my boss doesn’t know she’s about to be fired — and I’m replacing her

A reader writes:

I have been offered the supervisory job at work by the “big bosses,” who are planning on firing my immediate supervisor. She does not know she is going to be fired, and my accepting the position actually makes it possible for them to fire her (it’s not a job that can be vacant for any length of time). I’m excited about the new job and I’m sure I can do a great things with it, but I’m troubled by the awkwardness of the situation.

I don’t have any misgivings that she needs to leave the job; she has been stagnant in it for a long while and the position needs new energy. Mostly I am wondering what the best way to handle the transition would be. Should I take vacation during her final days on the job and then step into the new role upon my return? Should I transfer out and then transfer back in when I take over? How is this typically handled?

I think they are going to offer her a demotion, essentially, in another department if she wants to stay. I’m guessing she will just leave directly though. There’s no plan for a period of transition time.

This will be my first managerial role and I am one of the least senior employees (though not the least experienced), so that may engender some skepticism from the current staff. I would like this transition to go as smoothly as possible so I can get to work right away. I have lots of ideas about how to engage everyone as members of a new, energetic team, so I’m ready to get started, I’m just not sure about the immediate future after my supervisor is given her notice.

First, talk to the person who will be your new boss in your new role. The two of you should be talking all of this stuff through; you definitely shouldn’t feel like you’re supposed to handle this all on your own, especially as a new manager. You need that person to tell you things like: What’s the messaging going to be around the firing of your current manager? When do they plan to announce your promotion? You need to know if it’s going to be the same day your current boss is moved out, a week later, or what, so that you’re all on the same page about messaging and so that you know what to expect. And if she does accept the demotion rather than leaving, what will they want that transition to look like, as far as it impacts you and your new staff?

Beyond that, I’d say to be prepared for there to be some awkwardness — both around the sudden firing of your manager and around your promotion to managing peers (which can be awkward at first under the best of circumstances). And of course, if your manager does take the demotion and stay on, there will almost certainly be some awkwardness in your relationship with her.

The best way for you to deal with that is for you to be calm, open, and reasonably forward-looking … but not so forward-looking that you appear to be brushing off people’s real questions and concerns. Also, don’t criticize the old manager to your staff (even if you’re 100% right, it will make you look smaller), and don’t rush too quickly into making dramatic changes; you want to move pretty carefully and deliberately, which is always the case when you’re taking over a team, and is triply the case when you’re new at managing.

Last, I wouldn’t take vacation during your current manager’s final days; if anything, that risks you looking like you’re hiding from the awkwardness or doing something shady, which is not a good way to inspire confidence from your new team.

{ 39 comments… read them below or add one }

  1. Juli G.

    I cannot emphasize enough that you shouldn’t hide out during the transition. It’s going to be awkward but taking vacation looks shady (as Allison said). The thing I value the absolute most for my managers is as much transparency as possible/appropriate. Facing the awkwardness head-on is unlikely to lose you any respect and could even gain you some.

    Reply
    1. A Bug!

      I strongly agree. You need to be there in order to stand behind the process. Be reasonably mindful of the fact that it sucks to be fired or demoted, as the case may be, but do her the solid of respecting her enough to expect professionalism.

      Reply
    2. Mookie

      Yep. Think of this as the first opportunity as your team’s manager to demonstrate clear-thinking, caution, and integrity. Be prepared to exhibit a certain saintly calm — as Alison says, don’t make things too chaotic too quickly — and show your team (rather than tell them) that you regard this as a good opportunity to grow together. Involve them, guide them, support them if they feel bottomed-out by the loss, solicit and respect their feedback. The most battle-hardened and experienced of managers have a hard time doing all of this in the best of times, so don’t expect perfection but aim for it with an eye towards setting a good example after being bogged down by someone who was unproductive, unambitious, and stale.

