how to avoid being pulled into drama when someone is fired

A reader writes:

I am part of a very small department where I have worked part-time for the past few years. I just learned that I will be made full-time this summer as part of a restructuring process that includes firing my current boss (for both behavioral issues and restructuring reasons). She does not know yet and will not know for a couple weeks.

My question is about after she is told. She does not have a lot of manager/employee boundaries, thinks of the two of us as friends, and has frequently vented to me about work things I really didn’t need to know. In the past when she’s done this, I’ve tried to be vaguely sympathetic (“I’m sorry you’re frustrated”) and then change the subject. Maybe I should have set stronger boundaries, but she was my first manager out of college and I wasn’t sure what to expect in a normal business relationship.

I have a feeling she’ll want to vent to me about this too, unless she sees me as complicit in getting her fired, which I don’t think will happen. She’s almost certainly going to see herself as a victim and a martyr (she’s already told me she thinks people here are spreading rumors about her) and will want somebody in the company to commiserate, and I’m fairly certain because of our friendly nature and our work proximity it’s going to be me.

While I think it’s the right decision, I do feel bad that she’s being let go, because she’s been the one pushing all year to bring me on board full-time. I would like to stay on decent terms with her after she leaves if possible, though it may not be. What’s the best way for me to respond if she tries to pull me into being on “her side” against the company? There’s apparently a concern she will be wildly unprofessional about the whole thing based on past behavior. I’m sure if there are public scenes, the higher-ups would expedite her exit, but if she just wants to trash talk everyone to me, should I get someone involved or just wait it out until she’s gone? I genuinely have no idea how this is going to go down, which makes it tough to know what my role is.

It’s pretty common to have people leave the same day they’re fired, so this may not end up being a huge issue. But if she does try to draw you into talking about it, your answer here is to be kind but vague. You can express compassion for the fact that she’s received bad news and is struggling with the situation without taking sides. For example:

* “It’s a tough situation.”
* “I’m sorry you’re going through this.”
* “I really appreciate how you’ve been an advocate for me here, and I hope we can stay in touch.”

What you don’t want to do is to say anything that sounds like you’re agreeing she was given a raw deal (assuming that you don’t think that). For example, don’t say things like “you didn’t deserve this.” And that also means that you shouldn’t even say things like “yeah, that really sucks” in response to statements from her about how she thinks she’s been mistreated.

Very often in this kind of situation, people who want to say neutral end up inadvertently sounding like they agree with the complainer — and it happens through statements like “yeah” and “that’s awful.” They mean to express sympathy, but it sounds to the complainer (and, maybe more importantly, to anyone who overhears) like they’re taking sides. And you want to avoid that because it can come back to bite you in ways you might not anticipate — like with the complainer saying things like “Jane was shocked when I told her about this” or “Jane thinks you’re all reprehensible too.”

If the approach above isn’t enough to navigate it, you can always say something like this: “I’m in an awkward situation here. I’m really sorry you’re going through this, but I don’t feel like I know enough about the situation to weigh in on it — and it probably should stay that way. I hope you have other people you can talk to about this though.”

And if gets really out of control, then yes, at that point give someone a discreet heads-up about what’s going on.

{ 56 comments… read them below or add one }

  1. Roscoe

    I’ll be honest, you may have to let go of the idea of keeping a friendly relationship with her, at least in the short term. Even if you had nothing to do with it, you are going to be a walking reminder of how they kicked her to the curb and put you in her place. Its like if your sig other breaks up with you and starts dating someone you know. You may know its not their fault, but it doesn’t mean you want to hang with the person who took your place

    Reply
  2. SCAnonibrarian

    If it were me, I’d also want to keep the commiserations to a minimum because WHEN she finds out later (and she seems the sort who will find out later) that you got ‘her’ job, she might be really unhappy about that, and especially so if she thinks that you were faking being ‘sympathetic’ and ‘on her side’ when she got canned.

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    1. PersephoneUnderground

      I re-read and it doesn’t look like the OP is “getting her job”, but that she’s going full-time at the same time (same restructuring) as her manager is being let go. I don’t think it says anything about OP being promoted to management.

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      1. Justme

        But the fired worker may not see it as a coincidence that OP was moved to full time and she was fired.

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        1. SCAnonibrarian

          That’s why the ‘scare quotes’ because it is a restructuring and it isn’t ‘her’ job, but I bet that the fired employee won’t really be in a place to appreciate the subtleties.

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    2. M-C

      And I think you should also be really careful about her finding out that you knew she was about to be fired and didn’t tell her. That is not friendly behavior, and she will hold it against you. Mind you, it’s not great that you were told, as it puts you in a position to have to hold your tongue, but that’s another story.

