By BENET J. WILSON
Back in 1992, I worked for a DC-based aviation publication. I loved my work, and I received constant praise for doing a great job and keeping the news team happy and organized. My boss even gave me an award for my hard work.
A week after receiving that award, I was brought into the company board room, where I was unceremoniously fired and given 15 minutes to clear out my things. I asked why, and the first response from the publisher was “it’s just not working out.” When I noted that my editor (who was sitting in the meeting looking extremely unhappy) had just given me an award for my work, the publisher said “it was a business decision,” and ended the meeting.
In the end, that publication did me a favor, because it eventually folded — and the remnants were picked up by the company that hired me after that firing. You can read our story about what recently happened to a young journalist at her first job, here.
I’ve learned a lot since my own termination, including what my rights are in terms of firing or even layoffs. But young and emerging journalists might not know what their rights are and what options are available for them outside of applying for unemployment.
Exavier Pope of The Pope Firm is an award-winning attorney, a legal analyst and a member of the National Association of Black Journalists. He noted that there are two types of employment — at will, where an employee can be fired at any time and contract, which has firable terms specifically listed in the document.
“If you look at what happened to the person in your story, she in fact was demoted first, even though she was being paid the same amount. This move was like being fired,” Pope said. “If you look at her original job as research and reporting, she never performed those functions. She was doing secretarial work, which was not job she was hired for. Essentially, she was fired from her original job.”
If the firing happened while she was under contract, she has a case for wrongful termination, said Pope. “Putting people in a lesser job at the same pay is how employers set employees up to prevent wrongful termination lawsuits,” he explained. “Instead of firing someone outright, an employer asks an employee to accept a job with lesser responsibilities that they don’t want, so the employee is faced with quitting or being fired. Employees are more likely to quit, which means they don’t have to pay severance or unemployment. They don’t know their rights, so they just quit.” Technically, the company didn’t fire her, he added.
Pope says that the time to get legal advice is before an employee is actually fired. “Too many people go to a lawyer after the fact. If someone feels they are in an unfair labor situation before making a decision that could affect their rights after losing their job, they should contact legal counsel before being fired or quitting,” he said. “Once you quit, you extinguish some of your rights.”
So if an employee is troubled about their job situation, then they need to get a legal opinion on the matter, said Pope. “Sometimes employers give employees a short window of opportunity to be fired or quit. You can ask for time to make that decision, using existing paid leave or vacation,” he said. “Use that time to see an attorney and get an opinion on what you should do so you’ll have a sound strategy when you return to your employer with an answer.”
Once the decision is made, make sure the employer puts in writing the reason for your firing, the end date and any severance pay in case something goes sour, said Pope. “In the journalism industry, people of color often feel the need to just move on. But that doesn’t mean you lose your rights. Take advantage of those rights and remember that people who come after you can use what you did to make sure their rights are protected as well.”
In the end, if an employer wants to fire you, they will find an excuse to do it. But know if they do, you have options and resources that can soften the blow and help you move on to that next job.
Benét J. Wilson is the founder and owner of Aviation Queen LLC, a freelance writing, multimedia and consulting firm. She is an aviation/travel freelance journalist and blogger who has written for publications and blogs including USA Today, AirwaysNews.com, ACI-NA Centerlines magazine, Jetrader magazine, Aviation International News, Airport World, the Airline Passenger Experience magazine and the Runway Girl Network. She currently serves on the boards of the Online News Association and the National Association of Black Journalists. She is the editor of AllDigitocracy.org.