my coworker sent a hostile resignation email to our team, and now wants me to attend a going-away party

A reader writes:

I have a dilemma that I’m not sure how to approach. Recently, one of my coworkers submitted a resignation letter to our manager, then emailed a going-away party invite to me, the manager, and two other coworkers. This employee has worked closely with me and the other coworkers for a while, and wanted it to be a close-knit going away party (which is understandable — there are a lot of people in the group who the employee did not get along with). Oddly, though, the employee didn’t show up on the day he sent this message at all.

This seemed quite out-of-the-blue. This person is incredibly dedicated to work and even voluntarily work weekends/holidays to get products completed, and had seemed entirely normal the week before. Even our manager had been caught off-guard by the notification. I suspected that personal issues at home were the reason why he was resigning, but I didn’t want to look like a busybody and thus didn’t email him or call to inquire. 

However, late afternoon that same day, he sent a strongly-worded email to our whole group. The tone of the email was arrogant — touting that the employee was indispensable and vital to the group and that without him, we would be crippled. Usually, most people’s going-away emails are in a nice, “you guys have all been a pleasure to work with, etc, but I’m moving on” tone. This one felt hostile in a “you all suck” way. To me, it felt vindictive.

The next day, the employee didn’t show up again. I had “accepted” the invite for his going-away party, but after my coworkers and I talked with our manager (we were trying to figure out a plan to distribute projects and work that would be dropped in our laps after the employee left), our manager thought that the tone of the strange email was a power-grab, trying to tell people that the entire place will fall apart without said employee and that we should bend to the employee’s ways. I started to have doubts about accepting the invite.

The reason for my doubts, however irrational they may be, is because several years ago, in another building on-site, a disgruntled employee took his manager hostage and killed him.  Since then, we’ve had to take “Violence in the Workplace” training each year. Considering the tone of the email and out-of-the-blue resignation, along with him not showing up or answering our manager’s emails (our manager is trying to work out a two-week notification plan/transition with the employee and told us that the employee has not been as responsive as he had hoped), I had a sudden fear of him becoming a bit deranged and had a fear sweep over me about meeting the employee for the going away party. I’ve voiced this concern to our manager, but the manager says that its probably not like that — just the employee not realizing that everyone is replaceable.   Am I just being paranoid? Should I even go to this going-away party or fake an excuse?

I don’t know if you’re just being paranoid, but if you don’t want to go to the going-away party for any reason — even if it’s just an unexplained bad feeling — don’t go. That would be true no matter what, but it’s especially true in this case, because of the hostile note to your whole team. (Frankly, attending his party after that note could come across as a show of alignment with him and a bird-flipping to your team, anyway — totally aside from the other concerns.)

But if this is someone you’ve been friendly with, why not email or call him and say that you’re concerned and want to make sure that everything is all right — that his email to the group took you by surprise, that you’ve always enjoyed working with him, and that you’re concerned about how he’s doing.

As for fears of potential violence … I can’t say either way, and I don’t think anyone could from the outside, but what I can tell you is that if you have those fears, you shouldn’t just brush them off, and you should consider saying something to someone in charge of this stuff at your workplace (not your manager, who blew you off when you raised it to him). I’m not saying that you should proclaim that he’s a danger — which obviously might be entirely wrong — but rather that you should alert someone that the situation is making you uneasy and has at least some of the signs of trouble.

It’s worth noting, by the way, that people do sometimes get these sorts of hunches before sometimes bad happens, by noticing various clues that add up to trouble — whether they can piece together why they’re getting that feeling or not. In fact, in Gavin de Becker’s book The Gift of Fear (yes, I’m recommending it again), he says that in many/most workplace violence situations, other employees had often picked up on predictive signs of violence earlier but weren’t comfortable saying something to someone in charge because they couldn’t prove it.

Of course, people often get these hunches and nothing comes of them, too.  And ultimately I have no idea if you’re picking up on something here, or just reacting to the fact that this is aggressive and out-of-character behavior. But I’d think that a workplace that cares enough to do “violence in the workplace” trainings every years would want to hear your concerns — and soon. Let someone trained to figure this stuff out hear what’s going on and figure it out.

