Dilemma of the Month: Terminated for Breaking Company Policy

Back Article Sep 22, 2016 By Suzanne Lucas
I was recently let go from a job due to accessing information on our system that I had been taught was allowed. HIPAA guidelines show no issue with getting this information because it was requested. I did break a policy (that I was unaware of), and the company did not wish to discuss the matter further. I had been an employee of the company for nearly three years with no other issues. While I was technically at fault, it was out of a misunderstanding and would not have happened had I been aware that my action was disallowed. The official reason for termination is accessing files not “necessary” for my job. I’m trying to find a way to point out what I did was done in good faith and not due to unprofessionalism. Also, I’ve been job hunting for nearly a month now and suffer from depression and anxiety, which makes the search harder. If you have any pointers, I’d appreciate your input.

I’m certainly not a HIPAA expert, so I’ll believe what you said is true — you didn’t violate HIPAA, but you did violate a company policy. HIPAA is quite complicated and restrictive, and companies are understandably concerned about compliance, so it makes sense when rules are more restrictive than they need to be. That way, if an employee breaks a rule, they aren’t putting the company in legal jeopardy.

But how to handle the termination? There are a few steps you need to take. The one you’re working on right now is what to say to potential employers, and that’s critical, but we’ll address that last. Here are the other steps you need tom take first.

Talk to your former HR department. Whether or not your termination letter addressed the reason for your termination, your personnel file might include this information. Most companies have a “verify employment” only policy, and HR is usually pretty good at sticking with it. But some will give the reason for termination, and some will tell whether or not you are eligible for rehire. If your company will give the reason for termination, it’s critical that your explanation match your former employer’s.

If you say you were terminated because of X and HR says you were terminated because of Y, you’ll fail a background check because it looks like you’re lying. You both may be telling the truth, but your viewpoints make it look different. So, find out what they are going to say. Also find out if you’re eligible for rehire. Most likely you’re not, since you were terminated for violating policy, but it’s better to find out now.

Related: Dilemma of the Month: Unrealistic Performance Goals

Talk to your former manager. When people ask for references, you aren’t obligated to give the name of the person who fired you. However, the company you apply to isn’t obligated to stick to your list, either. Most people will want to speak to your most recent supervisor. It’s best to know what your supervisor is going to say. That way you can prepare a reference checker with your side of the story.

Again, most companies say managers can’t give references, but any reference checker will tell you that most managers will spill the beans. Legally, a manager can share anything that is true, including personal opinions.

How to explain your termination. This is the thing you are the most stressed out about, and it’s really quite straightforward. Be honest and unemotional, and explain what you’ve learned. In your case you’d say something like, “I was terminated for violating a company policy regarding medical records. It wasn’t a HIPAA violation, but it was a policy violation. I was unaware of the policy, but I take responsibility for that. I should have made sure I understood all internal policies, and not just made the assumption that compliance with the law was all that was required.”

Poll: Should You be Fired for Breaking Rules You Didn’t Know?

This answer shows you acknowledge your mistake and indicates what you are doing to fix it. Will this answer guarantee you a new job tomorrow? Of course not. But it is the best route to take.

Dealing with your depression and anxiety. I’m sorry you suffer from these conditions. They can make job hunting, which is full of anxiety for everyone, practically paralyzing. If you are receiving treatment, make it a financial priority to keep that treatment going. It’s critical for your job search. If you aren’t receiving treatment, call your doctor today. Payment plans can be worked out if necessary, and this will help your job search immensely. 


Visitormaria (not verified)September 30, 2016 - 1:52pm

Great comments for someone who has been fired as to followup on how to answer about that job situation. As for viewpoint of what should an employee do about knowing policies, I took the poll and was surprised at the large number of people who feel it depends on situation. OK, we all feel our individual importance in the world,but sometimes rules/policies are there for reasons. There is a way to question but going against policy is not the way. Reminds me of a saying--Would you cut off your nose to spite your face.

A manager (not verified)October 1, 2016 - 5:46am

Regardless of how crappy a company is, they will normally not fire someone who has a spotless record and then commits a minor policy violation. I'll venture a guess and say that there were personality conflicts between this person and someone else or others. They found a way to fire this person for cause to get rid of her. Regardless of whether she was in the right or was really a terrible employee crying "victim", I believe there is more to this story.

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