Watch CBS News

Fired for violating an unwritten policy

Dear Evil HR Lady,

I was just fired for using my personal laptop, during my lunch, connected to the company's "guest" wireless network. When you connect to the guest network, a "rules of the road" message comes up about acceptable use (gambling, illegal activity, etc), but nowhere does it say employees can't connect while using non-company devices. I am sure many employees throughout the building are connected to the guest wireless on a regular basis. I used my personal laptop to view baseball online during the opening week of the season. I honesty figured it was better to use my personal device on the guest network rather than my corporate device on the corporate network. A few days after doing this my boss called me and sakd, "Someone said you were using your personal laptop at work?" I told him that I had in fact used my computer, on the guest network during lunch, to check Major League Baseball highlights. The next Monday I was terminated for violating company policy.

I have worked for two companies for a total of 32 years. I was rated as "highly valued" or higher in each of my reviews for the 9 years at my latest employer. There were no job performance or attendance issues, but my boss and I did not get along. He is much younger and wanted to be "best buddies" with his subordinates, and I wanted to keep a professional degree of separation. After a recent management style disagreement, I voiced my concerns to my HR rep and a month later I was terminated.

I am trying to move on and am very actively perusing other employment, but the idea of having to tell people in an interview that I was "fired with cause" at my last job is very difficult. I don't want my job back but would like to set the record straight, maybe get a severance package, and/or my insurance coverage back until I find employment.

Do I have a "case"? Should I seek the advice of a lawyer, or just get over it and move on. I am extremely careful not to bad-mouth my previous employer or company in interviews, but I can't help but feel "blackballed" for having to explain being fired.

Do you have a case? Well, if you hadn't written the second paragraph, I'd say you do not have a case at all. You are, undoubtedly, an "at-will" employee, which means you can be fired for any reason or no reason, as long as the reason isn't an illegal one, like race, gender or (drum roll please) age. And that's where that second paragraph comes in.

If you've got 32 years worth of work experience under your belt, I'm going to make an assumption that you're well over 40, which is when the federal age discrimination statutes kick in. Now, this doesn't mean that an employer can't fire you for using your personal laptop on the company guest network. It absolutely can. They can also fire you for picking your nose, wearing mismatched shoes, or chewing with your mouth open. Employers don't even have to specifically say it's against the rules. But the question is, is the statement that you were fired for using the guest network a "pretext" for getting rid of you, or is that the real reason?

Pretext in this context means that they tell you you are being fired for using your personal laptop, but the real reason is that your boss didn't want to have an older person on his staff. Now, I have no idea whether or not this was the reason. It could well be that age didn't make a whit of difference to your boss,but your lack of desire to be buddy-buddy bothered him. In that case, it's perfectly legal to terminate you over what the company might contend was a poor cultural fit.

But if other people are frequently using the guest network on their personal devices, that isn't the real reason you were fired. And you can use this to your advantage.

You can either approach this yourself, by sending an email to HR detailing that you believe you were fired because of your age, and not because of the laptop usage, or you can get an attorney to do this for you. If you do it yourself, the subject line on your email should be "Official complaint of age discrimination." That said, it's generally only a couple hundred dollars to get an attorney to write a letter for you and it will carry much more weight. (If you do decide to go the lawyer route, try to find one that specializes in labor and employment law.)

If I were you, I'd use this as leverage to get severance, insurance and your reason for termination changed to laid off. It's highly possible that HR will freak out (especially if you have actual proof that others are using the network and that your boss has said other things about your age). I, personally, wouldn't want to get involved in an actual lawsuit because it is mentally, emotionally and financially draining, and there's a good chance you wouldn't win. But to ask for severance and a better termination reason? You bet. In fact, even if you are 100 percent sure that it's not age discrimination you should ask for severance, because the worst they will say is no. (You shouldn't complain about age discrimination if you are sure it wasn't. After all, integrity is still a priority.)

Additionally, file for unemployment. If it's rejected because you were fired for "cause," appeal. You'll most likely win, as there wasn't a specific policy against using the guest network.

Have a workplace dilemma? Send your questions to

View CBS News In
CBS News App Open
Chrome Safari Continue
Be the first to know
Get browser notifications for breaking news, live events, and exclusive reporting.