasonable person would also have been offended by the conduct. As you might imagine, the subjectivity prong of the analysis doesn’t get much attention as courts tend to take plaintiffs at their word when they claim to have been offended. However, the objectivity prong generally requires a more thorough analysis of the alleged conduct and the reaction it would garner from a reasonable person. This is exactly the contrast that the court was highlighting when it referred to the second prong as a “somewhat closer question.”

          The very next paragraph begins:

          “We have no doubt that the type of conduct at issue here falls on the actionable side of the line dividing abusive conduct from behavior that is merely vulgar or mildly offensive. ”

          I don’t think it was very reasonable of FindLaw to have written that the Seventh Circuit called this case “a close one.”

    5. Dynamic Beige*

      It’s not a website but I saw the movie North Country a while back and it was pretty shocking, the abuse that was portrayed. It was apparently based on a true story Class Action: The Story of Lois Jenson and the Landmark Case That Changed Sexual Harassment Law by Clara Bingham and Laura Leedy Gansler

  11. HM in Atlanta*

    Termination is what’s always been used in benefits policies/pensions/government forms as the no-fault way of saying, “the person’s last day of employment”. It was legalese that has spilled over into regular speech. I think if we had a neutral word that meant the same thing, people would jump to use it.

    1. TootsNYC*

      would “let go” apply? Alison in fact uses it for both.
      “termination” actually applies when you resign; you resign, and in its paperwork, the company refers to “termination date.”

    2. Ask a Manager* Post author

      I would always say “laid off” rather than “let go” if I meant laid off. Because “let go” could refer to both, there’s no reason to imply you might have been fired if you weren’t.

  12. Log Lady*

    I’m pretty sure my former boss wrote off everyone who no longer worked here as ‘terminated for cause’ for whatever reason you no longer worked here. Laid off, quit, fired, retired, died. Like, literally wrote it on your time card.

    1. Terra*

      Some places use one term for psuedo-legal reasons (not wanting to disclose the actual situation). Some companies will also list everyone as fired “for cause” in an attempt to keep from having to pay unemployment.

  13. Marie C.*

    I was recently let go because my organization (a non-profit) got a new local manager who wanted to bring in his own people. The new manager asked me to stay for two weeks to train my replacements, so I was in an awkward position of needing to explain tactfully to some colleagues and volunteers that I would be leaving. A week after my last day, I received a harsh email from the new manager saying that I had been telling people I was “fired”; that the new manager could only conclude that I was telling people this “as an act of aggression” towards him; and that therefore my organization would decline to give me any severance payments. On my part, I don’t recall exactly what terminology I used in every conversation, but know I did make an effort to leave as discreetly and gracefully as possible.

    I just want to know, was the manager being unreasonable here, or was I at fault for not being more careful about my wording in one-on-one conversations?

      1. Marie C.*

        Generally, it was along the lines of “This is my last week here, because Manager wants to bring in his own person for [job], so you might want to follow up with New Person next week on that.”

        I had actually been filling several different roles in the organization, and while I was working in my field, I am technically overqualified for the work I had been doing (I have two advanced degrees, but I couldn’t cope with the cutthroat competition in the academic job market). This led many of our volunteers to assume that New Manager would have me moved to a different position doing more upper-level work, at which point I would have to clarify that I was leaving altogether—if I used the word “fired,” it would have been in a situation like this.

        Also, several volunteers likewise assumed that I was “moving on to greener pastures,” or that I was leaving because I had found a better job. A few people asked me happily: “So what’s next for you then?” At which point, I would usually answer with: “I’ll be job-hunting, actually. But I have a few leads and I feel hopeful.”

        1. Ask a Manager* Post author

          That’s not at all unreasonable; it’s accurate and unemotional. If he had wanted different messaging, he should have worked it out with you ahead of time, not blamed you for not reading his mind.