{ 89 comments… read them below }

  1. Rob Aught

    I wouldn’t go. If they were someone I was friendly with and, despite the deranged behavior, wanted to keep in contact with even just out of concern I would handle it privately.

    In the interests of keeping my relationships healthy with the people I have to work with everyday, especially with my supervisors, I would not want to be seen by anyone as agreeing with that kind of hostility.

    Shoot, concerns about workplace violence are way down on my list. Even without that concern there are plenty of good reasons not to show up to the going away party.

    1. Jessa

      I wouldn’t go either. I just think the idea is…a bad one. You don’t have a going away party if you’re quitting in a huff.

  2. Elizabeth West

    YES the de Becker book recommendation. All managers especially should be required to read it.

    OP, do not go to the party. You do not have to. If your gut is screaming at you not to go, don’t worry about showing up to be polite. It’s screaming for a reason–maybe not because the employee is/will become violent, but this is NOT a situation you want to be in. It sounds like he’s burning bridges right and left. You are not obligated in any way to him. If he asks, just say something came up and you can’t attend. No other explanation needed.

      1. RJ

        Happy birthday, Elizabeth. I don’t post a lot of comments here, but I enjoy reading everything, and your comments are always so insightful and compassionate. Thank you for your contributions!

      2. Christine

        Happy birthday! I too enjoy reading your posts, especially since I can relate to some of your challenges in finding work (hope the new job is going well!)

      3. Kate

        I’m way late to this because of a crazy work week, but I hope you had a wonderful birthday!

    1. Elizabeth West

      Thanks everyone, for the good wishes!

      Unfortunately, on the way to my birthday lunch, some chucklehead ran a red light and destroyed my rear quarter panel, taillight, and wheel/axle! But I wasn’t hurt, the guy had insurance, and the car is fixable (or so I was told). So it could have been much worse.

      Today I got to work in the loaner and found my coworker had brought cake! Whee!

  3. 7

    Just wanted to say, great advice. I usually go with my hunches…they are there for a reason.

  4. A Bug!

    I’d bow out. If I’d accepted the invite before the hostile e-mail then the hostile e-mail would be my reason (because it would be, and it seems like it is for the writer as well).

    “I was excited to see you off but the second e-mail surprised me. I hadn’t thought you were the kind of person to write such a nasty e-mail and I think it would be best if I sat this out. If I don’t see you again before your last day I wish you the best!”

    1. Elizabeth West

      Honestly, I would not say that. If he is at all unstable, it could give him ammo against the OP. I would just say something came up and you are unable to attend, but best wishes for the future. Then cease communication there.

      1. Rob Aught

        Ok, it’s not just me. I’m not exactly what you’d call “non-confrontational”, but in this case I wouldn’t bother calling them out specifically on the email unless I knew them well enough I could talk to them about it in person.

    2. nodumbunny

      I agree I wouldn’t go to the going away party, but I wouldn’t be this confrontational about why – I’d do a “sorry, something came up”. Why add fuel to his (irrational) fire? I suppose I’m chicken, and I’m not normally afraid of necessary confrontation, but it’s not necessary in this instance to have him direct his ire specifically at the OP.

      1. Legal Eagle

        I am all about direct communication, unless the person is irrational. Then I’m all about backing away slowly!

        1. Elizabeth

          Also, this is not a case where it’s going to be necessary to continue to have a good relationship with this person. While sometimes former co-workers maintain friendships, it’s not required, and the OP won’t be working with this person anymore. Being honest and direct has some potential downsides without really much to gain.

    3. Another Allison

      Yeah, I had the same reaction. His email — and the more detailed response to his email that would be better left unsent — captures why it’s so much better to say things in person. You don’t want to have your fleeting angry thoughts cemented into an indelible, distributable record of who you are with no opportunity to add context. Plus, when it’s a conversation with a back and forth instead of a one-way email, anger often has a way of dissipating. Talking about it helps get to the root of what’s going on, but emailing can freeze-frame unfavorable aspects of more complex situations and define you in ways you can’t control.

      Millennials especially should take note!

  5. Wilton Businessman

    This guy is a loose cannon. I would make it known that he is not welcome for the rest of his two-weeks notice and to stay away from the property. If he has personal effects in the office, security will escort him in and out on a Saturday to retrieve his stuff.

