I found out my coworker is getting laid off

A reader writes:

The company I work for is significantly off budget, and I have known for about a week that a particular manager (who’s basically a peer) is being considered for layoff as the company is looking to make major cuts. I was brought into the conversation because of the effect his separation will have on my responsibilities. My manager wants to be sure I am willing to take on some tasks that are very different from my normal position. Of course, I am okay with that because I would rather have my job. Still, having the information is agonizing! Not because it is considered juicy gossip, but because I feel like I should warn him.

This afternoon I accidentally viewed severance information that confirms it is going to happen. It wasn’t shown to me intentionally, and I did not go looking for it but now I know…and I feel even worse!

This same evening he came to my office and asked if I knew why his schedule was blank after Monday next week. It may have been an oversight or not finished yet, but the rumor mill has been turning lately (not fed by me), and he is making logical assumptions. I wanted so badly to tell him, but I managed to shrug and play stupid (I am generally a terrible liar too).

I know if I were in his position I would want somebody to warn me… Personally, I think he is an arrogant jerk but not at all the type to go postal or jeopardize his reference.

Do I need to stay quiet or should I just tell him? How much damage could fair warning cause?

Well, it could cause some damage to you, so you need to weigh that against your desire to tell him.

Here’s the thing: this is information that you were given on a need-to-know basis with the expectation that you’d keep it confidential. It’s not pleasant to be burdened with this kind of information, but it sounds like it was shared with you as part of necessary planning. Some people do need to be in on the discussion when layoffs are being discussed, and this case you were one of them.

If you violate the confidentiality your company expects you to keep, it’s a pretty big breach. You’ll be saying “When I learn about confidential information through the course of my work, I might not keep it to myself.” That’s a big deal — and even more so if you manage people currently or want to in the future (since managers have to deal with confidential information all the time).

So you need to weigh that against your desire to let him know. Are you willing to jeopardize your professional reputation and future advancement for this guy?

In addition, consider:

* You say you’d want to be warned, but it sounds like he kind of has been warned, by the rumor mill. Not a “this is happening to you on Monday warning,” but a “signs are pointing to a possible layoff, and it could be you” kind of warning. For most people, that’s enough of a warning that they can get a head start on doing all the things people should do in this situation, like not making major purchases and starting to job search.

* If he’s going to find out next week, that’s only a few days away. It’s unlikely that knowing a few days earlier will make this much easier on him. (If you knew that he was planning to take on a new mortgage or buy a boat or something during that time, that might be different. Although even then, you’d still wouldn’t be in a position to outright tell — but you’d be in a position to urge him to wait until those layoff rumors finish shaking out before he takes on major new financial commitments.)

The reality is, sometimes your job can mean that you have to know things you’d rather not know — about people’s performance problems or their spot on a layoff list, the possibility that a whole program will be cut, etc. It’s not pleasant to know this stuff, but sometimes it does come with the territory. When it does, you can certainly use your position to push your employer to handle things as ethically as possible (for instance, not keeping someone’s certain layoff a secret from them for months) — but you can’t generally share confidential information just because you’d feel better if you did, no matter how understandable that feeling might be.*

* assuming we’re not talking about ethical or legal violations, which raises different issues

{ 61 comments… read them below }

  1. Joey*

    He heard it through the grapevine and knows he’s not on the schedule? The guy already knows. No need to tell him and jeopardize your own future.

  2. hilde*

    It sounds like your coworker is already starting to draw some of his own conclusions? I’d leave it at that. I think Alison’s advice is solid and there is some good rationale for keeping mum.

  3. hilde*

    This was me. My hard drive blew up yesterday and am recreating all of my customization and settings for everything today. I had no idea I had so much stuff to recreate!!

  4. Jamie*

    The reality is, sometimes your job can mean that you have to know things you’d rather not know

    Yeah, I hate this part. It’s necessary and can’t be avoided, as long as it’s need to know for business purposes and not gossip, but it still sucks.

    The OP can take some consolation in the fact that most people get that this isn’t personal. I have work friends with whom I would like to maintain a relationship even if we no longer worked together – but in a million years I wouldn’t expect them to give me a heads up if it was confidential and I have no doubt they know I wouldn’t do it for them.

    It’s business and I’d never want anyone to risk their job or their integrity out of loyalty to me – and anyone who would expect that isn’t worth the risk anyway.

    The only area where I can see bending this is if someone was in the process of a major financial step. And by in the process I mean they are being let go Friday and signing the papers on a new house or car days before. In which case I’d go to tptb and explain that they need to notify quicker before this becomes a whole lot worse for the person being let go.

    1. Suz*

      This happened to me. I was laid off 2 weeks after closing on my house. I never would have gone through with it if I’d have known I was losing my job.

