Can this get me Fired? Employee Dos & Don'ts

Last year, David Colby was fired as Chief Financial Officer of health insurance company WellPoint Inc. for a violation of company code--misconduct of a "non-business nature."

Yes, this term is vague, but the exact meaning recently became clearer when a group of lawsuits by Colby's former lovers became public; it is alleged that Colby, who is married, romanced as many as 30 women around the country in 2007 alone, gave them extravagant gifts while promising even more, and then failed to live up to his word.

And Colby isn't the only high-ranking executive to lose his position over misbehavior in his personal life. A year ago, Chris Albrecht, HBO's chief executive, was asked to leave by Time Warner after he was arrested for battering his girlfriend. Harry Stonecipher, former Boeing CEO, was forced to resign after an affair with a female employee was uncovered.

Even if you're not a corporate executive, though, you should be familiar with basic employment law concepts so you know what constitutes employee misconduct and what could be grounds for your termination.

Below is an explanation of employment "at-will", the most common arrangement, followed by five tips that can help you stay employed.

Employment "at will"

Most states operate under the "at will" employment doctrine, which provides that an employee works for an employer at the will of the employer. This essentially means that an employee can be fired at any time for any reason except for those expressly prohibited by law such as discrimination (note that very small employers may be exempt from this) or in retaliation for whistle blowing or for exercising certain legal rights such as taking family and medical leave, military leave, or time off to vote or serve on a jury.

Are you an at-will employee? If you don't have something orally or in writing from your employer that states otherwise, you are most likely an at-will employee. On the other hand, if your employer has provided you a policy that requires good cause in order to terminate the employment relationship, pay special attention to the reasons listed and, of course, avoid violating the policy.

With the thought that "an ounce of prevention is worth a pound cure," here are five things you should always do to help ensure that you remain gainfully employed.



5 Do's in the Workplace

1. Do show up.

Absenteeism is probably the most easily justified reason an employer can fire you, particularly since evidence supporting the claim, e.g., time sheets or time cards, isn't difficult for employers to compile.

If you have medical reasons for missing work, be sure to keep documentation as your employer may be required to at least attempt to accommodate the situation.

2. Do work while at work.

Employers want competent, productive employees, and there's no better way to show how great you are at your job than to actually work.

This means cutting down on coffee chat breaks as well as email and instant messaging, particularly if you're communicating with coworkers as certain forwarded jokes may not strike everyone in the same way; if your well-intended Internet humor goes awry and a coworker is offended, not only may you be reprimanded or even fired, your employer may be in for a lawsuit as well.

3. Do play well with others.

Respect is essential for in the workplace, so, as in life, it's best to follow the tried and true Golden Rule of treating others as you would like to be treated.

Physical or emotional abuse towards your coworkers or management can be grounds for immediate termination as can disrespect and refusal to carry out orders, which is often termed "insubordination."

4. Do play by the rules.

This is the part where the executives discussed above got into trouble as their companies had codes of conduct that they were expected to follow even outside the office.

Although many employers don't have specific policies in place regarding your behavior outside of the workplace, if yours does, be sure to read them and understand what is expected of you. If your employer has informed you of clear policies that can withstand legal challenges, any violation of those rules can be grounds for immediate dismissal.

Note that criminal activity such as embezzlement or fraud and coming to work intoxicated or high are often good cause for termination.

5. Do keep copies of contracts, policies, time cards, etc.

If your workplace provides contracts, policies, time cards and other written documents regarding your employment, keep copies of these somewhere safe so that you can refer to them if needed.

Additionally, if you have been given information orally, specifically about potential reasons for termination, write them down and date them so that you can remember exactly what was said.