    Socialize with this cat? No effin way. Once you play the crazy card, there’s no going back.

    1. Jamie

      Totally agree – and others may paint you with the same brush if you go, IMO it’s that ill-advised.

      A free drink just isn’t worth being known and the guy who had Crazy Jim’s back when he left.

      1. Your Mileage May Vary

        Uh oh. Now we’re gonna have to have a Crazy Jim on payroll at Chocolate Teapots, Inc.

  6. LisaD

    Having had a coworker who was previously a friend outside of work suddenly terminated for threatening a manager, just want to chime in and say you never really know a person as well as you think you do. If your gut says be afraid, then do not put yourself in contact with that person unnecessarily. Previous behavior is not an exhaustive list of what a person is capable of in the future.

  7. some1

    For whatever this is worth, I think it’s odd (and maybe a little rude) that your co-worker set up their own Good-Bye party to begin with, since it’s in her honor. Every place I have worked, a close friend or supervisor sets this kind of thing up. Tradition dictates/implies that if you are going out for lunch or drinks in in honor of someone’s farewell, the resigning person would get treated to all or part of their food &/or beverages, and it’s presumptuous to set up an event where you would be the one (and only one) treated.

    1. Ask a Manager Post author

      I know, that’s weird too! Unless it was something like, “I’d love to have drinks with you guys to say goodbye,” which would be more normal.

      1. Lisa

        To me, this indicates that this person was forced to resign and given the opportunity to stay a little longer as a courtesy. <ay have started out as ok, but quickly started to resent the situation and such. Or this person tried to get a promotion / raise and was told no, and said 'i'll quit if i don't get x', but then was told 'we understand, sorry to see you go.'

    2. fposte

      Yeah, I got a whiff of “to hell with the rest of you” from the goodbye party already.

    3. Henning Makholm

      Huh? Every place where I have worked, when somebody left (on good terms) they’d bring in some baked goods themselves and we’d have an awkward standaround in the break/lunch room full of “good luck”s and “what will you be doing now, then?”s.

      I’ve never heard of a tradition that dictates that someone would need to “be treated” or have something held “in their honor” because they left a job — unless, perhaps, if they were someone you were really happy to see the last of!

      1. jubileejones

        Henning: I think this is a North American vs. European cultural difference. I’m in Canada, but at my old job I worked for a Swiss owned company. Whenever I visited our head office in Zurich, I was surprised when people left for other jobs that they were the ones who organized and paid for their own going away party. And on birthdays the birthday person was responsible for bringing in treats to celebrate his/her birthday. According to my Swiss and German ex-pat co-workers, this was the norm.

        1. Jen in RO

          Definitely an American vs European thing. All my American friends were shocked that in Europe the birthday person treats their friends to drinks and dinner, and I was shocked that in the US they don’t! (I have to say I like the US way better – my birthday, I don’t want to buy stuff for other people – but how does it work in practice? You ask people to go out for your birthday, knowing that they will pay? That would come off as so weird here.)

          1. Jamie

            No – other people who know it’s your birthday always ask you.

            And at my place the company buys lunch of the birthday person’s choice for the office (everyone knows my birthday will always been Chinese food) and they do a cake or other desert thing with singing and stuff. It’s one of those things that’s not necessary but I’m embarrassed to admit has grown on me. People really like that the owner of the company knows you like Mexican food from a particular restaurant and one year she called in from a borrowed satellite phone in the Amazon to make sure someone remembered to pick up a plum torte for mine.

            Done without pressure it’s just a lovely gesture.

            1. Y

              “No – other people who know it’s your birthday always ask you. ”

              In that system, if no-one asked me, I’d probably end up really sad. As it is here, there’s no chance nobody will congratulate me, at least.

              1. The IT Manager

                At my old place of business in my section, my boss’s secretary maintained the list of everyone’s birthdays, and we only did birthday celerations once a month. (Arranging everyone or nearly everyone of the 10 people in the section to get together was kind of hard.) Unofficialy official but common as in some offices because this is considered a morale booster.

