my mentor might get demoted or fired — and I might be offered her job

A reader writes:

I’ve been working for the same company for about 3.5 years now, but a year and a half ago I was promoted to a more interesting, more lucrative position. This job is still at the assistant level, but I’ve been fortunate enough to be working under a woman who has been very kind, generous, and helpful. She has really been more of a mentor than a boss. She has given me opportunities to try things that were above my pay grade, and I’m proud to say that I’ve really flourished in the role. I get things done well, on time, and under budget.

But then I had a meeting with the executives about a week ago. My mentor and I have contracts that are up for renewal at the end of the month, and they told me in this meeting that they’re so impressed with how I’ve grown in the position (and they said they’re concerned about my mentor’s performance) that they’re seriously considering giving me her job and only hiring her back at part-time … or possibly not at all.

So … do I mention this to my mentor? She is my friend and my confidante, but since everything said in this meeting was vague and nothing official was offered, I feel uneasy saying anything at all. Plus what if the execs change their minds? They said they were going to have a meeting with my mentor, but it’s been over a week and nothing has been scheduled.

WHAT DO I DO?! Do I warn her? Do I sit tight? And if they offer me the job, do I take it? It would be a huge step up for my career, but I don’t want to burn a bridge with my mentor.

They put you in a tough position by sharing their thoughts with you before they’ve made any decisions. And if they end up keeping her after all, you’ll now know things you probably shouldn’t really know about your boss (the performance problems and how close she came to losing her job). Plus, they’ve risked you getting your hopes up about getting promoted, which really isn’t a smart thing for them to do in case it falls through … unless they’re actually already planning on all of this and only presented it as a “maybe” to you to test the waters and gauge your interest.

In any case … It doesn’t sound like you have permission to share what you were told with your mentor. It sounds like you were told in confidence and you’re expected to keep it private. That doesn’t mean that you’re bound by that, of course; you could still decide to tell her. But you’d need to be aware that you’d be breaking a confidence and possibly harming your own prospects with your employer, because if they find out you shared this with her, they’re likely to question your ability to be discreet with information in the future (which is usually a huge strike against someone when they’re being considered for a management role, now or in the future). And you might think that it’s unlikely that it will get back to them, but if your manager feels compelled to talk to them about what she learns from you, you probably won’t be able to contain it.

So whether or not to tell comes down in part to whether you value your relationship with your mentor over your own career prospects with this company, and in part to how seriously you take confidences that are shared with you in the expectation that you’ll keep them to yourself.

If it sounds like I’m pushing you toward the path of not sharing it … I am. That’s because part of having a job is handling sensitive information discreetly and not sharing things that it’s clear the people who sign your paychecks didn’t mean for you to share, even when it’s hard.

As for whether to take the job if it’s offered to you, would you accept it if you didn’t feel it was being taken “from” your mentor? If so, a good mentor wouldn’t want you to turn it down. She might feel weird about it, but she wouldn’t expect you to say no simply as an act of solidarity with her. And if she did, then she’s not much of a mentor.

(Also, keep in mind that you’re not taking the job from her; she’s being removed from the job because of performance concerns. You’re not lobbying to steal her job away; you’re a bystander.)

But that’s just an abstract argument. If despite this you’d feel like a traitor or won’t be able to sleep soundly at night if you accept the job, then it’s your prerogative to decide that it’s not for you. You’re allowed to turn down a promotion, although doing it can sometimes limit you in undesirable ways in your present company. But you’re still allowed to.

(However, keep in mind that turning the job down might not preserve your mentor’s job; it might mean that your company brings in someone else instead.)

This isn’t an easy situation. As you sort through it, keep in mind that the business conventions governing these situations are different than social/friendship conventions, but remember too that it’s fine to make the decision based on what you can live with.

Read an update to this letter here.

{ 30 comments… read them below }

  1. AdAgencyChick*

    Oh, man, this is a tough one. And it’s not tough because of any fault of the OP — the executives are totally mismanaging this. They might have asked OP whether she’s interested in a more managerial role without telling her that the managerial role would be replacing her boss.

    OP, when you met with the executives, did you express to them how uncomfortable you are knowing this? (No shame if you didn’t — you were put on the spot and it sounds like you were in a meeting with people fairly high above you in the pecking order.) If not, do you feel comfortable doing so now? I’d tell them that you’re in an awkward position because you know something that relates to the future prospects of your boss, who has treated you so well and helped you grow so much that you regard her as a mentor — and, in fact, has helped you to become the stellar performer who has attracted the execs’ notice. Hopefully this should embarrass them into doing the right thing and speaking to your boss ASAP (whether that means speaking to her about eliminating her role or just telling her she has to improve her performance).