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      1. designbot

        This! You knowing of her departure in advance is the only thing in this whole story that places you as not being a neutral third party.

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    1. Detective Amy Santiago

      I think that could actually make things worse. Presumably boss has LW’s contact info and it might signal boss that LW was aware of what was coming.

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      1. Suzy Q

        Yes, try, but perhaps scheduling a doctor’s appointment (real or not) for the afternoon of the event would be helpful to avoid some of it.

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    2. Gingerblue

      This was my first thought, too, though I thing Detective Amy Santiago’s concern is fair too. It sounds like the higher-up have been pretty open with LW about what’s going in; LW, would it be possible to tell them that you’re concerned about this putting you in an awkward spot and see if it’s possible for the firing to happen while you’re out of the office naturally? Lunch, a day off you schedule and are vocally looking forward to for non-fired-boss-related reasons, an errand that takes you out for an hour or two? Not that you should have to resort to this sort of thing, but if there’s concern that she’ll have a real meltdown and you can just organically not be there, it may be less stressful. At the very least, having a talk with your new boss-to-be would signal that you’re not interested in drama even if your former boss tries to draft you for it.

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    3. Dragonsnap

      Well OP is only part-time right now so maybe she’ll get lucky and it will happen on a day she’s not there. Although that might not completely sidestep the problem if the boss reaches out to her after the fact to discuss it or works for several more days after receiving the news.

      Reply
  3. Dee-Nice

    Any chance she’ll be at least minimally receptive of a semi-confession that you feel caught in the middle? “This sounds so tough. I feel awkward and don’t know what to say since I’ll still be working here.” And then if she tries to trash-talk someone reiterate with, “I don’t know what to say since I will still be working with Clovendra.”

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    1. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock

      I like using this as a backstop phrase (like, maybe after 1-2 Alisonisms). If the soon-to-be-ex-boss is winding up for a rant, this could help put a lid on that.

      Reply
  4. PersephoneUnderground

    “It’s a tough situation” probably won’t fly- it’s too obviously a dodge, and more sympathetic to the other side in the situation than she’s likely to be feeling at the time. You could stick to your personal feelings about her leaving (not about her being let go and how, just that she’ll be leaving) and keep those genuine and/or simple. “I’m sorry to see you go- I’ll miss you.” “The place just won’t be the same without you.” and the sentiment Alison included about appreciating her advocating for you will probably all be fine.

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  5. heatherskib

    Why on earth does a lower level part timer have advance notice that her boss is being fired? That seems like a worrisome office culture to me.

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    1. Squeeble

      Probably because OP is going to be taking over some of her boss’s responsibilities, and the higher-ups wanted to make sure she was prepared/okay with that before making the decision.

      Reply
    2. RVA Cat

      Still, that is a really awkward place to put anyone in. It almost sounds like they expect her to spill the beans and have the boss quit.

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      1. Antilles

        I don’t really think that’s it.
        That’s a pretty convoluted plan and requires a lot of “what ifs”. You’re betting on OP spilling the beans, which many people would be highly uncomfortable with. Then you’re betting on Boss believing OP, rather than angry disbelief or laughter. Then you’re betting on Boss herself keeping it quiet rather than immediately making the restructuring public and causing everybody else in the office to worry that they’re also on the chopping block. Then you’re betting on Boss still deciding to quit immediately rather than letting it happen for severance/unemployment purposes. Then you’re betting on Boss not being so ticked off at the horrible handling that she causes some trouble on her way out the door.
        So yeah, seems pretty iffy. Also, if they’re concerned about Boss making a public scene, this sort of backstabbing gambit is the kind of thing that would make that *more* likely rather than less, because Boss’ immediate reaction is likely to drag in other team members.

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    3. SansaStark

      I was thinking the same thing. At my old organization, my boss was fired for the same issues and only was able to say a quick (tearful!) goodbye to her staff before being escorted out. It was incredibly jarring and awful and the only thing that would have made it worse would have been knowing that it was going to happen.

      Reply
    4. Juli G.

      Yeah, I’m also alarmed by this. Maybe a day’s heads up in some very specific circumstances but a couple weeks? Management issues might go beyond boss.

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      1. Lily Rowan

        Yeah, when my boss was fired, I was told immediately prior and given instructions. (I can’t remember what they were — stay in my office with the door closed?) But I was the next-senior person, and no one else was told until after the fact.

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        1. Ashie

          When this happened to me I got pulled into a meeting with a board member and was told that the Director was being terminated at that moment by other members of the board.

