is my employer plotting against me?

A reader writes:

I’m in a living nightmare at work right now.  The I’ve been with this small, family owned, business for 5 years (passed down from a father to his daughter and son when he passed away) and I’ve seen a lot of unfair behaviour on their behalf.  I’ve heard them lie to customers and lie to employees; I’ve seen them cheat the government when paying taxes; I’ve watched them bully employees into not filing reports when hurt on the job.  This is just what I’ve actually seen.  I’m sure there is a lot of nastiness going on that is hidden.

After watching this for 5 years, I’ve decided to hand in my 2 weeks notice.  I’ve found another job that I’m very excited about and all I have to do is get through the next week and a half.  The problem is, I have a feeling that something is up with my ex-boss.  They’ve asked me not to tell anyone else in the company that I’ve resigned.  I do a lot of work for the Sales Manager and he counts on me.  I know he would be very upset to just find out I’m gone.  No notice.  I told them that I would rather tell him and sooner, rather than later.  They said they would think about it and come back to me with a day.

This morning I received an email from one of the owners asking me where I found my new job.  He asked if I found it on Monster, a job posting site, did a friend recommend it to me.  He said he was asking because he needs to post an ad for the position I’m leaving and was wondering if I could recommend a good site.  This sent a red flag up for me becaue they hire new service and construction people every year.  They certainly know how to post an ad.  Also, why would it matter where I found my new job.  That has nothing to do with hiring someone else.

I can’t put my finger on what they’re trying to do here but I know they’re upset that I’m leaving.  They haven’t said they’re upset but I know that my leaving will affect the company since it’s so small; I was a very good worker for them and they relied on me for a lot.  Their behaviour has been so dishonest with so many other people and they are very vengeful people, especially when they think they’ve been wronged.  I just have warning bells going off but I can’t figure out what they’re trying to do.

My question is: How should I handle the rest of the time with them?  How much should I tell them when they ask?  Do you think I’m just being paranoid?

Well, there are two possibilities here: Either they’re planning to deal with you in some unethical way, or they aren’t. If they are, you should be taking steps to protect yourself. And if they aren’t, you have nothing to lose by taking some protective measures anyway.

Assuming that your take on their ethics is correct, one possibility (and it’s just a possibility, not anything conclusive) is that they’re going to attempt to mess with your new job in some way. (Although I’d bet that the reason your boss was poking around about how you found the job is just because he wants to know if you were actively looking or not.) Another possibility is that the reason they don’t want you to tell other employees you resigned is because they’re going to tell people they fired you. Or there could be some other sketchy plot in the works. Or, again, there could be absolutely nothing nefarious going on at all (in fact, as weird as they sound, I’d still say there’s a decent chance that they’re not actually plotting anything).

However, given your assessment of their ethics, and the fact that you sound sane and reasonable, I’d err on the side of safety.  At a minimum, don’t give them any information about your new job. Be evasive, or just say, “I can’t talk about the details yet.”

Additionally, you should start letting people know that you’re leaving; it’s your professional reputation that’s going to be affected if people think that you left without notice (or were fired). You have two choices: You can either discreetly tell people and explain that you’ve been asked not to announce it publicly yet, or you can tell your boss that you feel you need to let people know so that (a) they’re not taken by surprise when you’re gone, (b) they have plenty of time to get anything they might need from you before you go, and (c) so they don’t think you left the company hanging without notice. Ideally you’d do option #2, but if you feel you’d provoke them into some kind of action against you by asserting yourself in that way, you may feel more comfortable doing #1 instead.

Aside from that, if you’re truly concerned that they’ll try to mess with you in some way, one unorthodox but possibly quite effective approach might be to kill them with kindness. Tell them how much you’ve enjoyed working there, how much you’ll miss them, how you’d like to do whatever you can in your remaining time to help with the transition, and that you’re looking forward to keeping in touch. Ooze kindness all over them. (A lot of jerks are easily defused when they think their target really likes them and is on their side; you might find this a bizarrely effective method for protecting yourself during your remaining time there.) I want to stress that I’m not generally a fan of being anything other than straightforward and candid with people, but in this situation where you’re dealing with people who seem to rightly scare you, your priority needs to be getting out of there as cleanly as possible.