    Honestly, if my boss’s boss came to me and said something similar (note I am NOT phrasing this as “if I were in your shoes,” because what I’m about to say is evidence of a rare level of boss-mentor awesomeness, and OP only you can decide if that’s what you have as well), I would have to tell him. This is someone who has grown me so much as a professional, and whom I consider so much a friend that I asked him to be in my wedding party, that I could not in good conscience hide material information about HIS LIFE from him. I would, however, tell his boss — “I’m in a really uncomfortable position — you know that Boss and I have a very special relationship, and I can’t in good conscience not tell him this, so if you’re going to do this, please have the conversation with him or I will.”

  2. perrik*

    Gosh, I would hope that the executives have already met with your boss to discuss their concerns about her performance and the possibility of non-renewal/reduction of the existing contract. She should NOT be hearing about this issue for the first time on the date of the contract expiration!

    I can understand why you’re feeling so conflicted. She’s been so awesome for you, and you don’t want to be perceived as an Eve Harrington in return. All you can really do is approach this professionally – don’t pass along confidential information, and keep working at your usual high level.

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      Yeah, a complicating factor here is that the OP probably doesn’t know if they’ve talked to her boss about the performance problems — because if they have, the boss probably wouldn’t have told the OP. (Most people don’t tell their coworkers when this is going on, and especially not people they supervise.) So the OP can’t really know, although certainly one hopes that they would have.

  3. Jamie*

    Even with my most trusted mentor I assumed he shared with me everything he could – but I would have always assumed that information which would have hurt his career to share with me he’d keep to himself. I’d never expect anyone to fall on their swords for me.

    I would hate being in the OP’s position, because it sucks and exec mgt is handling it badly, but I would have no problem keeping my mouth shut and sleeping just fine. I wouldn’t say a word.

    Good work relationships are great – but no professional would want you to cut your throat for them. Besides, if you tell you’re putting your mentor is a shitty position as well. They may want to say something to defend themselves, but feel torn about protecting your confidence.

    If it were me I’d file it in the lessons learned folder about how executive management should NOT handle these kind of things and keep quiet and let everything play out.

    And if offered I’d take the job in a second.

  4. Anon*

    I’d be on the lookout for other red flags after that conversation. It can feel very good to know sensitive information but if management is willing to tell you this about your boss A)what are they saying about you to other people B)what other things are they going to tell you that put you in a bad position.

  5. fposte*

    If I were being removed from my job, it’s going to have to be filled by *somebody*. I’d far rather it be somebody that I thought would be good and that I hoped would be able to grow and advance rather than somebody I didn’t know.

    I think if you’re planning on taking the job if it’s offered to you you can’t tell her without authorization. There’s almost certainly stuff she hasn’t told you because it’s not appropriate for you to know, including possibly their satisfaction with her performance. While your secrecy would sting a bit if I were her, I’d also understand it, and honestly, I’d have worries in this situation. (I might also want to take a break from the OP for a bit–not so much for the secrecy, just for the staying when I’m going.)

  6. B*

    I’ve been put in similar positions several times. Only once was I replacing the person but the other times I knew in advance friends were getting fired or demoted. Obviously, you should not say anything and I never did. One of them is still mad at me years later but what would it have changed? They would have been a total wreck their last day and maybe done something stupid to get themselves in legal trouble. I don’t see any possible benefit unless you know they are considering another job and might turn it down.

    The one time I replaced my mentor, it was very uncomfortable and we fell out of touch. But I worked with him years later as a consultant and he laughed about it and was glad it happened. Most of the people I know who have been fired agree it’s the best thing that happened to them. The exceptions would be those fired for cause who also lost any chance of a good reference. Sometimes you’re not excelling anymore because you’ve outgrown the job but don’t want to give up the security and comfort. I was fired once about 4 years and have gained a ton of experience and tripled my salary since. But I’ll bet I would still be there and miserable if I wasn’t let go.

    I would guess the reason they told you was to gauge whether you would accept before they let your mentor go. For all they know, you weren’t interested, already had another job lined up or would refuse the job out of loyalty. But I would totally take the job. If they are unhappy with your mentor, her fate is probably already sealed.

  7. tangoecho5*

    Also, did the OP have absolutely no inkling her bosses job performance is/was lacking in some way? She might not have specific details but it seems strange that her bosses work performance is so bad that she might be fired but the OP didn’t have the first clue. If nothing else, some indication the boss was working on improving her performance.

    Makes me wonder if the bosses boss is trying to push the mentor out and is using the bad work performance as the reason. OR, rather than do their jobs and actually manage a sub-performing employee, they would rather fire her. Lastly, the OP better keep in mind how management treats her mentor is how they will treat her is she takes the job.

