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No One Told Me My Coworker Was Fired

No One Told Me My Coworker Was Fired

November 18, 2009

A reader writes:

Yesterday I found out through coworkers that one of our managers left/was fired (closer to the latter, I think… I have heard he was in a “you need to show improvement in three months” situation which ended this week). His name is still on his office, and his things are still here, but he is definitely gone—after confirming with a coworker, I sent him an e-mail wishing him well and have heard back from him.

My thoughts on the matter are definitely biased by the fact I really liked the guy, as did a lot of the people who worked under him, but I am writing to ask what communication is proper from an employer after an employee is let go in a situation like this? I am angry that there has been no word from my employer—this is someone I worked with on and off for the past year and a half! We were not working together recently, but I did not like finding this out through “office gossip” and it makes me uncomfortable that management is not willing to communicate that this employee no longer works here. Within what time-frame would you expect to be told of a coworker’s firing? Or is it appropriate not to communicate this?

Our office is about 60 people (the company is 300-400), and we frequently get office-wide e-mails. I was very frustrated yesterday, because I wanted to reach out the employee, but did not want to do so mistakenly in case the rumor was false. I know decisions like this are usually made with a lot of planning—is there some reason I’m missing why other employees can’t be informed afterwards? When employees leave under other circumstances we usually have a little ice-cream social goodbye meeting (“Office Space” style) which makes it hard to take when one employee just disappears.

Yes, employers should let other employees know as soon as possible. Not only is it completely weird not to for the reasons that you cite, but there are also practical reasons that demand it — for instance, you might still be transferring calls to the person, or sending them work.

However, for some reason, a lot of employers really struggle with how to do this gracefully. I worked at one place that would never announce it — one day the person’s desk would just be empty and it was clear that they were Not To Be Spoken Of Again. This place also fired a ton of people, so it of course the company’s bizarre handling of it quickly became a morbid joke among all of us, and whenever anyone was out sick or even just late, speculation would be rampant.

Anyway, in my opinion, the way to do it is to let people know quickly and directly, along with information on how things will be handled while the position is vacant. For instance: “Jim’s last day was today, and we wish him the best. Until we hire a replacement, Linda will be handling his accounts, and please talk to her if you have questions about specific projects Jim was working on.”

But it’s often going to be awkward anyway. In my experience, there are two ways people react when a coworker gets fired: They either think “I saw that one coming” (or even “it’s about time”) or they’re shocked.

When people saw it coming, it usually doesn’t cause much of a ripple. But in cases where coworkers are shocked, it can be really be rattling. When you’re shocked, keep in mind that most people don’t advertise it when they’re struggling in their jobs, and good managers are discreet about it too. So even though the firing came as a surprise to you, it probably didn’t come as a surprise to your coworker.

It’s pretty rare for someone to be fired without any warning (except in particularly egregious cases, like embezzling or, say, punching someone). In most cases, the employee has had numerous conversations with their manager about whatever the problem is and what needs to change. And if the employer is at all responsible, the person has also been explicitly told that they could lose their job if the problems aren’t fixed.

But that’s a tangent. Back to your question: Anyone want to shed light on what’s up with those companies that fire people and then don’t announce to the remaining staff that the person is gone? Are they too wimpy? Suffering from misplaced fear that they’ll get sued if they say the wrong thing? Something else?

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