I’d also document everything that’s going on. You might not ever need it, but if you do, you’ll be glad you have it.

Good luck, and congratulations on moving on!

{ 23 comments… read them below }

  1. Anonymous*

    You’ve known them for 5 years and been witness to sketchy behavior, trust your instincts… especially regarding info about the new job. They may not be out to get you but isn’t it better to be safe than sorry? I would not want to be left wondering, “Did they tell everyone they fired me? Did they try to contact my new boss? etc” I do agree with AAM about giving your co-workers a heads up, somehow/at some point.
    Congrats on getting the heck outta there!

  2. Sara*

    One thing I learned about sketchy bosses, is that how they treat others indicates very clearly how they will treat you. My ex-boss would never tell clients when someone quit, and this really bothered these employees. They were told to not say anything, because as the boss said they should hear it from him, which makes sense, however he would have all sorts of excuses on why he hadn’t announced it yet. Then he told me directly that if things go wrong, he needs someone to blame. AMA called it as a possible scenario, and if I wasn’t for seeing it go down myself, I’d think that was a crazy thing! But it’s true. My ex-boss was shady, and felt that when someone left it was a blessing, because he felt he could blame things that he failed to do on someone else who just “suddenly” quit/ or was fired. Ahhh, good riddance to sketchy bosses!

  3. Beth*

    They’ve “asked” you not to tell anyone, but they can’t stop you from telling anyone. I agree to trust your gut. What’s the worst they could do at this point, get mad and tell you to leave without finishing your two weeks? It would appear that over 5 years you’ve developed enough of a reputation and relationships with others that you had references to rely on to get your new position. I am not saying to be aggressive to your current employer, but if they get mad at you because you’re leaving you should just go with your head held high.

  4. Courtney*

    I can totally relate to your situation, having worked for a sketchy family buiness before. I learnt to trust my gut in a very big way. The thing I struggled with was because the situations were so utterly unbelieveably unethical, I felt like I came off looking like the crazy, paranoid one. I really did feel like they were out to get me.
    I moved on, they took it personally and I look back and think about how much I learnt from that situation. I will not compromise like that again.

  5. Anonymous*

    Your boss can’t prevent you from talking to people about giving your notice. What are they going to do: fire you?

    What you need to do is to start discreetly telling people that (1) you gave notice to move on to a new position; (2) you were asked not to reveal it; but (3) that didn’t sit right with your sense of professionalism and communication, so you are informing them anyway.

    Frankly, I’d be inclined to tell everyone in sight, but if you’re going to limit it than be certain to include everyone who you work for internally. I’d also include at least a few known gossipers so that news will get around.

    Finally: if you have any ability to do so, make sure that you get everything from the company that you can; memorize lists; get client addresses, etc.

  6. anonn*

    The questions about where you found the job almost sound like they are sniffing around your internet activity at work. Perhaps the site is appearing on the companies browsing reports and they want to know if it was you or someone else? Whatever their true reason their excuses for asking sound hollow and I wouldn’t confirm either way about where you found the role.

    I would tell the people you work with closely that you will be leaving however. It may be their wish but they can’t stop you.

  7. Dawn*

    I would definitely start letting people know that you are leaving. Personally, I’d write a very nice blast email saying how much you’ll miss everyone, enjoyed working there, and learned a lor. That way no one can say you left on anything but the best of terms. You gave the proper notice, you didn’t burn any bridges, etc. If the manager publicly makes a big deal about the email, he will be the one to look like an idiot.

    I’d also say to document everything, even if you never need it. Protect yourself.

  8. Question Writter*

    Thank you, everyone, for you comments and answers! I really appreciate all the advice.