              2. Kerr

                Which is my problem. :( I like the American way, but the European custom has its perks! I was actually thinking about whether or not it would be very weird to invite a few people out to celebrate my own birthday. Now that I know it’s European to do so, I just might! (Though I’d hate for anyone to think that I’m asking them to pay for my party.)

          2. Liz T

            The various levels of American birthday, in my experience:

            -Actual party: birthday person invites people over and provides refreshments, but guests bring additional booze.
            -Bar gathering: birthday person invites everyone out to a bar, and the guests buy the birthday person drinks (often fighting over who gets to buy the next one).
            -Restaurant gathering: horrible. Birthday person invites people to a restaurant, everyone realizes too late that this was a terrible idea because they have to pay for their own meal and for a percentage of the birthday person’s meal, and it takes half an hour to sort out the check.

            I’ve been to VERY few birthday celebrations that were hosted by someone other than the birthday person. It was an amazing day when I switched from throwing myself parties to having bar gatherings–you mean I just have to show up, and people buy me drinks???

            1. Liz T

              (But, strangely, it’s the opposite in the workplace: other people bring in stuff for you. Usually it’s someone’s job.)

        2. OK Then

          I like this idea. I am responsible for ordering the cakes for everyone’s birthdays, but no one ever gets me one. I am hereby giving myself permission to bring something in to share! That’s a little less sad! :)

          1. Jessa

            Actually, that’s a function of it being something you need to address. As in, “I am responsible for cakes, I think it’s tacky to order one for myself, who wants to be responsible for me?” And you say this like 6 mos in advance of your birthday. Because really, someone gave the job to you. If there’s an issue with doing it, you need to speak up. I’d TRY not to be passive aggressively whingey about it, but still.

            The problem is not that they’re all actively forgetting you, it’s that since you’re the ONLY one who does this, the designated cake person, nobody has been tasked to get that last cake. This is kind of a management issue. Nobody figured out that it’s kinda not fun to have to order your OWN cake. Which btw, you should be doing if nobody else is tasked to do it, the same as everyone else’s. You shouldn’t need any more permission to order yours than anyone else’s.

          2. Jamie

            If I could buy you a cake I would! I bet there is zero malice behind it – ordering cakes is one of those things that just get done and no one but the person who does it gives a lot of thought into how…but it still sucks someone didn’t think about it and insure you have the best cake of all.

            Do you have to cut the cakes, too? I will never do it again – apparently I do them too big, too small, uneven…blah blah blah…everyone has an opinion on how to cut a cake.

            1. danr

              Just hand the knife to the person with the most advice with the biggest smile on your face.

            2. ThursdaysGeek

              My dad would always cut the cake in pieces that were about the same size but completely different shapes.

          3. Chinook

            OK Then, if you are the person who orders the cakes, then I give you permission to buy the type that you like, even if no one else does!

      2. Neeta

        That has been pretty much my experience as well.
        Then again, like Jen said, I’ve seen our US clients mention taking colleagues out to lunch as a farewell party.

  8. fposte

    I’m wondering if there might be substance abuse issues here. Not that that makes much difference to the OP’s call, but I’d be even less likely to attend the party if so. However, I like the idea of connecting about your concern and maybe offering a more controlled alternative, like lunch at a nearby place.

    1. V

      It’s possible… I was thinking that it could be some type of psychological issue, especially since this seems out of character.

      OP, I would not recommend going to the party, but I if there is ANYWAY for you to get this person help, PLEASE do. Perhaps you know their spouse or another relative that can have an intervention.

      It could be a substance abuse issue, a psychological condition or maybe this person started taking a new medication that has affected their brain (it’s happened to me and I didn’t know).

  9. EnnVeeEl

    Wow. He will never get a good reference not only from his former employer, but his former colleagues are going to avoid him like the plague. Former colleagues are truly the ones you come across again during your career. They will never forget this. He’s going to apply at a job at ABC Company, one of these folks are going to be working there and they will be like, “OMG, I do remember him, he went completely nuts after resigning.”

    He’s also putting his new employment possibly in jeopardy. It’s funny how stories get around. I might be leery about my job offer to a candidate if I found out they did this to their old employer.

    1. Jamie

      Stories totally get around – even to people who have never met you.

