update: my coworker sent a hostile resignation email to our team, and now wants me to attend a going-away party

Remember the letter-writer whose coworker sent a hostile resignation message to their team and then wanted the letter-writer to attend his going-away party? Here’s the update.

Apologies for sending this late thank-you note – things have been really busy here since that incident and I wanted to wait for a while to see the outcome before sending any updates. I wanted to thank you and your readers in the comments section for yours and their advice! It was helpful and handy. I also wanted to update you on the situation, so here it goes:

I didn’t go to the party, and neither did my coworkers. We had our excuses prepared, and turns out, the party scheduled by the colleague was actually scheduled on the wrong day, so our planned excuses were actually for naught, since we all were insanely busy on the day the colleague actually wanted to hold the party.

Long story short, we hired a couple of more people to help with the workload, because we realized that due to the person’s extensive experience with the company, our colleague had a lot of tribal knowledge and a lot of unfinished projects. We managed to salvage some of that tribal knowledge through work files (IT granted access to our colleague’s computer and we pretty much mined every single drop of data). We’ve now disseminated as much of the tribal knowledge as possible to other workers and to our new people so that this doesn’t ever happen again. We’ve completed most of the unfinished projects and have moved on to newer things. For all the hard work and effort my co-workers and I had dealt with since the abrupt departure, we were rewarded with raises at the end of the year (no bonus because the company doesn’t do bonuses). Yay!

As for our departed colleague, I haven’t heard a hide or hair. I’ve vowed to myself that if I am ever contacted about possibly being a professional reference by my former colleague, I will politely decline being a reference.

{ 49 comments… read them below }

  1. thenoiseinspace

    And that’s why you should never rage-quit anything (though easier said than done.) Do you think all of this was just some sort of power-play on the part of the ex-coworker, like hoping to scare the management into a raise or a counter-offer? In either case, I’m glad it worked out!

  2. Laura

    By “tribal” knowledge, do you mean institutional knowledge? As in, things that were only passed down through word of mouth or lacking shared documentation? I’ve never heard the word tribal used in that way before.

    1. Ethyl

      Glad I’m not the only one who was confused :) I’ve always heard it called “institutional knowledge.”

    2. LBK

      That’s what I assumed, too. I kinda like it. Makes my work knowledge sound less like a boring set of information that will be useless when I leave and more like a rich oral history of my people (aka the sales support team).

      1. Occasional Alaskan

        Yes ‘rich oral history of my people’ – I love this! Tons of people in my company know our policies, but I’ve been around long enough that I have the rich oral history of why they were implemented in the first place. I.e – why do all of the heaters have giant obnoxious fire hazard signs over them? Because four years ago someone draped a wet jacket over one and accidentally set fire to a wall…

    3. HM in Atlanta

      I’ve seen tribal knowledge used to describe institutional knowledge that the knowledge holder will only share with those in his/her “tribe”. Tribe generally means people he/she likes, people in his/her team, people the boss likes/approves of. The person who holds the knowledge also probably gained it the same way – by being an approved member.

      Business need for the knowledge doesn’t generally come into play with this type of knowledge hoarding.

    4. Coelura

      Tribal knowledge is a term that is used extensively in IT. Usually means that the person has a lot of history & experience that is not written down. Happens a lot in my industry as we go through frequent reorgs. Sometimes the information is not things that would be written down such as how politics impacted IT decisions or simply the history of what happened when. This becomes critical as orgs are split into groups & then absorbed into other groups. The generally known information gets diluted to the point of being forgotten except by a few key people that move up in the reorg.

      1. Judy

        Yes, we generally use Tribal Knowledge to mean things that are not about what, but more about why. Why do we always temper the teapot before attaching the spout?

        Remember the joke about the woman who cut the roast in half before cooking it? After someone saw her do it, she was asked why and didn’t know, that’s how mom did it. When she asked mom mom said grandma did it that way. When she asked grandma, grandma said, because my pot was too small to put roast in without cutting it. The reason is tribal knowledge.

      2. KC

        This is the way I’ve used the term (and how I’ve heard it used), both in IT and in software development.

        Most of the organizations I’ve been a part of have been in their awkward teenaged stage of development, where documentation has historically been sparse. This means that the people who’ve been there the longest are highly valuable because of their history and experience with the growth of the internal processes/products. It also means that the business is at these individuals’ mercy and there’s the constant fear that if that person were “hit by a bus” or left the company, there would be some irretrievable knowledge they would take with them.

        Over time as a company requires more documentation, set up procedure, and cross-trains employees, “tribal knowledge” becomes less important.

    5. James M

      Tribal knowledge can also include knowing which office supplies are safe to use for stirring coffee, how to fashion a rudimentary spoon from an orange peel, and which corners of the building have access to neighbors’ wireless.

      1. Jamie

        Exactly. My network map will show you in which ceiling tiles my switches are located. But only I know which switch is covered by the particularly crumbly ceiling tile that makes the most mess.

        But yes – you can document everything until your fingers fall off but there is always the mental cache of “when this happened last time X worked, not working now but last time we thought it could have been Y or Q…so we’ll start there…”

        And knowing that you need to be prepared for 4:00 am phone calls after a long weekend because you know exactly how many users and who they are who will have forgotten their passwords in that time.

