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I’m holding onto the company key…

Dear Office-Politics,

I have had several jobs in which I made a suggestion for future direction, was fired or encouraged to leave, and later discovered the company followed the suggestion.

This happened again recently and my employer has called me several times to hand in the company key. I still have the key and don’t want to hand it in yet because I feel like someone pulled the rug out from under me.

My mother wants me to return the key because the employer is the son of a family friend and she thinks I’m being a thoughtless, inconsiderate coward.

What am I doing wrong and how can I handle the situation better than I am doing now?


dr. john burton

Dear Holding-the-Key,

The key is your employer’s and should be returned. The fact that you feel ill used by your employer does not affect your legal obligation to respect his decision to terminate your employment. Whether you are employed or not, your access to the premises is always at the discretion of the owner/employer and can be withdrawn by him at any time.

Your question about how do deal with such situations in the future is difficult to answer. I suspect that there is more going on than you report since it hardly seems to make sense that a firm would fire you for coming up with an idea that they then implement. I would suggest that you take the time to review your work history with a job counselor who may help you to gain some insight into what is going on here, and why you have been terminated a number of times.

Employee’s are not always aware that ideas that they have which are related to their employment are the property of the employer, not their own. Thus an employer is free to implement your ideas without compensation to you. The employer may be unwise to do this, particularly if it involves getting rid of a creative employee, but that is their prerogative.

Good luck with your next job. Thanks for writing to Office-Politics.


John Burton

Dr. John Burton LL.B. M.B.A. M.Div. Ph.D. is an ethicist, mediator, lawyer and theologian. He has taught alternative dispute resolution at Queen’s Law School and Ethics at the Schulich School of Business. John is currently located in Prince Rupert, B.C., Canada, working with Canada’s aboriginal communities.

Feedback from Holding-the-Key:

Thank you for your prompt reply. I did in fact return the key after one of the owners threatened to take me to small claims court, and I decided to enclose a letter to him (the husband of my boss) outlining my progress on what I thought would be a good future direction for the company and what I expected in return should he pursue that direction. I understand that he is under no obligation to provide me with compensation but I thought I should at least try to protect my interests in the event that something does happen.

In response to your comment “I suspect that there is more going on than you report since it hardly seems to make sense that a firm would fire you for coming up with an idea that they then implement.” it may make more sense if I elaborate that I am a 47 year old Ph.D. who has about 15 years postgraduate work experience, changed careers, been labeled a psychic, and when not self-employed has held only the lowest entry level jobs for short terms partly because I learn quickly and/or can’t tolerate the conditions of my employment.

It doesn’t always happen but when it does, once I figure out what I think would be good for the company I am ready to move on and either don’t stick around to see the changes implemented because I am not promoted or am forced to leave because I am harassed or perceived as a “whistle blower”.

I guess what I am looking for is a way to capitalize on the times when my suggestions do prove fruitful for an employer. Once, before I graduated an entrepreneur hired me to figure out what kind of personnel he needed in order to become a millionaire. After a few months I told him my conclusion and he gave me a record of employment showing I had been terminated because it was the “end of contract”. Fifteen years later the entrepreneur had become a multi-millionaire and acknowledged my input by including the conclusion I gave him in a speech to the Chamber of Commerce.

I’d like things to work more like that, possibly getting a percentage of profits, but am wondering how to do it.

Thanks again.

Publication note: This letter was originally published in January, 2005. We are republishing the best letters from Office-Politics and integrating them with our blog format.

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