can I ask why my predecessor was fired?

A reader writes:

I’ve recently started in a new role with a company I’ve admired for years. I’m excited about the job and before I started I felt inspired by the confidence shown in me by my new manager.

Now that I’ve started, I’ve found that the reason the big cheeses were so keen for me to start was that the previous incumbent left suddenly because he was fired. I want to make the right impression in this organization and progress, and I’d like to find out what it was that my predecessor did that warranted such extreme action so that I don’t make the same mistake. At the same time, I don’t want to come across as someone who is nosy, liable to make mistakes or lacking in confidence in my own ability.

What do you think?

You can absolutely ask, and it’s potentially useful for you to know the story anyway, because it might give you additional insight into things you uncover as you take over the job. For instance, if it turns out that your predecessor was covering up the fact that work was going undone, this is useful for you to know because if you’re, say, having trouble locating a report that he should have written, now you’ll know that maybe it was never completed — whereas otherwise you might put a lot of time into trying to find it. Or if it turns out that your predecessor had terrible relationships with other departments, it might signal that you need to put extra effort into repairing those connections.

So by all means ask. Word it like this: “Can I ask what happened with John? If you can’t talk about it, I understand, but now that I’m taking over the position, I thought there might be history there that could be helpful for me to know.”

Chances are that your boss will tell you.

{ 6 comments… read them below }

  1. Anonymous*

    I'm struggling to be polite about how I say this, but… both you and the questioner are off-base.

    If the person started a new job without knowing that her predecessor was fired, and having at least some idea why, that means she failed to do her homework.

    Her research and due diligence during the interview process should have brought out that information — and she certainly should have asked the company to explain it then.

    Failing that, she might well have walked into a minefield wearing blinders.

    And you should have told her that in your answer. Yes, it's mostly too late for that advice to help her. However, you would have done a service to all your other readers by reminding them to thoroughly research prospective employers while still a candidate (right up to and beyond the point when you receive an offer).

    -Jon Jacobs

  2. Anonymous*

    I agree that asking is fine, but, like the previous commenter, I think it should have been asked during the interview. I have asked many times what created the vacancy I was interviewing for and not once was I admonished in any way for asking. Asking once you've been hired, if it's not done just so, can come off sounding like you want to catch up on the office gossip. At that late stage, it definitely has to be phrased very constructively, and it should also be asked privately – not just casting around for someone who will give you the dirt.

  3. Ask a Manager*

    Right, but the question was whether she can ask now — which she can and should.

    Is it better to ask in the interview? Absolutely. On the other hand, some companies will give you much more candid info once you're already working for them; I've seen interviewers gloss over the fact that the predecessor was fired, for all manner of reasons. You're far more likely to get the straight story once you're actually working there. But yes, definitely asking in the interview why the job is open is smart.

  4. Anonymous*

    Of course you should be asking why there is a vacancy at interview. I always do. It helps me to understand the job I'm potentially going into.

    As a prospective employee I want to know if I'm replacing someone and if so what kind of handover (if any) there will be, or whether I am about to enter a role newly created as a result of some internal reshuffling.

    I always get an answer when I ask, but once I've been told the role has been vacated by someone else and there will be no formal handover it seems unreasonable to try and dig further at interview stage.

    Ultimately if someone has been fired then it's likely to be legally sensitive and they're not going to share any further details with someone they may not hire.

  5. Anonymous*

    If asked in an interview, most likely the employer will just say the previous employee left and they are seeking to fill the position. They aren't going to air their dirty laundry to someone who may not even be hired.

    Even after being hired, most employers will be sensitive to privacy and liability issues of discussing other employees, former or otherwise.

    Information like this, I've always found, is usually readily forthcoming from coworkers. Make friends and you'll usually find out all the 'scoop' you need to know about the former employee.

  6. Asp.Net how to questions and answers*

    That is very risky anyway. What if your manager also wants to fire you? :)

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