The Non-Prank Surprise Call


Last week I was at my coworker’s desk and picked up the phone when it rang. The caller thought I was her since we have similar voices. He started talking about how he’d release what he knew about her past unless she “played ball.” I was so shocked that I didn’t stop him and heard more than I wanted to.

When she came back from lunch, I told her what he’d said.  I’d heard. She said the caller was an uncle who kept trying to blackmail her. It turns out she got arrested five years ago for theft. She says her uncle actually got her into the situation but she got convicted because he had a phony alibi and got off. She said she was trying to break free from her past. She begged me not to tell anyone.

The whole situation scared me and I looked her up on CourtView.  She’s had multiple arrests. Her supervisor who is somewhat of a mother hen says we need to give her a chance and that she can fix it so this clerk doesn’t have access to any cash.

I’m uneasy and would rather fire her. Since she’s only been with us for eight months can we fire her or does the fact that our primary reason is her past give her some special protection?


You win tremendously when you give someone who deserves a chance a fresh start.

On the other hand, her story seems suspect and you potentially place your company at risk by buying it. Anyone who works in payroll accesses her portions of her co-workers’ financial records each month. If someone blackmails her and this woman caves, what consequences might result? Although you can remove her access to cash, what kind of coworker or company credit card or other financial information might she access while doing her job?

Within the first three months after you hire a new employee, employers generally learn whether they made the right hiring decision. In your case, you now know you got both got less and more than you bargained for. You wanted someone you could groom for a vital position in your company. You got an okay worker with a past that might pose serious problems to you.

According to attorney Joan Rohlf, employers caught in your situation may decide to discharge a recently hired employee with a problematic past given the risks that could result from exposing co-worker or company financial information to an employee with a with a theft problem. While your employee has a right to privacy, you learned about her problems inadvertently and she personally volunteered the information about her theft conviction. Equally as relevant, her job performance hasn’t panned out in the way you hoped when you interviewed her. Thus, Rohlf believes you may be able to fire her in good faith.

Further, says Rohlf , “Employers can and should protect themselves from problems like this by requiring applicants to fill out a written application on that asks them to disclose any criminal convictions. This application needs to state that any applicant who provides false or misleading information may be terminated.”

Management consultant Linda Gallagher takes another approach and suggests you first decide whether or not your employee’s explanation of the phone call seems legitimate and whether the situation truly impacts her work capability. Gallagher suggests you give your employee the opportunity to come clean and then watch her carefully. “Despite this one colorful incident, the real issue is your employee’s capability to do the work you need done and to be able to eventually move into the accounting supervisor position. “ You need to ask,“ says Gallaher, “Did you hire correctly?” If not, says Gallagher, base your decision on your organization’s needs and not on this employee’s past.

If, after assessing the situation, you decide to terminate this employee, try to do so in a way that cushions the blow, by providing two weeks severance pay and letter of recommendation that highlights your employee’s good attributes. Don’t exaggerate in your reference letter, however, and don’t give her an unqualified positive recommendation for another position involving finances.

Finally, if you want to prevent future unwanted surprises, consider asking all potential hires to sign waivers allowing you to conduct detailed reference and background checks. By conducting background checks, particularly on employees in positions of high trust, you can fix potential hiring mistakes before they inadvertently surface in ways that cause great damage.

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