    I told my boss that I couldn’t remember which website I had found the job on but suggested a couple of good websites he could use to advertise my position. He didn’t ask anything more about it after that.

    A couple of days ago, I asked the Accountant when I could expect to see my vacation pay. I was told that “The bosses aren’t going to like that!”. I told him that I didn’t care if they liked it; I was entitled to my vacation pay. After going back and forth with him on whether I was entitled or not, I was finally able to convince him to not fight me on it (after showing him some government websites with employee’s rights and proving my point).

    I was finally able to tell the Sales Manager yesterday (giving him 1 week to prepare) and today they’re telling the rest of the staff. The past couple of days have actually felt “safer”. I don’t feel like I’m being investigated anymore but I’m still on high alert.

    I’ve taken your advice, Alison, and am “killing them with kindness”. I still don’t trust them at all but you would never know it by how friendly we’re all being to each other.

    I did assume the same thing as Anonn; I thought that they’re probably checking into my internet usage but then wondered what difference that would make now. Then I thought that maybe they’re going to start monitoring the other staff. I still don’t know but I’m going to play it safe.

    Thanks again to everyone! I can hardly wait for next week to be over with.

    1. Mike C.*

      First thing, killing with kindness is awesome, because it really pisses them off and they can’t do a thing about it.

      Just a quick question, but if you’ve seen them doing illegal things like cheating on taxes and convincing people not to do paperwork for getting hurt on the job, have you considered that this is the time to turn them in? State budgets are really tight all over, and it’s not fair that the owners of your soon to be former job are taking advantage when so many others are hurting.

      I’m been a whistleblower before, and it’s not as scary as it seems. If you need some advice on that, I’d be more than happy to help.

      1. Matt*

        I disagree. I am in a profession which is regulated by the state. What I have learned is that whistleblowing, telling the gov when a company breaks the rules, is a major bad idea. Even if that company cannot legally retaliate against you because of it, they can let it get around that you are the one who “ratted” them out and your career is ruined. In fact, even if you are not the one who turned them in, if they get turned in around the time of your leaving, your name will be mud.

        1. Mike C.*

          It’s cowards like you that allow crimes like this to go on unpunished.

          The least you could do is contact your local representative and ask for better whistleblower protections, but I guess that’s just too much trouble, right?

          Grow a spine and do what’s right for once.

          1. Slaten*

            Hey, totally off topic but the truth is YOU HAVE TO PROTECT YOURSELF and your career. No one else will do it for you. If it takes letting some little company getting away with something then I personally couldn’t careless.

            Having said that… My advise would be to report the company but don’t give them your name!

  9. anonymous*

    I would start letting my colleagues know as well.

    The only reason I have ever been told not to tell people of an impending resignation is to allow management the chance to think things out — they may wish to extend a counter-offer. But once the ‘cat is out of the bag’, management can’t make a counter without serious loss of face. But that “keep this quiet” period should be no longer than 48 hours. Assuming no counter-offer is coming – or if there is one and you will not accept it —

    Two reasons I would tell colleagues. One, remember that some bosses are idiots. In my nearly 40 years in the working world, I’ve seen many stupid managerial moves. This is one of those times where you have to actually let people know to protect the company from its own blundering. You need to trigger the transition of work, etc.

    The second. The working world can be a small one. If you leave your current employer, and they choose to smear you on your departure, that’s not good for you – especially if you were to run into someone else along the way in the future. It is far more important to leave with a good impression among your colleagues than to worry about what some weird former boss might do to you in the future.

  10. Anonymous*

    I think this faux secrecy around resignations is a bigger problem, even among companies that aren’t overtly unethical like this one. At my past employer, there was a strict “don’t ask – don’t tell” shroud around everyone’s departure; managment used the catch-all phrase “confidential employee information” as the justification why no one could ever know that anyone else was quitting. You just disappeared.

    Personally, I think it was because they wanted to pretend that everyone was fired; it was important to their corporate image that they pretend nothing was wrong with the organization and everyone was perfectly happy and would never want to leave of their own accord. If they prohibited quitting employees from telling their co-workers why they were leaving, they could hope that the gossip mill would assume it was a firing.