      Reply
      1. Mookie

        After all, you’re unlikely to be the first “replacement” manager they’ve ever experienced, and given what you say about the atmosphere and output of the team it sounds like they’ll be just as enthused about a positive change provided they don’t feel threatened or overworked or insulted. Incorporate those changes as slowly as is feasible while you get a sense for what they can handle efficiently; being a peer is not the same as being a manager, so you’re going to be surprised by what you learn about your former colleagues. Not all of your ideas are going to be work because that’s not usually possible, so focus on what’s not insurmountable in the present, clearly define contingencies, and be prepared to abandon or phase out projects if they’re not in service of progress. If I had a manager that could do all of that and stay focused and organized, I’d never leave my workspace.

        Reply
  2. Snarkus Aurelius

    The best way to conduct yourself is to act like it’s business as usual.  No commiserating or openly feeling sorry for her or cheering her on or acting like you didn’t know this was coming.  Treat it as a normal staffing change.  

    Obviously give her time to adjust to the new role, but this is a definite thing coming down from on high so you need to act accordingly.

    The more you act like everything is okay, the less awkward it will be for her.  That way, if she does act up, you’re in the free and clear.  There’s never a cost to acting professional.

    If she does say something to you about it?  Be cordial but distant.  This isn’t your fight, and you didn’t steal anything from her.

    Above all else, your boss should be treated with kindness, dignity, honesty, and respect.  

    Reply
    1. some1

      Otoh, if she DOES just get canned altogether I think it looks a little cold to not acknowledge that the way you would any other firing.

      Reply
    2. new reader

      In a previous job I wound up replacing my boss, but it was a slow process that took a few years as that employer doesn’t handle employment issues well. The boss was moved to an office in a different part of the building to work on a special project. When she returned to our office after that project ended, her role was revised to focus on just one aspect of her previous responsibilities so she could focus with depth instead of breadth. While I didn’t supervise her, our work did overlap. Eventually, our mutual supervisor had me helping to collect documentation of work not performed and my co-worker (previous boss) was eventually let go.

      It was not easy or comfortable, but I agree with Alison that calm, pleasant, and matter-of-fact are best. You can’t control how others act or react, only your own. I believe that respect needs to be earned and the way to handle this situation will speak volumes to your new reports.

      Reply
    3. KH

      I hope the leadership will consider the optics and appropriately communicate this as well, especially if the current manager decides to accept a demotion.

      Something like:

      “We’d like to announce a change in the teapot marketing department. As of today, A will be managing the department. A has been with us for N years and has been instrumental in the growth of our business with X and Y. Please welcome A to her new role.

      After today, B will be returning to a role in Z / B will taking on a new/different responsibility in teapot R&D. Please join us in thanking B for all of her hard work and her accomplishments over the last N years!”

      And leave it at that.

      Reply
  3. TCO

    It doesn’t sound like they’ve been upfront with you about whether your boss will have a new role in the company (and what that role could be). If I were in your shoes, I’d press for more information about that. Her continued presence could sabotage your success.

    Reply
      1. TCO

        Yes, but if I were the OP I’d still want more info about what that demotion would be–what if she surprises everyone by accepting it? Then it would suddenly be important for the OP to understand how their two roles will interact (if at all).

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        1. Evan Þ

          OP says it’s in another department, so I assume they wouldn’t have any regular interaction? But if I’m wrong, then yes, that would be important to know.

          Reply
          1. fposte

            It’s also a question of whether you’d consider interaction a dealbreaker. If it isn’t, it’s not going to make much difference to pin down how much could exist beforehand; you’ll find out anyway. (It wasn’t in my case–I knew I was going to be working with him.)

            Reply
    1. fposte

      If they do offer the manager probably won’t have decided before the OP commits to the position, though; I also wouldn’t use the manager’s still being around as an isolated reason not to take the job. I do think it’s reasonable to keep that challenge in mind and ask specific questions you may have about management given the situation, though.