      1. Jen in RO*

        My current company (not the one mentioned below) is going through some layoffs and the situation looks grim. A coworker is going to get his loan approved for an apartment in a month or so… I’m keeping my fingers crossed that no layoffs happen before then!

        (He is in an in-demand field and he’s sure to get a similar or better job soon, but if the process drags on he will need to do all the paperwork… and you need to be employed for 1+ year in the same place to qualify for a loan, so he can not switch jobs until everything is final.)

        1. hamster*

          Depends of the bank. I changed jobs in the last year, but the stream of income was steady and they didn’t mind

    2. Jen in RO*

      Yesterday I was talking to an ex-coworker and she was telling me that Client was upset that feature X would not be in the next release of the application. Turns out that Client’s Support Person, who used to work for the company making the software, still talks to people there and she found out that they were planning to roll out feature X in the next release… and she was dumb enough to let people find out she’s doing this!

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      I’d say, “The best person to talk to about this would be your manager.”

      The manager can then say “I’ll have more information for you on Monday” (or whatever is true).

      Companies should not wait long periods of time between making these decisions and notifying the people affected; it’s bad for everyone if they do that (anxiety abounds and top performers who aren’t being laid off will start looking around for other jobs because it’s a question mark). But sometimes you can’t avoid a lag of a few days, which sucks.

    2. Joey*

      That’s not a Joey question. That’s a Bob [manager] or HR question.

      Why would I know?

      I’m sure everyone will find out what’s going to happen when they’re ready for us to know.

  5. Ann Furthermore*

    Must chime in and agree with everyone else. Even if you swore the guy to secrecy not to divulge how he found out, there’s a good chance that the leak could be traced back to you. And then, like Alison said, you would have proven to your management and peers that you may not be trustworthy to keep confidential information to yourself.

    It does suck though, because it feels cruel to keep something like that from somebody. But really, you’re better off not saying anything. And you’re already doing your part by not contributing to the rumor mill.

    Any time I’ve ever opened my mouth in the interests of trying to help someone, it’s backfired on me terribly. Now, as hard as it is, I keep stuff to myself. I actually learned something work-related that is very significant a couple weeks ago, but was sworn to secrecy. And believe me, I am keeping my mouth shut.

    1. PJ*

      Even though you haven’t told, you might consider the possibility that TPTB may think you did, since rumors are going around. They may think you started the rumors. CYA.

      1. Ann Furthermore*

        Yeah, that’s a good point. It might be worth firing off an email to the people who pulled you into the discussion about taking on some of his responsibilities:

        “Just wanted to let you know that Bob asked me today if I knew why his schedule is blank after Monday. I didn’t say anything, but he definitely knows something is going on.”

        If you do this proactively, it will help with the CYA.

        1. MR*

          Instead of emailing the entire group, I’d recommend telling just one of the persons involved. Better chance of keeping the conversation between as few of people as possible.

          1. HAnon*

            I would definitely NOT put this in writing. Have a very brief conversation “just a heads up…”

        2. OP*

          I have def. let the people who told me know that he approached me. They have already contacted our General Manager about the schedule, but I am pretty sure the damage has been done at this point.

    1. OP*

      I don’t have to like him to think that he should be treated fairly and have an opportunity to transfer into a different business unit. It makes me feel slimy to talk to someone about upcoming events when I know they won’t be around. And most of all…I want to warned if I get on that list.

  6. Chelsea B.*

    It is tough to not speak up about lay off, I understand. Recently we had a new hire not work out at my office, and I had some trouble feeling guilty about him getting laid off. It was not a good fit, and he was going to drown in the job (not good for us or for him), but I was responsible for training him, and so was reporting his progress to our mutual manager. Needless to say, I feel a bit guilty about his lay off, while still understanding that it’s better for both parties.

    1. Joey*

      Was it really a layoff though or was it performance?i ask because if he was a new hire that wasn’t performing well I’m assuming he’ll be replaced. That’s what Id feel more bad about- that he was being told its a layoff when its not.

      1. Chelsea B.*

        You’re correct. It was a performance issue – so I guess that’s different. He wasn’t told it was a lay off – he was told it was a performance issue, and he was during his probation period. Still feel kind of guilty over it though because I was reporting to our manager on his learning curve. Oh well. He had only been with us for two weeks, but unfortunately did not have the computer skills to manager the job – and we are a small enough company that we can’t afford a long ramp up time.

        1. Jamie*

          That’s a illustration of why it’s important to vet the critical hard skills in the interview process.

          Testing up front would have ruled him out and saved a lot of headache on both sides.

        2. Joey*

          As long as you did the best you could and kept your manager in the loop you shouldn’t feel guilty. Sometimes people don’t actually have the skills the hiring manager thought they had for whatever reason. You have no impact on that. And if he didn’t last more than two weeks that’s likely what happened. In that timeframe most managers don’t expect an employee to learn anything more than sop’s.