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      I can think of quite a few cases where the people working under someone wouldn’t know their performance was lacking. Sometimes it’s about things that your peers/subordinates wouldn’t see — like chronically not taking requests from your boss seriously, or not being on the same page as your boss about what is and isn’t important or how to approach key stuff. Very easy for that sort of thing to not be seen by people who aren’t in a position to know.

  8. Joey*

    Don’t tell. I know it sucks, but telling is probably going to mean you go down with the burning ship. Save yourself since you can’t save the ship. And for what it’s worth, if your mentor resents you for it she may not be as good as you think she is. If she’s a good mentor it should be bittersweet for her.

  9. A Bug!*

    Let me add one more voice to the chorus that agrees that management’s unfairly put you in an awkward position, but also that you shouldn’t feel guilty about taking the job if it’s actually offered to you.

    If your mentor considers that a betrayal, then that sucks, but it would mean that your mentor has unreasonable expectations that you’re not obligated to meet. It would be unfair of her to expect you to sacrifice your own career only to salve her ego.

  10. SarasWhimsy*

    I hope we get an update on this one! I feel awful for the OP – such an awful position to be in. But I agree with what’s been said – zip your lips :)

  11. Sallie B.*

    I agree that the best thing to do is keep quiet and keep on doing a stellar job. I’d also start looking for another job. The fact that the executives would put you in this position at all raises screaming red flags – what they do to one employee, they will do to another. Do you want to someday wind up on their “hit list”?

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      I wouldn’t assume they have a hit list or that they’re treating the mentor badly. People do need to be let go for performance issues sometimes, and as long as they’ve given her fair warning, that’s not treating her poorly.

      1. Original Dan*

        Airing the mentor’s dirty laundry to her subordinates is a lousy thing for the execs to do

        1. Non-Herd Dave*

          I agree with original Dan. I’ve been waiting for “Ask a Manager” to comment on this…

  12. ThursdaysGeek*

    Is anyone else feeling a disconnect between someone who is really good at teaching someone to do a job and poor performance in that same job? If this mentor really is performing poorly, and if the OP does take the position, she needs to find out where those shortcomings were, so that she will not have the same issues. Because either the mentor is not mentioning those actions at all and the OP has no training in those areas, or the OP is being trained wrongly. Or, of course, the great mentor has fallen afoul of her managment for other reasons than performance.

    1. Frances*

      I don’t know. I had a boss once who was incredibly supportive when I proposed a major project and let me take the lead on some administrative policy decisions that would have been above my pay grade in most departments — and then he got fired for falsifying expense reports. Everyone who worked with him was completely shocked. I know poor performance and unethical behavior isn’t exactly the same thing, but definitely it’s possible that someone can be outwardly cheerful and good at managing while inwardly overwhelmed by their other responsibilities.

      1. Ask a Manager* Post author

        It’s also possible for it to be less nefarious than that. For instance, I once worked with a woman who was absolutely lovely — warm, encouraging, knowledgeable about her field, and in many ways a mentor to her staff. But she was stuck in some very old-fashioned ways of doing things, and she reported to a manager who was much more forward-looking. They just couldn’t align their visions, and the more that became clear, the more she shut down around him — stopped communicating, stopped hearing what he was telling her. She continued being lovely with everyone else, while in the background her relationship with her boss was deteriorating to the point that she was on the verge of being fired when she left on her own. Her staff wouldn’t have known what was going on, but those were very real issues.

    2. Original Dan*

      Teaching well is not the same as doing well. I can teach anyone how to ski, but I stink at it.

    3. Steve G*

      I’ve definitely work with a few “do as I say, not as I do” types that must seem like awesome mentors when someone first starts, because they are willing to spend so much time with new people, explaining stuff, teaching, etc. I think I’m the only one that rolls my eyes at it though, as I see them avoiding all of the difficult tasks in their jobs and acting like it is so much to help the new person, neglecting to mention that they weren’t asked to help with the new person.

    4. TheSnarkyB*

      Nah, I see what you mean ThursdaysGeek, but I think for a lot of people there are super distinct tasks in a job – for instance, I might be fantastic at most aspects of my job and be super catty in my office or non-communicative with my passive boss since I’m a more aggressive type… It’s easier to think of if you see it as a people vs. things/tasks issue. I’m actually very people-oriented, so my last mentor/amazing boss and I had a great relationship that was only minorly affected when I had some pretty major screw ups – we had developed rapport to the point where she could give me tough feedback and it came through clearly & was received well…

  13. Camellia*

    I agree with AAM – don’t tell. However, being the nasty, suspicious character that I am, I wonder about several things.