      Reply
    2. Taylor

      Yes, seconded. My old boss was let go and I was given her duties plus a nice little raise. It was a boon for me, but she took it VERY personally. She blamed me for her firing (even though in my instance, I had no idea of management’s plans and she had been repeatedly warned regarding her performance) and she promised I’d “never work in this industry again.” Of course I’m gainfully employed now, but she certainly doesn’t hesitate to smear my name whenever it comes up. This was only about 2 years ago, so I’m not fully sure if there will be future repercussions for me.

      I don’t believe there’s anything I could have done to ease her mind , but some people, you just can’t help ‘em.
      Tread carefully, OP!

      Reply
  4. Dan

    You know… lots of people who are about to step into a new management role are always concerned about others who may want to sabotage their performance for one reason or another. Sure, you’re going to get the occasional person who is really bitter that they were passed over, but IME, I’ve never encountered that. Most people actually want their boss to succeed and do well.

    My current boss is a bit greener than me overall, but you know what? 1) I didn’t apply for that job (don’t want it right now, if ever) and 2) If she struggles in her role, that just sucks even more for the group and for me. It’s certainly in my best interest to do whatever I can to help her succeed.

    When it comes to experience, I think the first time one has a boss younger/less experienced than they are, it’s a bit of a shock, but once you get your first boss like that, the next one isn’t a huge shocker. I’ve also noted that in my department, many of the really senior employees are former mid- to high- level managers who want to take a step back from management and just do technical work.

    Assume your employees are there to 1) Support you and 2) Help you succeed, and take it from there. If they’re not, address it head on. I guarantee you that those kinds of people who make it obvious are a cancer for the whole team. I have yet to run into a perpetual Debbie Downer who 1) was right and 2) effectively dealt with their concerns. The perpetual DD’s drive me nuts, and don’t get much sympathy from me.

    Reply
    1. MAB

      “My current boss is a bit greener than me overall, but you know what? 1) I didn’t apply for that job (don’t want it right now, if ever) and 2) If she struggles in her role, that just sucks even more for the group and for me. It’s certainly in my best interest to do whatever I can to help her succeed.”

      This 100%. I am the younger boss that is greener then some of my employees in my last two positions and I always appreciate employees that help me while I figure out my roll. Yes, I am going to make some uneducated choices at times, but I expect my employees to speak up and let me know I am making a mistake. I don’t take it as a personal affront and I always listen to them since they are the experts at the tasks they have been assigned.

      Reply
    2. M-C

      Very true, unless someone has something really specific against you already, almost everyone will be hoping for improvement from the change. It’s actually rare for a manager to be fired, so that implies a good level of awareness from higher management, always a hopeful sign for a company.

      However, take to heart AAM’s advice about new managers rushing in and changing -everything- right away. That’s just an ego thing to show yourself and others that you’re So Much Better. Your primary job is to keep things going, not to disrupt life for everyone so they no longer know which end is up. I’d suggest you confine yourself to almost no changes at first, so that people can get used to the transition without trauma. Concentrate on communicating well, reviewing work standards, listening to people, improving meeting productivity, learning the ropes from the other side.

      How about using some of this stealth time now to set priorities? As a current staff, you have unique views into what’s making people happy or not. Keep your ears open for lunch room gossip, try to analyze what gets in the way most of people doing their jobs, what makes them most acutely unhappy. You’re allowed to get rid of say one of these things the first week. And then figure out which of your improvement ideas is likely to be most enthusiastically adopted, and resolve to implement that single one in the first month. Hold back from doing anything else and everyone will be much happier..

      Reply
  5. some1

    I can tell you what NOT to do: don’t “jokingly” tell one of your brand-new reports that she’s fired and start laughing hysterically, like my former boss did. I was still reeling from our boss being let go because I liked and respected her and wasn’t privy to what lead to the decision.

