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Ask the Headhunter: I got fired ‘for cause.’ What does that mean?

Nick Corcodilos started headhunting in Silicon Valley in 1979 and has answered over 30,000 questions from the Ask The Headhunter community.

In this special Making Sen$e edition of Ask The Headhunter, Nick shares insider advice and contrarian methods about winning and keeping the right job, on one condition: that you, dear Making Sense reader, send Nick your questions about your personal challenges with job hunting, interviewing, networking, resumes, job boards or salary negotiations. No guarantees — just a promise to do his best to offer useful advice.


Question: After three years of employment, I was called into my HR office and told I was being terminated “for cause.” I don’t want to get into details, but it wasn’t my fault. I didn’t do anything wrong. But they kept using that phrase, “for cause.” I won’t let it happen to me again, but when I get a new job, how do I know what “cause” means?

Nick Corcodilos: The terms under which an employer can terminate you are probably defined in the company’s employee handbook. Loosely speaking, being “terminated for cause” means they fired you for something specific you did that justifies their action. While it’s too late now, you might still ask for a copy to see how the company defines “cause.”

But please learn from this. Before you accept your next job, ask for the employer’s policy manual. Read it. Don’t wait until you get fired for cause — be forewarned. Pay close attention to those terms when you accept a job offer.

The following is excerpted from my PDF book, “Parting Company: How to leave your job.”

A little-understood clause in many job offers and employment contracts states that when you leave the company you will receive all benefits due you including bonuses, commissions, references and so on—unless you are terminated for cause. If you are terminated for cause, you lose certain rights and benefits.

The trouble is, few people have any idea what cause means. It can mean anything if it is not defined in the agreement. Cause could mean you offended another employee with a rude remark. It could mean you embezzled a million dollars. It could mean you didn’t turn in your expense report on time.

Before you accept a job offer, it’s up to you to insist on a reasonable written definition of cause that limits the company’s ability to give you the shaft.

My book suggests how you might modify such a clause. However, this suggested definition of “cause” does not constitute legal advice. I provide it only as an example to help you think about an obscure term whose definition could hurt you when you part company. Before you sign or modify any contract or agreement, consult a qualified attorney. For more tips about how to avoid trouble if you get terminated, see “Quit, Fired, Downsized: Leave on your own terms.”

Dear Readers: Have you ever been fired “for cause?” How did you handle it?


Nick Corcodilos invites Making Sense readers to subscribe to his free weekly Ask The Headhunter© Newsletter. His in-depth “how to” PDF books are available on his website: “How to Work With Headhunters…and how to make headhunters work for you,” “Keep Your Salary Under Wraps,” “How Can I Change Careers?” and “Fearless Job Hunting.”

Send your questions to Nick, and join him for discussion every week here on Making Sense. Thanks for participating!

Copyright © 2018 Nick Corcodilos. All rights reserved in all media. Ask the Headhunter® is a registered trademark.

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