        1. Ethyl

          When I worked in environmental consulting, there was a TON of this sort of mental reserve of experience and knowledge, especially for how to fix equipment when you’re in the field. It’s really hard to explain to someone how to fix a leaky flow-through cell with a nitrile glove and duct tape…..

    6. Kate

      I get the meaning but using the phrase “tribal knowledge” makes me feel a little bit uncomfortable. Not anything concrete, just a sense that comparing your office to a type of distinct cultural group, especially one which has been on the receiving end of a lot of persecution (Native American tribes, South African tribes, etc), is insensitive and ethically grey. It’s quite possible I’m being overly social-justice-y here but I think I’d rather use “insider knowledge” or something like that.

        1. Kate

          Dude, contribute or don’t comment. If you have a thoughtful response or insight (like the one below), please make it.

          1. Ask a Manager Post author

            Agreed.

            On a different note, we’ve had a real increase in the number of tangents that lead the conversation far away from the topic of the letter lately. In these days of many hundreds of comments per post, I want to make more of a point of keeping things focused on the issues in the letter, so I might be stepping in more to do that. A couple of comments that aren’t strictly germane, fine … but I want to avoid it blossoming into something that takes over the thread.

            1. Anonymous

              Does this mean no more +1s?? Because those drive me up a wall. Especially when there is nothing else in the reply to constitute a discussion or conversation.

            2. On that note...

              …I love being able to expand and collapse top-level threads. Is there any way you can set this up for subthreads as well?

      1. Anonymous

        I see where you’re coming from. This link has a similar conversation. But it basically boils down to this:

        “We use the word tribe to highlight the fact that this is a large group of people with a lot in common: “a group of persons having a common character, occupation, or interest” (Webster’s Dictionary). It’s also worth addressing that, on a larger scale, ethnic groups don’t have sole possession of the word tribe — it’s used in biology to describe groups of animals, and anthropology to describe societal organizations. It’s not just a racial, cultural, or ethnic word.”

        http://offbeatempire.com/2011/10/word-tribe-racist#.UytSBdI3tjQ

        1. Mints

          Yeah, I can see why it could set of a flag, but I don’t think the word has any negative connotations, and it’s not used in a negative way here either. Plus, it didn’t feel appropriative since it’s not tied to a specific ethnic group (or even just humans, like the Offbeat Empire quote mentions)

          Also, I’d rather be overly sensitive and open to discussion than dismissive (;

        2. Kate

          Great link, thank you very much! I read through all of it and encourage others to as well. Now, no more non-germane comments :)

      2. Mitchell

        I agree with Kate.

        If tribal knowledge = insider knowledge not written down, it suggests that tribal people don’t have written language.

        My intention with this comment is not to make anyone feel bad, but hopefully someone will reconsider using this phrase in the future. Institutional knowledge works equally well without offending.

        1. KJR

          My impression is that, at least in the Native American culture which was heavily tribal, a lot of information was not written down…it was passed from generation to generation via the spoken word, in the form of stories, legends, etc.

          1. Mitchell

            But you’re thinking of Native American culture in the past tense, which is inaccurate.

      3. Jamie

        Tribe and tribal isn’t exclusive to those groups you mentioned. All people lived in tribes – unoffici social/familial groups, at one time.

        Every human alive today comes from a culture that was tribal at some point. There are Celtic tribes, Germanic tribes, Slavic tribes, Nordic tribes, Anglo-Saxons were a mixture of different tribes, the Normans…the Romans fought tribal culture all over what is now modern Europe. But that was true of every place on earth – because humans have formed social groups since the beginning of time.

        In this instance of course a workplace isn’t a true tribe, but there is a hierarchy and it is a group of people with geography (physical or electronic) and people in common who work together toward goals by which they provide for themselves. Sure, they may not all be the same ethnic group or share family ties, but they have other things in common which is why it’s a apt, albeit tongue in cheek, comparison.

        Just because the word has a more specific meaning to other groups doesn’t take it out of use for the more global definition.

        Although, even if it did only apply to those groups you mention I don’t know why it would be offensive. It’s not derogatory – it just means to hold valuable knowledge that is useful to the group. How is that offensive?

        1. Kate

          Well, if it did only apply to those groups, those are marginalized groups who were systematically excluded from mainstream society, including opportunities, resources, usable land, etc. To then take a word which describes something specific to their culture and way of life and use it in kind of a joking manner (which I feel tribal knowledge would be, since, as you mentioned, an office isn’t really a tribe) would become appropriative, or insensitive because systematically excluding someone and then using parts of their culture as a joke, however minor the joke, is … pretty insensitive.

          This stuff isn’t very clear cut and someone else might be able to explain it better than that but if you have other or followup questions I can try to answer them.

          I do take your point (and others’) about how it’s not specific to any particular tribes or cultures, though, and therefore probably not offensive. I probably won’t use it because it does make me feel uncomfortable, but I don’t know that I could argue for that discomfort being rational.