  7. some1*

    The only thing new I have to say is if/when you talk to him about it, don’t tell him you knew about it beforehand. “Oh, I’m sorry. Yeah, the Bobs told me about it last week, but I couldn’t tell you.”

          1. JoAnna*

            “It looks like you’ve been missing some work lately, Peter.”

            “I wouldn’t say I’ve been *missing* it, Bob.”

  8. BadPlanning*

    Since the OP isn’t in charge of layoffs, the OP doesn’t really know anything for sure (highly likely, but not guaranteed). The company could cancel the layoff. The company could change their mind about who is on the short list (adjust their demographics of layoffs, positions they need to keep or not, he turns out to be the CEOs favorite guy). Since the rumor mill is already in the works, he already knows he’s a maybe (or a most likely).

    1. OP*

      I assumed it would change as we scrambled to spread the pain and prevent layoffs, but yesterday I saw that the severence paperwork has been sent. It is just hard to look someone in the eye when you know for certain what all of think could happen at any time.

      1. BadPlanning*

        Ah, I see. I was thinking that you could always use the shield of plausible deniability. “I saw some names on a page, but I did not see anything carved in stone.”

        On occasion at work, I have found out that someone was planning to leave, but that someone did not tell me directly so it was a dance of “I don’t know what I know.” Happier than layoffs, but still awkward.

  9. Nonprofit Office Manager*

    Breech of confidentiality aside, your office did you a solid by giving you a heads up about the impact your coworker’s separation will have on you. They didn’t have to do that. They could have just laid him off and abruptly said “Here. You’re responsible for these duties now too. Put that in your pipe and smoke it.” But instead, the gave you the courtesy of running their plan by you. You should now give them the courtesy of keeping the information confidential.

    1. Joey*

      I doubt they did it out of courtesy. More likely they did it to minimize the impact to the operations. Don’t give them more credit than they deserve.

    2. Dan*

      They did that to my boss — got rid of half of my team (including me) and told him to shove it in his pipe and smoke it. He was pretty pissy for months after the fact.

  10. Artemesia*

    Good point that you may be blamed for the rumors. ANd of course absolutely don’t break confidences or you will be the next person laid off. You might tell your boss that there are rumors flying and so you hope the information will be shared as soon as possible with those being laid off. Even note that the target asked you about why he wasn’t scheduled after Monday and that you told him you didn’t know perhaps the schedule wasn’t completed yet — but it is getting awkward.

  11. Elizabeth West*

    Urrgh, what an uncomfortable situation to be in. I echo Alison–if he asks, steer him toward his manager. Although if I noticed my schedule at a job was suddenly blank with no heads-up, I would assume automatically that layoff or termination was the reason and begin to plan accordingly.

    1. Jennifer*

      Yeah, after I got put on probation for another month and I started to not get handed any more assignments, I could pretty much figure it out for myself at this point.

  12. Holly*

    Perfect timing. I found out a month ago that the company president is going to fire my coworker, and I’ve been sitting on the information since then (I was told very clearly to keep it to myself) and it’s been SO HARD. We’re kind of friends outside of work, and knowing that she’s coming in Monday and letting him go… he’s going to be blindsided. URGH. But yeah, I can’t afford to lose my job by mentioning it. =/

    1. Elizabeth West*

      I would be upset if it were me about getting fired, but if we were friends and I found out that you knew but couldn’t mention it, I would forgive you. I wouldn’t expect you to lose your job because I lost mine.

    2. Windchime*

      And really, until the firing actually happens, there is nothing to tell. Telling can do nothing but destroy your reputation; the boss will never trust you with information again. I would probably do as Jamie suggests–if I knew that my co-worker was getting ready to make a big purchase based on assuming they had a job, then I would give the manager a heads-up. Otherwise, it’s not my business and not my place to say anything to anyone.

  13. anon-2*

    Also – it can be disruptive.

    Seeing someone’s name on a layoff list is one thing. But what if management decides between now and layoff day, to change direction?

    Sometimes they have to — a layoff list is drawn up, sent to HR, and for whatever reason, the management is told “not him, go find another body”….

  14. Anonymous*

    I was in a very uncomfortable situations around layoffs. The company I worked for was doing a hefty round of layoffs and as a managers, I was involved in that – I had 7 people on my team and needed to reduce to 5. The planning process for the layoffs started about 6-8 weeks prior to the actual day everyone would be laid off.

    And about 2 weeks into the process, it became clear I was going to be laid off, in addition to having to do the laying off. Not because anyone told me directly but I’d have needed to be brain-dead not to pick up on the signs.

    I didn’t know my manager very well, he was quite new to the company but I took a shot and said “Look, I know I’m getting laid off, is it possible we could acknowledge that btw us and not have to pretend for the next 6 weeks until the day comes?” Nope, he totally denied it, said of course I wasn’t getting laid off.

