Q: Last Wednesday, my boss accused me of stealing a laptop. I didn’t and said so. He didn’t believe me. He said I had to admit what I did, and if I didn’t, I had to resign or be fired.
I didn’t have any choice, so I resigned. I figured it would look better for me when I tried to get another job. Now, I can’t get unemployment right away and don’t have money coming in and can’t pay my rent. This whole thing has slammed me to the floor. I don’t feel like looking for a job with this hanging over me. If another employer calls my boss, he’ll tell them I’m a thief. What do I do?
A: Start with the Department of Labor. When your boss said, “Admit you’re a thief or quit,” he left you no choice other than quitting or being fired. Although employees who resign by choice generally face a six-week waiting period before collecting unemployment compensation, those who resign due to a “good cause” such as intolerable circumstances can often avoid this waiting period. Discrimination, harassment, unsafe working conditions, the need to relocate to escape domestic violence, an illness that prevents the employee from performing job duties or an employer not paying the employee may also constitute “good cause.”
If your boss tells the Department of Labor that he accepted your resignation in lieu of firing you for stealing, which is misconduct, you’ll likely face a hearing. If your employer can’t prove you stole, you may win the hearing. South Dakota’s Supreme Court decided a similar case involving a grocery clerk accused by her manager of stealing an evening bank deposit that disappeared on her shift. When the manager told the employee that if she didn’t admit her theft, he didn’t “ever want to see (her) face again,” she walked out and filed for unemployment benefits. The employer appealed her right to unemployment benefits, arguing the employee quit voluntarily. According to the court’s ruling, the employee had a right to benefits as the employer left the employee no option other than quitting.
Next, act to clear your record. When circumstances cast suspicion on innocent employees, employers can jump to incorrect conclusions . While you may not be able to get your job back, if your boss realizes he jumped to a conclusion without proof, he may agree to not say anything negative to prospective employers.
It’s understandable that you now feel overwhelmed. If you dial 211, they’ll put you in touch with resources, including legal assistance, counseling and emergency food and shelter. You can also decide you won’t let an unfair situation stop you from getting a good job. Scan indeed.com and Craigslist.com and apply for at least 10 jobs daily. While you may fear rejection, the rejection you heap on yourself by telling yourself you can’t get a new job dwarfs the external rejection you might receive from prospective employers. In other words, face reality and move forward.
Meanwhile, employers lose billions of dollars to employee theft annually. Even when employers catch employees red-handed on video, some employee thieves sue for wrongful termination. Although employers generally win these suits, it costs time and money.
Employers faced with theft can meet the challenge if they fairly investigate and make sure they don’t jump to conclusions. If an employer uncovers evidence of theft that isn’t conclusive, the employer can place the employee on administrative leave and continue investigating until the proof surfaces. The employer may also benefit from terminating the employee under employment at will or for loss of confidence or lack of trust, phrases less volatile than theft. Good luck.
Correction: A previous version of this story incorrectly stated the Alaska Bar Association maintains a list of attorneys willing to work with pro bono clients.