          1. Ask a Manager Post author

            While I appreciate the issues you’re raising, I want to keep the discussion germane to the letter and not get further sidetracked by language disputes. Thank you!

      4. Sunnie Dee

        +1000 – makes me uncomfortable as well. I work for a State government with lots of tribal issues and this seems a bit cavalier.

  3. The Real Ash

    This update is a perfect example of the need to have exhaustive documentation of procedures and policies! While it is difficult to feel like a cog in the machine and many people want to have special knowledge that no one else does, it can cripple an organization. Even if someone doesn’t rage-quit, what if they get hit by a bus and are in a coma for months?

  4. anon-2

    OK, just curious about one thing.

    This person left angrily, and even gave a hostile resignation.

    And then, you had to hire TWO people to replace her?

    Certainly this problem – the anger, the venting, didn’t “just happen”.

      1. anon-2

        I understand that, AAM, but , this person (reading more carefully, it was a “he” ) apparently had issues, and there’s no discussion if there were efforts to resolve them.

        The fact that they had to hire two people indicates that there may have been some problems along the way — then again, a written resignation without anger might have actually led to (shudder) a counter-offer where management offers to fix what’s broken.

        Yes, when you resign from a job, you must act professionally – even if your management doesn’t – or didn’t, in causing the situation and setup for your departure.

      2. anon-2

        Oh, I also re-read the history of the place — so I can understand fear on the part of management.

      3. Colleen

        I don’t think the person being really competent at their job AND being a total jerk are mutually exclusive. I can even see how someone doing the work of 2 people and not feeling recognized for it would be more likely to be disgruntled. Nothing justifies flouncing from a job but I’m sure many of us have had those “you need me more than I need you” angry thoughts when a job didn’t work out.

    1. Anonymous

      I picked up on that bit too. In the OP’s earlier letter, it was noted that the co-worker was “incredibly dedicated to work and even voluntarily worked weekends/holidays.” When he left, he was replaced with two people.

      I’m not saying that the co-worker’s unprofessional actions were justified! But it does sound likely that he was overworked and underappreciated for quite some time before he left in a huff. I can only imagine what that guy thinks of the OP’s company.

      1. anon-2

        Although an angry resignation letter can be unprofessional – it also looks like OP may be upset — they lost, apparently, one of their best and most productive workers.

        A sports analogy – I am reminded of the antics of the people of Cleveland, and even the owner of the Cleveland Cavaliers basketball team – when LeBron James opted to take his talent to Miami. Even “The Onion” wrote a not-so-satirical article about his departure, and Miami’s loss to Dallas in the NBA finals.

    2. The Cosmic Avenger

      Yes, and a stalker can be really truly smart and dedicated and know a lot about you and do a lot for you, but that doesn’t mean that they make a good spouse!

  5. JustMe

    Don’t you just love when things work themselves out? Awesome.

    I’ll never forget we had a similar situation at my old job. The guy yelled at his then manager and team lead because he felt like they were mistreating him. The Sr. Mgr at the time had to lock them up in his office while HR and security were called to escort the guy out. He had another manager (from same org.) as a reference, new company called, and we pretty much overheard the manager say, ‘don’t hire him, he’s crazy’. It’s been a few years, and I still remember like yesterday. Others remember too.

    Things like these you never forget, and I feel bad for your co-worker because he’ll always be remembered as the disgruntled email guy.

  6. Anonymous

    If that employee was working late, nights, weekends – and two people had to be hired to replace them – it’s not unreasonable to suppose that they were somewhat overworked.

    Exhaustion and sleep deprivation do strange things to people (which is why they are effectively used as torture). This guy all of a sudden up and quit and suddenly behaved strangely following an extended period of overwork.

    Sounds like he may have had a nervous breakdown – and there but for the Grace of God go we.

  7. Anonymous

    Just wanted to add further that working excessive hours and hyper-dedication are well documented as final stages towards burnout (aka nervous breakdown).

    Given his bitterness towards the organisation, it’s doubtful that there was no attempt made on his part to get the assistance of management before his breakdown.

  8. Anonymous

    Tribal knowledge is so difficult to replace. I try to keep in mind that it is a cycle – it will always renew. I look for folks who have the ability to deduce what was and move forward. After all, we are always creating a new history in a sense. It will happen again so let’s build teams who can handle transition.

  9. Legaljobs

    My gut tells we are only hearing one side of this, and there’s probably more to the story. Too much emotions. As was mentioned above, the two people replacing one is a red flag to me that there’s more to this.

  10. Anne

    I’m really glad to hear it worked out this way for you, OP. It sounded like a really uncomfortable situation, especially with the history at your workplace. Saying “Yeeeeah, don’t think I’ll be a reference for this person” and then putting it behind you sounds like the absolute best way to handle it. :)

  11. theda everett

    I don’t understand how anger is always unprofessional. Manipulation and exploitation are seldom
    referred to in that way, and yet in the end- they are not professional because they do incur wrath, which
    isn’t a bit productive.
    Office culture may be inculcated with a tolerance of only the long-suffering, in which case ‘the office’ will always be less productive than necessary.

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