          1. Marie C.*

            For what it’s worth, in the conversation where New Manager let me go, he kept trying to persuade me that leaving was actually my idea. E.g.: “You never really wanted to do [old job], right? Wouldn’t it be better if you just got a job doing [unrealistic dream career]?” So although I never agreed to it, I think he was hoping—or maybe expecting—me to tell people that I quit of my own free will.

            However, unfortunately I was working in the same small town where my parents still live. In addition to having a basic desire to be honest in general, I didn’t want to tell people that I quit when I hadn’t. It may sound silly, but I didn’t want people to think that I was so imprudent as to quit a job I liked without having anything else lined up.

            1. Yep*

              I’ve also been in the awkward position of being essentially fired and laid off at the same time. They too tried to phrase it like it was my idea to leave.

              In your case, there’s obvious restructuring going, so it’s a layoff. And it looks like you never told others you were fired, handled things tactfully, weren’t acting resentful, etc. Be rest assured you’re doing all you can do.

              Good luck with the job search!

    1. The Cosmic Avenger*

      Wow, I would love to know more about what you signed when they agreed to a severance package, if anything. If you did sign something, look it over carefully for anything about being forbidden to discuss anything with other employees.

      1. neverjaunty*

        Seriously. Sounds to me like the manager was fishing for an excuse to keep the severance payment.

        1. Marie C.*

          It did actually cross my mind that maybe the manager was looking for an excuse not to pay me severance.

          I didn’t have any kind of written agreement—I asked for one, but the manager refused to put anything in writing. But in the culture of my organization and similar organizations, it’s almost unheard of for a new boss to bring in his own people. There’s a strong sense of working with the people you have, and sticking with people who are well-acquainted with the local area and the people (especially since so much of the work depends on keeping up a volunteer base).

          Also, we had known we were getting a new manager for a few months before he actually came, and every time I wanted to talk with him about his transition to our site or the details of how he saw my role within the organization, he led me to believe that I would still have a job, but kept saying “we’ll talk more about it when I get there.” Then he let me go his very first morning on our site. Since he put off telling me that he wanted to bring in his own people, I missed the annual hiring season for jobs in my field. So it was a situation where verbally offering severance was sort of expected as the decent thing to do.

          I know I don’t have any legal recourse here (and even if I did, taking legal action against one’s employer is the fastest way to get yourself blacklisted in my field). But this was my first full-time job after leaving academia, so I’m just trying to get a sense of what’s normal and reasonable.

  14. Cheddar2.0*

    Do union regulations supersede the at-will right to fire whenever? I’ve always wondered about that. I work in an at-will state but my union regs are pretty strongly worded about requiring PIP and meetings with unions reps and HR before firings can go through.

    1. Koko*

      Yes, but violating it would be a civil matter rather than a criminal one. A company could be ordered to pay out damages if they were sued for violating the union contract. If they refused to pay legally-mandated overtime to non-exempt employees, the employer could be liable for criminal prosecution for violating federal and state laws.

  15. Rachael*

    An interesting thing about “protected class” is that some people think it means that they will be the last to be laid off or fired. I was in a meeting regarding a merger (and thus layoff of 90% of the whole bank- whole departments were laid off) when someone in one of those depts spoke up and said “that doesn’t apply to me because I’m a protected class, right?” They were serious and there was quite the awkward pause.

    1. Sara*

      I have a relative who thinks that being a member of a protected class means she cannot be fired (even with cause) or laid off, period. A few years back she was really raising a stink about some changes that her new manager implemented, and the manager sat her down to talk about the issues and to impress upon her that her continued employment depended on getting on board with the changes. Relative said, “You can’t fire me if I have [disability that she has]. I’ll sue!” When her position was reduced to half time (due to budget/changing personnel needs), she also tried to fight that on the grounds of having a disability. I like this person as a human, but on employment-related matters she’s pretty insufferable.

      1. F.*

        This attitude among some people who consider themselves to be of a “protected class” has been perpetuated in the USA by some shady employment lawyers who promise to get money for you if your employment is terminated for any reason. Many companies will settle lawsuits to avoid the bad publicity. Unfortunately this then causes some of these employees to behave in the workplace as though they cannot be fired.