    I needed to sit in meetings for 6 weeks pretending I would be working on upcoming projects that I wouldn’t be working on and talking about the re-org with my boss like I was going to be a part of it…extremely silly. And the actual layoff conversation was uncomfortable given his previous denials that I would be affected.

      1. Anonymous*

        I just let him talk — I didn’t say the obvious “Uh, youl ied to me” because it was just kinda of there, without me having it say it. He was very uncomfotable, had difficulty meeting my eyes, looking at the paper work most of the time, it was just awkward as hell. Interestingly, even though I knew it was coming, on some level, I still felt gut-punched when it actually happened so I was a bit shell-shocked which actually helped me stay pretty quiet and not get into a discussion about how he handled it all.

    1. Jen in RO*

      My company had layoffs last week. Yesterday we found out that the local managers knew about it for a couple of months (!) and they tried to fight it all the way, but the top management wouldn’t budge. I can’t imagine how it must be to live with this for so long. Especially in a company that *is* like family, and not in the dysfunctional way.

  15. Veronica*

    If you tell anyone about the layoff, you are killing your future at this company. Period, end of story. Management will never trust you again.

    1. HAnon*

      Unfortunately, I agree. I had a previous boss who told me in confidence that she was looking to replace my coworker and then made me swear not to tell. I think when the co-worker brought something up about conflicts with the boss, I said “You know, I’d just always make sure your resume is up to date and keep your options open, especially if you’re not happy here, since it seems like this situation isn’t going to work itself out.” I couldn’t tell her that she was going to be fired because 1) I didn’t know FOR SURE even thought my boss had communicated that she was looking for a replacement 2) my boss would never trust me again and my own job would be in jeopardy. Yes, boss put me in a really crappy position, since I didn’t really need the information in the first place and I think this person was playing some kind of twisted game to test my “loyalty”, but I still felt for my own job integrity I needed to keep it zipped. My friend was able to at least discern that I got the same “vibe” about her job security that she did. My friend did get fired (I was also let go for different reasons around the same time) and we later discussed it and were able to still continue our friendship. I know there might be cases where it would be wiser not to talk about it afterwards, due to the nature of the relationship, but it worked out ok for us.

  16. Lindrine*

    As painful as it is, you have to keep your mouth shut. This is part of being given more responsibility and increasing knowledge about what is going on within the company. Keep in mind it is about the business, not the people on a personal level.

  17. EM*

    I was laid off at a previous job and a colleague knew it was happening for several days prior. I’m not sure how far in advance she knew — I was told on Monday a couple of hours into the morning, and she knew it was coming from at least the previous Thursday/Friday.

    I will say that in the moment, I was hurt. We had worked together for almost 4 years and for about 3 of those years, she had been my direct manager (she was not at the time of the lay offs). We were friendly and did things outside of work occasionally. It certainly would have been nice for her to give me a discreet heads-up over the weekend about what was coming on Monday.

    That being said, I understand now why she felt she couldn’t have. I don’t think feeling hurt in the moment was necessarily an unreasonable reaction on my part, but it’s just not something a lot of people are willing to do and risk their own position in the company and that’s perfectly acceptable.

    1. Anonymous*

      I think this is a perfect example of why you can’t be friends with your manager. Several members of one team I worked with was on vacation with their manager and he knew that when they got back the team was being let go. It just leads to hurt feelings all round.

  18. skaylady*

    Because I did scheduling at the time, I was told in advance about a co-worker’s firing. I ended up having to cover some of their shifts because we were a few weeks away from another co-worker returning from leave who could pick them up. It was very awkward knowing this person was on the way out and having to alter the schedule and wait to post the changes after the fired person left. The worst part was they delayed her dismissal by a day for some unknown reason.

  19. Smartcookie*

    OP, just want to throw in my thoughts as someone who was laid off recently I really recommend NOT sharing anything. Beyond the points others have made, I will say that when I was laid off my anxiety was very high until I really understood what I was dealing with in terms of my last day, severance, etc. It would have been much worse for me to hear only part of the story through the grapevine and then have to pretend not to know.

  20. Graciosa*

    The manager and HR are the ones who can have the whole conversation – not just the fact of the layoff (assuming no last minute changes which do happen) but also timing, severance, outplacement support, references, and the “No, this wasn’t performance related” discussion.

    This is not a conversation that should happen piecemeal, and you would not be doing anyone a favor by sharing item #1 when no one is prepared to address items 2-6. Leaving someone fretting about those and unable to get answers for any length of time would be unintentionally cruel (although I’m sure this is not what the OP intends).

  21. Golda*

    the company is downsizing and Im being asked about it. I know I have a responsibility to keep management confidentiality but what about my responsibility to my employees ?

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