      A former workplace had a hostage situation once, long before I worked there and even I know the former manager’s name. When he gets out of prison I guarantee that there will be a lot of people wary of his resume who have never even met him, but know the people he terrorized and battered.

  10. blue dog

    I would give the party a wide berth for all the reasons you mentioned. Don’t know that he is a danger, but why take the chance? I think the better reason is the F-off email (which does happen every so often). You don’t want to hitch your wagon to that horse. If pressed, just say, “Oh, I’m sorry, something came up.” No need to get into it with him before the event (or after). My guess is that you will not be the only one who fails to appear.

  11. annalee

    I’d just say something came up and bow out.

    No need to tell him it’s because of the email–he doesn’t seem like he’s in a place to receive constructive feedback like that. Unless you’re personal friends, it’s not your job to educate him about how not to burn professional bridges.

    The possibility of violence is probably very low–but if you don’t want to hang out with this person socially, then don’t.

    1. annalee

      Just to clarify, when I say ‘not your job’ here I don’t mean ‘not your place.’ When someone invites you to something before saying something hella-rude, you’re well within your rights to point out that they disrespected you. But you’re not under any obligation to teach the guy how to behave.

  12. Christine

    It’s a little weird to begin with that he’s setting up his own “going away” party, but the tone of his second email just makes this even more bizarre. The gut feelings may or may not be valid, but you know this person better than we do. I would definitely not attend the party, and just give a vague “something came up” reason. Hopefully, if enough people decline, it will clue him in that his behavior is making people very uncomfortable.

    1. Meg

      I think I need to check it out! AAM has recommended it multiple times, and I’ve heard others talk about it as well.

      1. saro

        I would make it mandatory reading for everyone in high school if I could. It’s really helped me, especially when I started to travel internationally.

        1. Another Allison

          My first reaction to myself before I even got to Alison’s response (although I knew it would be in hers!) was “Gift of Fear Gift of Fear Gift of Fear!”

          It’s so helpful to be reminded that instincts are there for a reason.

  13. Ruffingit

    “The tone of the email was arrogant — touting that the employee was indispensable and vital to the group and that without him, we would be crippled.”

    Well, that right there speaks to this guy’s delusional state. No one is ever indispensable. Projects can be shuffled, other people can take on the duties and life, and work, go on. The fact that he believes himself to be indispensable is a huge red flag that he has major problems. The company functioned before he came on board and it will function now that he has jumped ship.

    Don’t go to the party obviously. And don’t bother with an excuse. Just don’t go. If he asks why, say something came up.

    1. EnnVeeEl

      Agreed. Also, is this even a person you would socialize with outside of work? If you met this person on the street, would they be a friend or an aquiantance? I don’t want to associate with people that can’t act like an adult.

  14. -X-

    The question of whether or not the OP should go is trivial – the OP doesn’t want to go, so she shouldn’t. It’s not complicated.

    The question of telling other people of the worries of violence is a little more complicated – considering the past history and training the OP got, I think the OP should report it.

    As an aside, I agree with fposte that there is good chance there is a substance abuse problem that is causing the swings in behavior. Or perhaps a medication problem.

  15. Jazzy Red

    I know that I’m paranoid, and the first thing I though of was that this guy planned to take out his whole team. I think the OP should make it a point to stay away from him. Listen to your spidey-sense.

    I’d rather be paraniod than dead.

    1. -X-

      “I’d rather be paraniod than dead.”

      Sure.

      But that’s not the choice we face a lot of the time . It’s whether or not it’s better to be paranoid or face an extremely small increase in the chance of dying by violence.

      If you don’t want to go to the party anyway, then the paranoia supports the general preference. But if the choice is between paranoia and something that might be beneficial/fun, it’s not so simple.

  16. Allison

    Coming from a different direction, is there a culture in the OP’s workplace that triggers disgruntlement in people who work there? I think the violence in the workplace training is good, but if it’s a company-wide problem, it doesn’t fully solve the problem to put the onus on employees only. It may just be the trauma of the first experience making your awareness more heightened rather than a workplace environment, but I wanted to ask if there’s anything about your company that winds up demoralizing people, just out of curiosity.