  16. HRish Dude*

    I think it’s okay to say “terminated” if you are fighting with or against a cyborg sent from the future by your future self or son of your future self.

  17. Anon in AZ*

    Regarding hostile workplace: Does an employer have a duty to protect their employees from hostile actions from clients, or in this case students? Would if fall under the “hostile workplace” rule if they failed to do so?

    I spent a miserable 9 months teaching in a district where the principal stood behind students who made racially charged comments to me on a daily basis, called me names, violated my personal space and shouted at me. I cried almost every day, and almost walked off the job in November. I was living hand to mouth with my car in hock at the time, so I was terrified to leave for fear I would not be eligible for unemployment.

    If I had known about this concept at the time, I might have saved myself some grief.

  18. Blurgle*

    If you can use the word “terminated” and not add the words “with extreme prejudice”, even if only in your head, I salute you.

  19. CanadianDot*

    Small note: Where I work, the Hiring Manager is the person handling the hiring competition. It’s who you ask questions of, and who does all the paperwork, etc, but it’s not necessarily the Manager of the Hire. I’m currently the Hiring Manager for a position 2 levels above mine, for an entirely different division.

    I work for Government, though, so things can be different here.

  20. Hornswoggler*

    Just an NB about UK terminology: ‘laid off’ means a temporary lay-off from work, for perhaps a month or six weeks. This can still be seen in mass manufacturing industries when there is a tight squeeze on finances or a large contract is cancelled – workers are kept on the books but not actually paid or are paid at a lower rate because there is no work at the moment but there will be in the near future. It’s a way of retaining skilled labour.

    Laid off is starting to be used as a synonym for being made redundant, I think because it make it sound like it’s the employer’s fault. What it doesn’t mean is ‘fired’.

    1. UK HR bod*

      Yes, a lay-off is specific. In the UK, the legal term is dismissal – this tends to have negative connotations, but if your employer ends your employment it’s dismissal. There are potentially fair reasons for dismissal (conduct / capability or qualifications / redundancy / statutory requirements such as expiry of visa/ some other substantial reason) – realistically, employers will avoid using the term dismissal in capability and redundancy situations. We also have unfair, constructive and wrongful dismissal.

    2. One of the Sarahs*

      Yes, I always assume “made redundant” = eg “we had to cut half the employees”/”we closed the office” or whatever, & it wasn’t about the employee’s performance (though of course they could have chosen to take a redundancy package, if it’s either, I dunno, move to a job in a different city, or leave)

  21. Erin*

    Thank you so much for this post.

    I am shocked at how often I see otherwise very intelligent people using fired and laid off interchangeably; they truly think there’s no difference.

    Really everything you listed here is so easily misunderstood.

  22. Kendall*

    At my company they’ve been saying ‘released.’ (This reminds me of True Blood and immediately made me imagine that her boss is a vampire … but that’s another thing) My boss was ‘released’ just a few days before a round of layoffs. Everyone keeps asking me if she was fired or laid off, and I’m really not sure.

  23. Roberta*

    What would you call it if someone’s employment was terminated because they used up their FMLA leave and weren’t able to return to work? It’s technically for cause, but not because of anything they did, and “laid off” doesn’t seem right in that situation. I’ve always used “terminated” for that scenario but I don’t care for that term, not least because when you say “The employer terminated Fergus on March 3, 2015” it sounds like the employer had poor Fergus killed.

  24. JulieBulie*

    Fired: If someone is fired, they are being let go for cause.
    6. At-will vs. right to work
    […] your employer can fire you at any time, without warning, without having to establish just cause

    I’m a little confused. First you say that firing is for cause… but later you say an employer can fire without having to establish just cause?

    So… does that mean you can be fired without cause? Or is the relevant bit “without having to establish” – in other words, all firing is presumed to be for cause even if there does not have to be any evidence of cause?

    My brain hurts. :-(

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