    By saying anything at all to you about this they are showing what poor managers they are. So maybe there is no performance problem at all. Maybe they want her gone and you in the role because (I’m assuming) you earn less money. If talks about this do go forward, make sure you find out about/negotiate a pay increase for the promotion. But keep in mind that, even if they offer you an increase it may still be less than your mentor is earning.

    Again, poor managers, so maybe they are hoping you will say something to her and she will be insulted and quit. Or maybe they are ‘testing’ you to see if you would share sensitive info without express permission. Yes, I’ve seen this done in the past.

    But, reverting to my almost-human like self, maybe you have really blown them away with your work and they really want the best person for the job and were just sounding you out before they pursue this change!

    In either case, all you can really do is sit tight, trust (I know, I know) their judgement, and see what transpires.

    1. Anonymous*

      It’s also possible they want to fire the manager because they want hire someone at a lower salary, so now they’re trying to find or inventing reasons not the renew the manager’s contract. And they’re thinking not only will they be paying OP less, they wouldn’t have invest any time in training OP to replace the manager.

  14. Anonymouse*

    My friend was in a similar situation. Her manager was known for being a poor performer and did not get along with the director. When the manager went on maternity leave she had some health complications, and it was during this time that the director decided to have a meeting* with all of the manager’s subordinates about the manager’s future if she came back after maternity leave (despite her clear plans on when she was returning), and how my friend should/would be promoted to the management position. Thankfully my friend ended up leaving the organization anyways so she didn’t have to deal with that craziness any longer.

    (*He claimed he was just thinking out loud when someone mentioned that it probably wouldn’t “look good” to fire someone during maternity leave…)

  15. tangoecho5*

    Well maybe the best thing the OP can do before accepting the job (if her supervisor is fired) is sound out management on what issues the original manager had and if there was some sort of process in place to address those issues with the manager. Now specific details aren’t necessary but if upper management isn’t somewhat forthcoming such as giving some basics about what the problems were, the OP might find herself behind the gun from the get go. It’s possible the way she has been taught by her mentor is exactly what the mentor did that upper management didn’t like. How can she avoid doing the same things if she doesn’t know what they do not like? At least knowing what the problems were gives the OP the ability to not do those things herself instead of guessing. And/or she finds out if what they in fact do want is possible or reasonable.

  16. Not So NewReader*

    I really don’t see how this friendship could be salvaged- the cat is out of the bag now. OP, I am sorry to say that at least half the friendships out there could not with stand this level of stress.

    However, I agree with previous writers who said “heads up, eyes wide open”, management is showing you how they treat people.

    Insider info can make people feel included/part of the group. Unless, of course, the topic of conversation is you. Watch out for a “insider club” mentality. Also watch out for office grapevine.

    Since none of this is formal and it is all off the record- I guess I would go back to management and just simply state- that you have been given information that perhaps you should not know and it makes working closely with this person extremely awkward.
    Tell them you hope that they are able to resolve things in the fairest way possible.

    I try not to “tattle on” people. But if people put me in an awkward place I will go back to the person who IS talking with me and try to find some way to settle the situation. My thinking here is that if a person has the nerve to say something that causes me such discomfort then I have the nerve to go back and try to calm the situation down a bit.
    “You know, Harvey, our conversation yesterday left me feeling a little uncomfortable and I was wondering if we could just touch base on that for a minute….”

    Your goal is to speak in a manner that is fair to all. If your mentor learned what you said she would think you were being fair. As you managers listen to you speak, they realize that you are trying to be fair. Be brief. Less is more.

    Maybe, it’s a long shot, but maybe you will find out that she is thinking about leaving and is okay with it all.

  17. Jules*

    And people wonder why so many is reluctant to mentor :( This situation just sucks on so many different level. When someone sees these kinds of incidents, they wonder if it’s even worth to mentor anyone at all.

  18. LG*

    I’ve actually been in this situation before, though the person was not my friend and really more just someone who annexed me because I wasn’t busy and needed more work, so I was able to learn and get experience as an executive assistant.

    I was called into COO’s office one day and told he knew I was doing all the work of his exec asst (since the work quality had increased significantly and the style was different) and that they needed to lay off some people. They were telling me this since they were promoting me on the spot and needed someone in the know to type up the excel spreadsheets and letters and stuff related to how much money the layoff would save the company. Because of this I was privy to how much the exec asst made so when we got around to talking dollars I was able to ask for a much higher salary than I’d ever made (more than double) and it was still well below what they paid her.

    I went from being a receptionist for a few years to this new company in the role of a low level admin assistant (for only a few months) when I was given the promotion to executive assistant to both the COO and CEO. Quite a meteoric rise, relatively speaking.

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