guilt over leaving team behind as I leave a toxic workplace

A reader writes:

I’ve been in a fairly toxic workplace for two years, and in one week I’m finally done with my contract and am moving on to greener, and saner pastures. This is all well and good, except I’m leaving behind a small team of people who I’ve grown very close to while I’ve managed them.

And I know things are about to get much, much worse for them at work.

The company is in trouble financially, which we all know: it was used as an excuse to downsize, move us to tiny offices, increase unpaid overtime, not give raises, bonuses or paid leave, etc. We’ve all pulled together to make that work because we loved what we do. We used to have a really incredibly bad owner, who recently sold the company to her partner and fled: we’re still uncovering the mess she made of things. I’m the manager, and as such even though I’m leaving, I’m still being called into meetings about the future of the company. This makes me nervous on a couple of levels as I never want to be accused of taking company secrets to my new employer, and I’d really rather prefer if they DIDN’T have the money talks in front of me, but I’m not quite sure how to make that stop- I’m still here, doing my job, for one more week (I gave 3 months notice), and part of my job is planning for the future. It also means I’m privy to things my team is not- like further plans to downsize, or that they’re planning on moving another company also owned by our new owner into our small workspace. 

Our direct manager as well is feeling the pressure, and with the prospect of me leaving, has started to make some changes to the workplace that I feel will be detrimental, to the work, the culture, and the team I’m leaving behind. Add to that that I found and hired my replacement, who I’m now worried is going to get burned by all this, and I’m feeling incredibly guilty and confused.

My question: what can I do for them? Do I have a responsibility to stick my nose in all this mess that is going to come raining down as of Monday (my last day is Friday) or does my leaving mean I can’t have anything to do with it? Is there some trick to just washing your hands and moving on?

Okay, some principles to keep in mind about all this:

1. It is normal in a situation like this to feel guilty that you’re jumping off a (possibly) sinking ship and leaving people behind you. But these are adults who are getting plenty of signals themselves about what’s going on. The downsizing, the smaller offices, the halting of paid leave (!), the fleeing owner — your coworkers may not have all the same information you do, but they have enough to understand that the situation isn’t secure or stable. Anyone who is shocked by further downsizing in that context and didn’t see it coming was almost willfully not paying attention. So you don’t need to struggle with whether you need to sound an alarm for them — the situation is already warning them. They may not know the specifics that you know, but they know the situation isn’t good, and they’re making their own calculations accordingly.

2. And that’s good, because you really can’t share confidential information that your job makes you privy to. This is the nature of some jobs; you signed up for a job that would expose you to internal decision-making and you agreed to keep it confidential. That stuff is not always easy, especially when you’re learning about things that will affect your coworkers, but there’s no exception in the confidentiality provision for “when it becomes hard.”

3. What you can do is talk to people in ways that don’t violate your confidentiality obligations, particularly since your own departure provides an obvious context. So if a coworker expresses uncertainty to you about whether they should be job-searching themselves, you can point out that in an unstable situation like your company is currently in, it’s always smart to line up options. And particularly for the people you manage, I could even argue that part of the job means having a final talk with them about their career plans before you head out. Ask questions, listen, and give advice. Just don’t violate your confidentiality obligations.

4. You can also strongly advise your manager to be as transparent as possible with the staff about what’s going on. You can direct her to information about managing downsizing well; there’s a lot out there that argues that being open and transparent is the key to recovering from periods like this. She should read it, and you should push her to. (Whether she does or not is ultimately up to her, but you can strongly advise it.)

5. Similarly, regarding your manager making changes that you see as detrimental, all you can do is give the best counsel you can. Make your case for why these changes would be harmful and offer alternatives. Tell her you feel strongly, if you do. But from there, it’s up to her. You’ve done all you can do, and you shouldn’t beat yourself up for not being able to somehow stop her.

6. Regarding your concern that they’re continuing to involve you in meetings and you’re worried about being accused of taking company secrets to your new employer — they know you’re leaving. They’re freely sharing information with you (probably because part of your job is to be involved in this sort of planning and they still want your expertise). I don’t think you need to worry about later accusations.

I know a lot of people’s response to all this would be, “It’s no longer your problem.” And to some extent that’s true, and you’re probably going to feel like that in a month or two. But this in-between period — when you’re on way out but not quite out yet — is really hard.

Update: After I wrote this response, I received this P.S. from the letter-writer:

I should also mention that my direct manager hasn’t been handling this too well either. I’ve attempted to make a few suggestions/comments about her proposed changes I think aren’t a good idea, and the general response has been something like we need to do these things in order to stay solvent (not necessarily true) and that if I want my end-of-service benefits, vacation payout, and all the other end of contract payout stuff that I’m entitled to, we have to do x, y, or z. So basically, all of the really brutal stuff that’s about to happen is happening because I wanted what was contractually promised to me so I can leave. There’s a lot of guilt going on right now. 

No, it’s not happening because you want what was contractually promised to you. It’s happening because the owner of the company mismanaged things. And I don’t buy that fulfilling their obligations to you — which sound pretty standard and not extravagant — will be what triggers brutal cuts elsewhere. I think that’s BS, unless your end-of-service benefits are equivalent to an entire salary or two, which I strongly doubt. Your manager is telling you that out of frustration or in an outright attempt to guilt you into giving some of them up. This is a contractual obligation, the company is obligated to fulfill it, and their mismanagement is on their hands, not yours.

{ 4 comments… read them below }

  1. Kimberlee Stiens*

    Wow. The thing that really gets me about situations like that is just how many incompetent people run businesses. I mean, I understand that its harder than it looks, but if you have the resources to hire employees and do business on a daily basis, you probably have the resources to bring in a management consultant to show you what you're doing wrong. Or at the very least, pick up a book! It seems like business owners and higher-ups often seem to project the attitude "I made this place what it is, so clearly the problems can't be on MY end." Such unwillingness to improve or even consider things from another point of view. Sigh.

  2. Jesse Hachey*

    Great post, Alison. There are a lot of thoughts here about the friction of transitioning from one job to another that I believe could apply to many people and many consultants that are helping people with that transition. Your thoughts are always very thorough and your points are very succinct. I agree with all sides of it. It seems that this fellow is being stonewalled when it comes to his good intentions, and occasionally that kind of frustration is what comes with mismanaged organizations. As per your advice, he should do his absolute best with the situation, and then this Friday, let it all fade into the past and look ahead to the greener pastures he's heading into.

    BTW, I'm still new to the blogging scene, so I'm not sure if there's a technical term for this, but I did a little talking about your last blog post in my new blog, "I, Headhunter". If you'd like, you can check it out here: I'd appreciate it. :)

    Again, solid post. :) Hope you have a productive week!

  3. Jamie*

    I think it's nice and totally normal that the original poster has survivor guilt for bailing early on a sinking ship. And kudos to giving three month notice and doing what you can to ease the transition for those left behind.

    But don't feel guilty for a second for taking the money due you upon exit. That's yours – the fact that they are guilty of mismanaging finances isn't your fault.

    As AAM stated so well – your co-workers know what's up, unless they are completely stupid they have seen the writing on the wall and will act accordingly (or not and wait for stuff to happen to them – unfortunately.)

    A lovely parting gift for those whom you would happily provide a reference would be a sincere offer to keep in touch in case they ever need anything. The words are subtle and innocuous – but the expression can finish the thought "You know, when you need a reference."

  4. Paula*

    Wonderfully thorough and thoughtful post and replies. I would love to know how this all worked out for the OP and coworkers, if possible.

Comments are closed.