Fired for an innocent mistake? what about references?

QUESTION:  I worked for a retail outlet for just under three years and never received any significant criticisms of my performance. One day, I accidentally gave a customer a discount for which they did not qualify. It was not someone I knew. I received no personal benefit from this mistake whatsoever. My manager told me I was guilty of theft. I told him no money ended up in my pocket. He said if it wasn’t theft it was fraud. In any case, he fired me. The Ministry of Labour says they will collect the two weeks minimum termination pay and I know that having filed with them I cannot sue for more.  My concern is my future job prospects. This is the first job I ever had and I am afraid that if any potential employer calls him up, he is going to tell them I am a fraud artist. Is there anything I can do about this?
ANSWER The fact is that nothing any judge can do can control what your old boss says in a telephone conversation behind a closed door with a potential employer that for which he will never be held accountable.
If you really think he is stupid enough to repeat such an allegation to anyone else, you could consider getting a lawyer to write him a letter. It would be copied to the company. It should indicate that if you learn that he has repeated this false and groundless allegation to anyone you will immediately bring an action for defamation against him personally and his employer. Such a letter will usually shut the mouth of all but the most obtuse of bosses.  You never know, it might also alert head office to the qualities of their “manager”.
If you received any written performance appraisals during your employment and, assuming they were positive, you should make copies to hand to any prospective employer at a job interview.
Employers don’t usually ask for references until after you have completed a successful interview.  At that point, you would say,
“This is a copy of my last performance review before I left my last job. You will see that it’s very positive. One day I made a mistake with respect to a customer discount and as a result, I was terminated. I was eventually given pay in lieu of notice because the termination was not for just cause. (That’s true since you eventually will). Things did not end well between myself and my manager so I don’t think that he is going to say positive things about me but my performance review is a better indicator of my abilities and commitment as an employee.”
There’s a lot to be said for dealing with this issue up front. Your employer can see from your resume where you worked and whether or not you give your old boss’s name, they just may call him up. You will never know what happened in that conversation and if he says something negative, the employer is not going to call you back to get your side of the story. That never happens. If you have dealt with it up front, at least you have a chance.
Another option is to think about other managers or supervisors or, if you have to, colleagues, with whom you worked during your employment. You want to feel comfortable that they are prepared to take a reference phone call and be enthusiastic. (Written reference letters are nice but nobody relies on them in making a hiring decision.)
Don’t worry about the explanation for your termination on the employment record. That is not a public document and the only people that see it are you, the boss and the unemployment insurance office.
Finally, I am neither an advocate nor critic of unions. I recognize their important role in the history of the labour movement.  I also see their excesses and downsides.
But I will note this; if you ever wondered why people sign union cards and agree to pay union dues out of their weekly pay cheque, you have just learned why in a very brutal way. The fact is that in the unionized environment you would never have been terminated and if you were, you would be reinstated with back pay soon thereafter.
As published in the Hamilton Spectator, October 29, 2012
Ed Canning
Ed Canning
P: 905.572.5809