          Reply
      2. designbot

        I think Squeeble’s got the right end of it. It wasn’t my boss, but someone ostensibly senior to me was fired at a previous workplace, and I was given two weeks notice that that was about to happen. They wanted to make sure I’d be okay taking over her responsibilities. Reading between the lines, I think they had essentially decided that one of us would be fired, and if I had said I wasn’t cool with her duties it would’ve flipped and been me that got shown the door.

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    5. mdv

      Once upon a time, everyone in my office was part of a complaint against our director (in a university administrative office), so we all knew he was never coming back when he got put on paid leave, but it wasn’t official for 6 more weeks. To this day, he believes the guy who was his boss was the one who hated him and “got” him fired, and not because he was the worst boss ever and we had anything to do with it…

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      1. Anon For Sure

        Yup my ex-boss thinks I was out for her job from the beginning. I’m sure she could not fathom that it was all due to her meanness, lying and micromanaging.

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    6. Sam

      Something similar is currently unfolding in my office and it is unbelievably uncomfortable. Everyone finally knows, but it was handled in a way that strongly implied that we’re not supposed to address or acknowledge the situation even now. It’s awkward and worrisome, and I know a few people have started job hunting as a direct reaction to the way this has gone down.

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    7. Letter Writer

      Hey, LW here. Squeeble is mostly correct, that I am taking over some of former boss’ duties. I was also in kind of a strange position where I needed to know fairly quickly what my job status was going to look like next year (making decisions about renewing leases and such) and my employer opted to give me that news early enough that I could get all my ducks in a row. I am sure if it was in more traditional circumstances, they wouldn’t have told me.

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      1. heatherskib

        Just be wary that things like this are rarely one time instances. If your future subordinates start avoiding you I’d update your resume.

        Reply
  6. fposte

    I was in a situation fairly similar to this, OP, and my summary would be that it was awkward but survivable. In fact the other person ended up being pretty gracious over the years, so I actually enjoy seeing her in professional situations.

    I’d also say you might want to have a useful response ready for third parties who don’t know the details–they may want to commiserate with you about the terrible injustice, so your neutral responses to your former boss will serve you well there too.

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  7. Shiny Door Knob

    There are some people who just love drama, sadly, and when those people get fired, things can get ugly. When I was a manager at a large firm a few years ago, during my last week (I resigned to pursue a new job), I had to fire a very difficult employee that was prone to inappropriate emotional outbursts. She’d been difficult for a long time and my last official order of business as manager was to let her go. The HR rep went with me and when I broke the news, the employee started screaming bloody murder, making false accusations and just cursing up a storm. The HR rep told her to leave and the employee continued screaming outside in the hall, pleading with coworkers outside on their smoke break to rally against the company and yada yada yada. It got uglier when she started screaming outside that we all better look out after 5 pm while walking to our cars. The HR rep had to call the police to report the threat. I had to be escorted by two male colleagues to my car at the end of the day, every day until my last day, in case the psycho ex-employee made good on her promise. She called several coworkers and tried to get them to side with her about her false accusations and wanted people to sign a petition to have all of upper management fired- myself included (she did not know that I had resigned and was on my way out). She called HR and begged for her job back and continued to call, scream and hang up when she was told to stop calling. She would leave voicemail messages of herself screaming and cussing. The whole thing was just a nightmare. The saddest part of the whole thing? A few of her coworkers bought her bologna about her accusations and signed the petition that they presented to HR together and got fired. It just looked so bad that they would side with someone who had never been a good employee and who was obviously unstable. They had to be let go.

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      1. Shiny Door Knob

        She truly was unstable as she didn’t see it that way. She told one of her ex-coworkers that her rage was justified.

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  8. Georgia Peach

    I’m going through a very similar situation with my boss.

    She is being let go in a few weeks for behavioral issues, which her boss told me about (since it will affect my position temporarily.) I’m also in my first job out of college, and my boss tends to think that I see her as a role model/look up to her in a professional way (I really don’t – we are friendly at work, but her being let go is completely justified).

    I’m worried about her approaching me after she gets let go (I conveniently sit right outside of her boss’s office, where it will all go down) and making a scene, trying to get me to take her side, etc.

    I wish you luck, LW!

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    1. Wakeen Teapots, Ltd.

      I think it is super uncool for PTB to let someone know in advance that their boss will be fired. It’s above your paygrade to have to deal with anticipatory stress. Sorry you and the OP are going through this.

      I hope it works out for the both of you!