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  6. Jane

    I was in almost the same position, old manager was offered to work on another team or be fired (I don’t know if they told her that). Then I was offered her old position. Yes it was awkward when I did have to interact with her but that has gotten easier as she is actually doing a lot better on her new team. Down side is she didn’t train me on anything which made her look bad more than it did me.

    Reply
  7. Artemesia

    And the OP should watch her back since apparently in this company feedback is not directly given and coups are arranged behind one’s back. If one of her subordinates suddenly behaves oddly or shyly around her, she may want to get her resume ready.

    Reply
    1. Ask a Manager Post author

      Wait, where are you getting that from the letter? There’s nothing here indicating that they haven’t been coaching the old manager, giving her feedback, and warning her about possible consequences if she doesn’t improve. At the same time, there are often reasons that you don’t want to tell someone they’re being fired until you have all your ducks in a row and are ready to actually do it.

      Reply
      1. Rex

        The part where her current supervisor doesn’t know she’s on the way out? If the company is handling it right, she should at least have some idea things aren’t working out, right? If this is truly a position that can’t be empty, shouldn’t the company have some succession planning and cross training in place anyways? If I were in OP’s position, it would at least give me some concern about transparency and process.

        Reply
        1. Ask a Manager Post author

          But again, there’s nothing here indicating that they haven’t been coaching the old manager, giving her feedback, and warning her about possible consequences if she doesn’t improve. “We need to see XYZ changes in order to keep you in the position” is different from “we have now decided to fire you.”

          Cross training: In some contexts, that makes sense, but in many others it’s not workable. A lot of jobs (particularly as they become more senior) can’t be cross-trained for (my last few couldn’t), and that’s even more true when you factor in the cost of creating time for people to stay up to date on a job they’re not actually doing the vast majority of the time.

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      2. Two for the money

        I with Artemesia here. There’s a giddiness to this letter that’s sounds disturbing. The OP should be careful because what goes around does come around. Big Bosses come and go. Alliances change. I hope the OP is extremely politically savvy.

        Reply
  8. Been there, done that.

    Please speak with your boss as soon as possible about how to approach this situation. I was in a similar situation a few years ago, and upper management handled it badly and left me in a hole in terms of building credibility with my new team.

    I was asked to take over a parallel department within my organization. I had worked in that department about a decade prior, and the manager had been my manager in my first job out of college. I took my career in a different path, left that job for about 2 years, and then returned to the organization in a different capacity. After about 5 years, I had risen to the head of that department, and my team had some overlap with my prior department (and generally had a much better reputation). Senior management approached me about taking over my former department, and, after some negotiating (not enough on my part), I agreed to take them both.

    The two most awkward meetings of my professional career were meeting with the outgoing manager (who was demoted, not fired) and then the meeting at which the staff was informed of the change. The outgoing manager was left with the impression I lobbied for her job (which I had not), and the meeting with the staff was practically a dirge for the outgoing manager. I was allowed to say nothing. Concerns raised by senior management, which I could easily have handled, were not passed along. Right out of the gate, it created issues where people continued to seek assistance from the former manager — who handled the entire thing with grace and professionalism and sent those people directly to me — and inaccurate information (the whole department had to reapply for their jobs, they were being physically moved within the organization) was rampant. It was a cluster.

    I would follow Alison’s advice to the letter. I wish I had pushed harder on the people who promoted me to be more of a part of the transition process and clearly laid out my concerns/questions like that. All has ended well, but it would have been a lot less painful. :)

    Contrast that with another organization change last year that had me reporting to a new C-level person and the entire combined department moving. Both my former and current boss spoke directly with me about what was happening, what it meant, and how the transition would affect me and my team. They let me manage communications with my team. We had a whole-department meeting to talk about the state of our industry as a whole and how the change would help us better achieve our goals. I had a chance to speak directly with the people who were concerned and squash rumors from the get-go.

