Attention Graduates: Tips for Avoiding Pitfalls That May Derail Your (Early) Career!

July 23, 2014

“I wish someone had told me  . . .” isn’t the line you want to use to end your first job out of high school or college.  However, many unsuspecting and fairly naïve recently-minted graduates have a serious misunderstanding about how companies treat certain policy and conduct infractions in the workplace. So read ahead to arm yourself with the knowledge and wisdom you’ll need to steer clear of the snare that could potentially result in termination for cause at the onset of your career.

Mistaken Assumption #1:  “If I mess up, the company has to give me written notice before they can fire me, right?”

Wrong!  In most states, you’ll technically be hired “at will,” meaning that a company can terminate you with or without cause or notice.  Further, most organizations have “introductory” periods, otherwise known as “probationary” periods, which allow them to terminate a new hire at whim if that person isn’t meeting performance or conduct standards.  In fact, even if you’re hired into a union job, most collective bargaining agreements give employers full latitude to terminate at whim within the probationary period (typically 60–90 days).  So it’s definitely not the case that you’re entitled to some form of documented corrective action before a company will feel comfortable pulling the plug on your employment.

Mistaken Assumption #2:  Companies treat performance problems similar to how they treat conduct problems

Wrong again!  Performance and conduct challenges are typically handled in a totally different manner in most organizations.  When you think of “progressive discipline” (AKA “corrective action”) in the form of a verbal, written, and ultimately final written warning, you’re usually referring to performance or attendance problems.  However, conduct or behavior-based infractions often warrant what’s known as “summary dismissal” (i.e., immediate termination)—even for a first offense.

It’s easy enough to understand why a company would terminate someone outright for theft, embezzlement, fraud, and the like, but employees don’t realize that there are other types of infractions that typically result in immediate dismissal.  Here are just a few:

  • Timecard Fraud

In the workplace, time is a proxy for money.  If you steal time, it’s the same as stealing money, because the end result is the same: The company is out the money that you took illegally.  For example, if you put in for overtime that you didn’t work, that’s considered “timecard fraud.”  You may not have stolen $10 from the cash register, but the ultimate effect is the same: You’re $10 richer at the company’s expense.  Likewise, if you arrive at work two hours late but falsify your timecard to show that you arrived on time, you’ll be awarding yourself two hours of additional straight-time pay.  Again, companies will view that as theft, plain and simple.

  • Casual Drug Use

What you do in your private time is strictly up to you, but many companies have a “for cause” drug-testing standard that requires anyone involved in a slip-and-fall incident or auto accident to be tested for cause.  Here’s how it works . . . say your general duties include driving a company car or van and you’re rear-ended at a stop sign across the street from the office.  While it certainly wasn’t your fault that someone rear-ended your car, the fact that you were officially in an auto accident requires that you be tested for drug usage.

As it turns out, about two weeks ago at your 22nd birthday party, you smoked marijuana with your friends.  Unfortunately, you didn’t realize that pot stays in your blood stream for about 30 days, and low and behold, you test positive for drugs.  The end result?  You’re terminated for failing to abide by your company’s drug and alcohol abuse policy, even though the effects of the pot have long since disappeared.

  • Employment Application Falsification

If you’re four units short of your Bachelor’s, but show on your resume and employment application that you already have a degree, you’ll find yourself back in the unemployment line before you know it.  Why? Because you falsified your pre-employment record to give yourself an unfair advantage that helped you land the job . . . even though it was based on false pretenses.

Common Themes Surrounding “Summary Dismissals”

What do these cases have in common?  Think about it from the Human Resources department’s perspective:  If you act unethically or dishonestly, the company has no choice but to terminate you.  To do anything else could create an unwanted precedent in the organization’s employment practices.  In other words, if they don’t terminate you for falsifying your time card, engaging in unlawful drug use, or manipulating your employment application, then they’ll have a hard time terminating anyone else in the future because of the exception they’ll be setting with your case.  The result? Companies terminate swiftly and consistently when it comes to ethics breaches and dishonesty.

Put another way, conduct and behavior-related infractions provide companies the discretion to skip any steps of written, corrective action and escalate immediately and directly to the termination stage.  And the downside for you, of course, is two-fold:  First, you’ll have lost your current job.  Second, you’ll have a much more difficult time during an interview when you’re asked why you left your previous company.  (Hint: “I was terminated for cause due to an ethical breach and violation of the company’s code of conduct” isn’t a great lead-in when you’re in job search mode.)

The Lesson

It’s simple but still as true as ever: Always tell the truth.  Don’t take shortcuts, especially when it comes to electronic records that can be easily traced in an audit (which companies do all the time).  Avoid casual drug use.  And most important, create a reputation for yourself early in your career as an ethical worker who demonstrates the highest level of integrity.  It will help you avoid common pitfalls like the ones above and sleep better at night as you build your career and grow and develop in your role.

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About The Author

Paul Falcone is a human resources executive in Los Angeles and has held senior-level positions with Nickelodeon, Paramount Pictures, and Time Warner. He is the author of a number of AMACOM and SHRM bestselling books, four of which made SHRM's prestigious "Great 8" list: 96 Great Interview Questions to Ask Before You Hire, 101 Sample Write-Ups for Documenting Employee Performance Problems, 101 Tough Conversations to Have with Employees, and 2,600 Phrases for Effective Performance Reviews. His latest AMACOM book, 75 Ways for Managers to Hire, Develop, and Keep Great Employees, was released in 2016. Follow Paul on Twitter at @PaulFalconeHR and his website and blog at

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