no one told me my coworker was fired

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?

{ 20 comments… read them below }

  1. GeekChic*

    Hmm… interesting question. At my current place of work management does send out bland announcements when someone is let go. I usually know before this because I'm in IT and we're contacted first to shut off accounts and re-route email.

    At my last place of work, though… there was never any announcements and people just had to figure it out (again, I knew because I was in IT and would be contacted to shut off account access – but was sworn to secrecy). It did make for some morbid moments.

    I did ask one of the managers at my last job why nothing was ever said about fired employees, and the response was basically one of surprise: "Why would anyone else care? This is work. It doesn't matter who is in the chair." They basically felt that people were interchangeable.

  2. Cassie*

    As long as I've been working in our dept – no one has been fired. One person was let go right before her probation period ended (without even a hint prior that they were going to cut her loose). Another staffer switched from working for the dept (as a whole) to working for a specific person. In both cases, the rest of us in the dept were not notified in any way. Even the people who those two staffers provided admin support to had no idea. They only found out when they had work to be done and couldn't find their secretaries!

    When this came up in a staff meeting, the staff manager claimed that she had wanted to send out an email notifying the staffer's departure but the dept manager told her not to. They have some warped reasoning for wanting to keep everyone in the dark.

    I hate it. It's not a big deal – we're all adults, we can handle it. A couple of years ago, one of the secretaries passed away. They had an emergency staff meeting but did not notify the rest of the people or send out an email or anything. So about 30 people were told first hand, while a couple hundred people had to find out from others.

  3. Evil HR Lady*

    I think it's a combination of being wimpy and not wanting to have to justify a decision.

    I also think it's terrible. At minimum, an e-mail should go out stating exactly what you said–john's last day was today. we wish him well.

    It causes such stress on everyone when management isn't straightforward with everyone. Urgh.

    Also, that's why with layoffs, if you are doing a bunch you should do them in the morning, as rapidly as possible and then have an all hands meeting for the remaining staff to explain what happened and that the bloodletting is over.

    People handle knowledge so much better then they do speculation.

  4. kay*

    Reading this post is interesting, because I've experienced two different scenarios.

    1. We merged with another company so inevitably some people were let go. Management did send out an email to everyone to let them know (the reasons are rather obvious anyway…)

    2. But when someone is let go because of performance issues, or extraordinary circumstance (a guy got fired on the spot because he was badmouthing the company at a networking function!) noone gets notified in those cases, people just found out through gossip…

    I don't know why they keep things quiet… the example you used as a notification would be quite sufficient!

  5. Kerry*

    Most of the time it's because the people running things are idiots.

    I've seen other cases though, like:

    1. The guy knew he was at the end of the "shape up or ship out" period, so he just…stopped showing up. Management tried for a couple of days to reach him, not knowing whether he was dead or just giving up. You can't send out an email until you know which one it is.

    2. The guy was negotiating a severance, and part of that sometimes involves calling it a resignation explicitly. Until you know whether you're supposed to say, "Jose is no longer with us" or "Jose resigned yesterday," you can't send an email (and I had one case where the employee negotiated writing his own email announcement, and then failed to produce it for four days).

    3. The employee just plain requested that there be no announcement, and for whatever reason, they agreed. I've seen this three different times. Why an employee would want this (and why an employer would agree to it) is beyond me…but it does happen.

  6. class-factotum*

    Bigwhig firings were always announced as "Joe Blow has resigned to pursue other interests," which everyone knows is code for "was forced into quitting but got paid a lot of money to do it."

    I worked at a place that didn't announce promotions. Because they didn't want to "make the others jealous."

  7. Amanda*

    A simple e-mail stating, "Bob is no longer with the company and this is not representative of any layoff plan" is sufficient. Otherwise, the gossip mill starts churning and morale can be negatively affected. Companies flaunt 'open communication' and other such buzzword-esque policies, yet don't take five minutes to follow through on something so easy and effective.

  8. Midge*

    My company usually announces when someone leaves on good terms but says nothing when someone is fired. I think the management thinks the staff will be scared if they know someone was fired. But if we announce some terminations and not others it's very obvious to the staff what's going on. My advice has always been to communicate everything even if no details at all are given (i.e. Joe's last day was today.) The staff is going to talk and speculate anyway so you may as well give them as much of the story as you're able to.

    We also don't announce promotions for a fear of others being jealous which I think is just stupid. All it does is make the person who got the promotion feel bad because it's being kept secret and force the staff to gossip some more.

    People should be treated as adults and be kept in the loop with regard to terminations and promotions.

  9. Suz*

    I'm starting to think I'm the only person whose company handles this well. We have an online bulletin board for employee announcements. All hirings, firings, and promotions are posted there. They never tell you if a person was fired or resigned but it's easy to figure out. When someone resigns, their end date will be in the future but it they're fired it's in the past.

  10. Gene*

    I think the OP is missing a golden opportunity here.

    If s/he has some troubling project that the dear departed one could have possibly been working on send an email to him that s/he is still waiting on his input then put it on the bottom of the pile. When the time comes when someone asks about the project OP has an out. When the company says, "But he doesn't work here anymore!", OP can just say, "No one ever told me. I'd sorta heard something, but I ignore rumors, they are so seldom true."

    Accomplishes two things, gets troubling project off the desk for a while and lets company know that not announcing it is stupid.

    I know I'm a Machiavellian bastard, but if someone hangs their petard out, why not hoist them by it?

  11. Anonymous*

    I think Suz's advice is the way to go on this one. We do something similar. If you send out individual email blasts or announcements, there will enevitably be those who ask follow up questions like "what happened to him?", or " is she okay?". A generic posting on a bulletin board reduces the follow up questions significantly.

  12. Anonymous*

    We avoid the awkwardness by posting all separations, new hires, promotions and transfers on a staff bulletin board

  13. Rebecca*

    I vote for wimpy. As with so many other things at a job, it's easiest to pretend nothing happened and hope no one notices.

  14. Rachel - I Hate HR*

    At my employer it sometimes takes a while (3-5 days) before an announcement goes out. This is usually so that the department has time to be notified and process the information before the rest of the world knows. It also gives us a chance to think about how recruitment for that position.

  15. Anonymous*

    It's odd to watch a project team whose project manager has simply vanished without a word and without a replacement. They run down like an old watch until they stop altogether. It's happened several times. A meeting was held to explain to the firers that if they must keep it mum, they need at least to arrange for the firee's work to be taken over by someone else.

  16. Development Catalyst*

    Some companies do such things so that other employees will not be worried,but even so, somebody will surely notice.

  17. Anonymous*

    One major sign of company dysfunction is that _everything_ is kept secret. None of our firings or departures are announced – not even the VPs who were recently culled – and promotions are kept secret. A friend recently got one and was not allowed to tell anyone. Ever.

  18. Anonymous*

    Hi I got sacked from my job on friday. I had a panic attack!!!
    I had been working at the company for 3 weeks and after week 2 I had an apprasil. The manager told me she never wanted me to work for her but got out voted by the other managers! I left my last job after being on sick leave with stress and coping with a family death. The manager told me that this was really too long for me to be off. I was off for 3months. and she did no like me!
    after my panic attack she took me to the office and told me to leave!
    what right if any do i have?

  19. Anonymous*

    I have been term’d at a job and my employer addressed my absence as “she no longer works here,” which I feel is an appropriate response to any employer addressing this.

    If an employer reveals to another employee, short of HR who already knows why the person was no longer working, I feel it would be a major privacy breach on the employer. The only people who should know the true reason for my absence is my manager, supervisor, and HR. Everyone else it should be none of their business of the specifics.

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