    Reply
  9. voyager1

    OP,

    What jumps out at me is that you don’t really know why your manager is being demoted it sounds. Being stagent can mean just about anything. Any new job I have taken I am have always asked in the interview about what measures do I need to meet to be successful.
    Good luck.

    Reply
    1. Brooke

      Remember, it’s extremely likely that because of company policy, you aren’t being told all the reasons why your current manager will no longer be in that position. Assume there are good reasons, and assume that you’re being chosen to fill that role for good reasons as well.

      Reply
  10. AnotherHRPro

    OP, please remember that as awkward as this pending transition is for you, it will be even more awkward for your predecessor and your new team. I once replaced my boss and she took a demotion to a job in the same department but thankfully a different work group. I made an extra effort to continue to treat her with respect which helped us keep a good working relationship and that definitely helped my team.

    To help everyone, you need to stay calm and level headed. Follow your new boss’s lead on how they plan on announcing the change. Also take your time and get your new team’s input on any changes to how the group does their work. Give them the opportunity to have a voice in any new direction for the group. This can help them buy into making the group successful.

    Reply
  11. ziggystarduster

    Just wanted to add my two cents from the other side. I am the person being let go, and will be replaced by one of my colleagues when I leave. Please do whatever you can to encourage your boss to manage the transition– don’t take it on yourself. Our situation here is pretty miserable, in large part because our boss has left it up to my replacement and I to sort everything out. Replacement and I do not work well together, the transition really isn’t happening at all, several other people are affected by all of this, and I am made to look like the bad guy. It’s a total mess, and though things would have been awkward regardless, my feeling is having our boss set the tone/structure/pacing of the transition at the outset would have made things a LOT better for everyone involved in the long run.

    Reply
  12. Brooke

    I am likely going to be dealing with a near-identical situation soon so I am SO thankful for the question, Alison’s advice as well as all the comments here. OP, should you want to connect in person feel free to provide an email address!

    Reply
  13. OP

    Thanks everyone for your thoughtful advice. The good news is that the person who will be my new boss has already acknowledged my trepidation about the transition and offered to discuss how this will take place to make it as smooth as possible.

    As for why my manager is being let go, it is more than simple “stagnation”; the employer feels that she is not offering much in terms of leadership or creativity, and they have no confidence that she will be able to suddenly do so. She was never hired to perform in that role, exactly, as she was hired under a system that is in the process of being reformed. Her job was very administrative and task-oriented. Under the new system, the role bends much more to the creative/leader end of the spectrum and the employers are expecting much more in terms of a new vision.

    Even so, I take the point very well that a slow process of reform with regular input and feedback from the people I manage will be the best approach. I have no intention of exerting my will on anyone. In fact, I’m hoping the changes we eventually implement will all come from the team; I plan on just guiding that process through (and making the hard decisions when I have to). Though I might do a few simple things at the outset just to make life a little more pleasant for everyone. And yes, I have had a my ears open to the things people complain about.

    I have a great deal of respect for the new employers and their approach to the culture change they are trying to promote, so I suppose if I were them, I would want my new manager to succeed and I would attempt to cushion the awkwardness by making it clear that the decision came from above. I’m actually pretty hopeful that this is the case.

    I also appreciate that I should not go on vacation. Much as I might have wanted to do that. Probably a bad idea. Thank you.

    Thank you also ziggystarduster for your comments. I was actually motivated to write in because I have a great deal of empathy for my current supervisor and was having misgivings about how she might be hurt by such an abrupt upheaval. I will most certainly insist on a humane, clear, and rapid transition. With no bad guys. She has served very tirelessly in a sometimes thankless job for a long time and deserves respect for that.

    –OP

    Reply
  14. Adam V

    (Off-topic)

    Alison,

    When I click on the “how to announce a demotion to the rest of your team” link in the suggested list, that page’s ad is an auto-playing video for “CelebTV”. It’s not happening on recent posts, though.

    Reply

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