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      1. Not So NewReader

        I agree it’s way off base that management told her about the firing. In a way it sort of validates OP’s boss. People ARE going around and talking about her behind her back. I can see why Georgia Peach’s cohorts sided with the boss in that situation too. It’s because of the company’s willingness to talk about Bad Boss behind her back, people could see that maybe other accusations Bad Boss was making were true also. (I also agree that GP’s boss was over the top with her behaviors.)

        To me this whole drama started when TPTB confided in OP that Boss was getting fired. That is where the drama is.

        I hope things go well for OP and Georgia, but keep your eyes wide open.

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        1. Not So NewReader

          I have to add this: It bothers me when companies know they are going to fire a person and they wait. That really makes the person feel like the company tried to bilk them for everything the company could get. So of course the person gets even angrier because they realize they have been played. I don’t understand why companies don’t get this.

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            1. Julianne

              I technically agree with this, but I do think that it very understandably creates some bad feelings when there is considerable lag time between the decision to fire/otherwise let go of someone and the actual firing (and the person losing their job is informed of this). That happened to a coworker recently – the company decided to not renew her contract for another year (she wasn’t a great fit for the job, honestly), and the boss who told her about the decision let it slip that they’d made the decision several weeks before actually telling her. I’m probably a little biased because we were friendly at work, but I found that to be a pretty lousy thing to do – even if they did decide not to renew her contract weeks earlier, was it really necessary to tell her that? (Because we have employment contracts, there was low to no risk of this coworker walking off the job early; she’d have had trouble getting another job in the field if she had done so.)

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              1. AMPG

                That’s especially lousy, given the contract. Who knows how she might have been able to plan differently had she known her contract wouldn’t be renewed as soon as they made the decision.

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          1. Kate, Teapots Project Manager

            In OP’s boss’s particular case, they may want to lay her off as part of the restructure (“we’re eliminating your position”) rather than “firing” her.

            This would minimize the risk of an unfair termination lawsuit.

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          2. hbc

            There’s a lot of stuff that goes into a firing, at least at a good company. You move quickly when you absolutely need to (i.e.: threats to coworkers), but when it’s a slow drip of not-great performance, sometimes drafting the exit letter takes a backseat to more urgent matters. Maybe HR has to review, and your boss technically has to approve but he’s on holiday, and suddenly it’s a month later. I’m not sure it’s a kindness to tell the employee that you’re done with them and will be signing the paperwork sometime in the next 1-5 weeks.

            And a good manager doesn’t usually go from “Eh, it’s a coin flip whether she can turn it around” to “I’m 100% certain she needs the boot asap.” You’re usually moving slowly on the spectrum from “That’s troubling” to “Okay, maybe I haven’t been crystal clear about what I need to see” to “There’s been some improvement but I probably shouldn’t be working this hard for that kind of marginal gain.”

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        2. MillersSpring

          The PTB may have been assuring the OP that something would be done about the boss/please stay because we’re addressing it.

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      2. Zombii

        It depends on how much of an impact it’s going to have. If it’s “You’ll essentially be interim supervisor for your department,” or “We’ll need you to work weekends for a while until we hire her replacement,” then I much prefer the heads up, even though it means managing some extra stress. If it’s more like “You’ll be reporting to X until we get things sorted,” then yeah, that can totally wait until the day.

        The powers that be should always make an effort to minimize the fallout when firings are effective immediately or when the firee is likely to cause a scene—removing employees to clear a path to the door via random meetings or something should be a standard practice.

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  9. Liz

    I have this seen many times in AAM; people are told in advance of someone being fired bc it will impact the transition and someone up the chain decided they need to know. I don’t think it is a sign of an issue with management.

    I wish the OP and the Georgia peach all the best!

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  10. Jeanne

    I don’t think it’s a good idea fot upper management to be letting workers know weeks ahead that their manager is being fired. It’s inappropriate. And what if they let something slip? How will manager feel when she finds out everyone knew? Not ok.

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  11. Daisy

    Really I think the first line of AAM’s answer is the most pertinent. I can’t imagine a manager being fired for behavioural issues is going to be given a lot of time to wander round the office chatting about it, this sounds like a get-your-things-Steve-will-walk-you-out situation if ever there was one.

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  12. Sarah

    Many times organizations fire people and pretty much escort them out of the building immediately. I wouldn’t worry so much about a huge scene unfolding before you if HR plans it right. I think you should really try to show compassion though – now and in the future. Getting fired is one of the hardest things people go through. It correlates to increased depression, anxiety, even higher death rates. Someday you may be in over your head and let go. Be the kind of person you would want others to be for you during that tumultuous time. You don’t have to cast judgment either way, but be kind.

    Reply

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