    I found the documentary “Murder By Proxy,” about the phenomenon of mass shootings, especially in the workplace, really interesting. http://voices.yahoo.com/emil-chiaberi-talks-murder-proxy-america-went-10809851.html?cat=40 I recommend this interview with its director, and I think the film itself is worth watching. The subject matter is uncomfortable, but it’s an objective look into how seemingly normal people wind up snapping in this manner.

    1. Ruffingit

      I saw that documentary awhile back and believe it’s very instructive on matters of workplace violence. There is definitely another side to this – sometimes what goes on in workplaces can cause people to “snap.” It would be helpful if workplaces looked closely at their environments to see where this could be prevented, but unfortunately many of them don’t care and in fact, those in charge think abusing employees is perfectly acceptable. But that’s a topic for another column (or 10). :)

    2. fposte

      Oh, that’s really interesting, Allison; thanks for linking to that.

      My impression also is that there’s a real precedent effect, so that it may be more likely at the OP’s workplace now that there’s already been such an event.

    3. EnnVeeEl

      This is a great link and I am going to try and find this somewhere to watch.

      Sadly, the types of companies and managers that do things to people to make them snap just. don’t. care. We see situations on this blog all the time of people outright being harrassed and treated unfairly. We also see on the news all the time of people that have snapped at work. The jerks continue to do what they do.

      But I still can’t justify the guy in the OP’s letter sending out crazy emails, no matter the work environment. And I wouldn’t go to the get together.

      1. Ruffingit

        EnnVeeEl,

        You can watch that documentary on Netflix if you have it. That’s where I saw it. And agreed that “the types of companies and managers that do things to people to make them snap just. don’t. care.” So very true.

  17. Ed

    Occasionally you leave a job because the boss is an ass. Occasionally there are a couple of key team members you don’t hit it off with or are even bullying you a little (sadly, this still happens as adults) and you decide to leave. Occasionally you’re not a good fit with the overall culture of the company. But when you passionately hate the entire department, you probably need counseling. And when you send a nasty email to all of them, you probably just ensured a bad word-of-mouth reference from every one of them, even the ones who never worked directly with you (and previously would have said “oh, I didn’t know that guy”).

  18. Ed

    I had someone get let go just last year that I was seriously concerned about. One time I heard she was in the building for something related to benefits and I left immediately, as in I stopped working, locked my PC and walked out the door. I felt bad for her and was one of the few people who honestly tried to get her back on track because it was painfully obvious they would eventually let her go. Heck, even the day of her firing she came to me after getting wind of it and I counseled her to ask for severance and suggested she be polite to protect her reference. But of course when she was let go, she put much of the blame on me because I should have done more. She should have been let go YEARS earlier but everyone was sort of intimidated by her because she flipped out all the time.

  19. Not so NewReader

    My first thought was did someone hack into his email account? But the absences seem like an admission of guilt. I suspect he is not that close a friend because if he was, you would know why he did this. (Not necessarily agree with it, but you would have had a clue.)

    I agree with everyone else who said to find a sudden reason not to go. I think I would have “a death in the family.” If I seemed nervous explaining this to him, he might write it off as grieving the lost family member.

    I did want to say, if you decide that you must go to this party- use the buddy system. Bring a friend and leave with your friend. Tell someone else where the two of you are going.

    Like a previous poster said- even if all this is benign, do you really want to be known as the one who went to this guy’s party anyway? (A really good point, btw.)

  20. Cimorene

    This is totally my own weird paranoia, but I am really afraid of getting brain cancer (or having a psychotic break or something) and going kind of crazy. So whenever someone does something totally out of character, my first reaction is to say that they need to go to a doctor and get checked out to make sure they don’t have cancer or some crazy brain infection that is making their brain go all weird.

  21. Stephanie

    I think we can all agree that the email was a bad decision and it’s going to affect future opportunities. However, you shouldn’t be contributing to the work drama OP.

    Bad mouthing an employee after she has left the company especially if the employee was considered a dedicated employee is not very professional either. The OP mentioned that this was “out of character.” Aren’t we all imperfect humans who make mistakes?

    This is what’s wrong with society and why people make irrational decisions. Gossiping about an employee who you say you had a friendship with is not the way you should go about finding a solution. The OP doesn’t want to go and she has every right to decline. But it should end there.

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