    This also contributed to a culture of fear they wanted to create. If management turned the resignations of smart, capable people into rumored firings, it makes everyone else more afraid for their own jobs. Instead of workers noticing “hm….all the good workers are quitting this dysfunctional place”, the climate became one of “oh my gosh, all these really good people are disappearing! Am I next?”

    1. Mike C.*

      I’d like to point out that a company cannot prohibit employees from talking to each other about working conditions – this includes wages, bonuses and reasons you are leaving the job. It’s federal law, and christ am I tired of hearing about bosses trying to make rules against it.

  11. Charles*

    OP – I’m sure that you’ve already decided this (and your actions say so); But under NO circumstance let these folks know where you are going to be working; tell NO ONE at your current position where you are moving to. While it is an obvious lie a simple “the conditions of employment at my new job require me to keep it confidential.” While it might be that they will do nothing to ruin your new job, as others have said here – better safe than sorry.

    If they happen to contact your new employer and bad mouth you the new employer might think that they are just crazy; but your new boss also might look at you with a little suspicion.

    For example, if they happen to call you at your new job, someone else answers the phone, and with a certain tone of voice say something like – “tell her to return the laptop that she “forgot” (there that tone) to return when she left in a huff.”

    I mention this because it happen to me. Luckily for me everyone saw that my former employer was batsh*t crazy. But I still would have preferred to have not had that happen. Good luck!

  12. Paula*

    I too have been working in a small family-run business for the past 5 yrs. I have been the only steady employee for the entire time. I turned in my notice last week, I needed FT and wage increases, growth, etc. I had one wage increase 6mos after I started, have taken on a lot more than my job description. I did enjoy working there, and it was great while my kids were younger. Since I have turned in my notice the Dr asked me to make sure I continue to work hard (I was shocked & asked him when I had not worked hard for him!). Then, the past 3 days his wife, who is office mgr, but mainly works at home, has been absolutely horrible to me. On Friday I had an updated TB test done (all medical is free for all employees). The wife said I needed to run the charge thru my insurance. I said, I thought since I was still an employee it was still covered (it’s required for my current and new position). She said no, my insurance will cover it. I am so upset, I have bent over backwards for these people and this is what I get for all my hard work. The thing is, this is a very small town and I am president of a club that she also belongs to. Our last meeting before summer is next week, I almost hope she decides to drop out for next year, b/c I have already decided to be pres. next year (nobody ever wants it). I will finish my notice, but I have to go to her house on Fri a.m. and then to the office for the afternoon. I really don’t even want to talk to her, but I will not let the rest of my co-workers down. PS – Because I am leaving, one of the nurses told them she is looking for a new job too.
    Thanks, had to vent!

  13. Anonymous*

    Please read the Lotus Sutra interpreted by Nichiren Daishonin best English translation by Burton Waston. You can find it on the internet or at your local bookstore. The Lotus Sutra shows a better path to take in life

    There is no guarantee that things will be better at your next place.

    I am in a job doing bookkeeping and have been demoted and I don’t know what is going to happen next, but I must have a purpose to be there because I can’t seem to find another job. I went on an interview and they were more concerned but my extra circular activities, then whether I could do the job, maybe I am there to show them without words how the Lotus Sutra works, also I will put these people in my Nichiren Shoshu Buddhist pray for their happiness.

  14. Kevin*

    This discussion digressed. Sounds like government officials wanting more of the hard earned capitalist monies. Government EARNS and PRODUCES NOTHING. Government is a leach on jobs. Squealing is stupid unless the company is killing innocent people. They will be judged soon enough. Geesh, Sounds like quite a few punks without 30 years of employment repsonding. Although coul dbe haters giving stupid advice.

  15. J. Bryant*

    If they do fire you after you give notice, you can collect unemployment for the remainder of the time that you were on the schedule during that two weeks.

Comments are closed.