what to do when a fired employee is badmouthing your company

A reader writes:

How would you deal with a fired employee who keeps calling active employees here on the job to speak badly about the company and HR? It is sadly at the point where she is making things up and defaming the abilities of the HR team by spreading rumors. Any advice?

You can read my answer to this question over at Inc. today, where I’m revisiting letters that have been buried in the archives here from years ago.

(By the way, they tell me that my column there last week was the most-read item on the site that day! Thanks for heading over there to read it.)

{ 25 comments… read them below }

      1. Boboccio

        Nope, no ad appears. No skip button. Just random scribbles. The rest of the Inc.com works fine, including Alison’s article from last week.

        I will just assume this article is of high quality, since I can’t read it.

          1. MaryMary

            I almost said something yesterday, so I definitely will today…your site is the third or fourth “independent” blog I read regularly who has had these pop-up issues. By independent, I mean bloggers not affiliated with another site like gawker or a media group. I don’t know if you all are being targeted because you have a large audience but don’t have the resources of a larger media company, or if it’s random, but you are definitely not alone.

  1. some1

    What Alison said + this is kind of thing is not going to be unheard of if you work in HR, and while it’s unfair, your HR team probably needs to learn how to deal with it.

  2. BadPlanning

    Would it be handy to assure current workers that they can be short with former coworker and hang up if need be? Or advise them not to engage and transfer her to HR and/or security? Not as a mandate, “Do not talk to Fired Coworker” but “If Fired Coworker is bothering you, do these actions.” Even if it’s not directly a service industry or call center type of thing, many employees might be reluctant to do something that seems rude to Fired Coworker — lest they get in trouble for bad customer service (Twisted logic, sure, but what if FiredCoworker starts working somewhere that interacts with the OPs company).

    Fired Coworker: Hey Thor, how’s it going? Did I tell you about the Chocolate Teapot Dome Scandal?
    Thor: Please bring your concerns to HR. Their number is 555-1234. Thank you, have a nice day.
    Hangs up phone.

    1. The Cosmic Avenger

      That’s pretty much what I was going to suggest. As they say, sunlight is a great disinfectant. Let employees know exactly what is going on in as objective a manner as possible, and while they are not prohibited or discouraged from speaking to this person (as long as it doesn’t interfere with their work), they also don’t need to put up with it if they feel harassed, and they should talk to a supervisor or HR if this former employee (or any other person) is pestering them.

  3. De Minimis

    Maybe something like, “We know a lot of you have been getting calls from Fired Coworker, please feel free to use your own discretion on how to handle those calls and please know that it’s up to you whether you even want to speak with Fired Coworker–feel free to transfer to HR or management–it’s our job to deal with these sorts of calls.”

    1. some1

      Yeah, I know it’s an old column, but it would be helpful to have more context here — are employees complaining that the fired person is contacting them, or are they willingly joining the person in bashing the company and HR and it’s getting back to mgmt, and they are trying to minimize their involvement by saying, “Well, Susie called ME.”

  4. JustMe

    Alison’s advice in this is awesome. IMO, most people wouldn’t go out of there way to badmouth their former employer unless there is some credence to mishandling. In my experience, the employees that did badmouth the company we agreed were bamboozled by mgmt. There is a way to handle employees on the way out, and as an employee I pay attention to how they are treated.

  5. Not So NewReader

    I heard a story of one person complaining on Facebook. Just like here, the story line was exaggerations or lies. I think the big boss decided to call in an attorney.

    I worked one place where we were told to tell the caller to contact HR. We were told to say we could not discuss matters while we were on the clock. This was very helpful to know, although we mostly agreed with what the caller was saying, we really did not want to deal with mess. It was too hard to get involved in the particulars and keep showing up for work.
    It must be that most people redirected the caller to HR because the calls stopped shortly after the bosses said this.

    1. some1

      “although we mostly agreed with what the caller was saying, we really did not want to deal with mess”

      This, exactly. Imo, it shows lack of maturity, awareness, and professionalism to not realize what an awkward position this puts the former coworkers in.

  6. sam

    My old firm had me sign a severance agreement that included a non-disparagement clause. It’s obviously too late for that in this situation, but it’s certainly something to think about for Companies that want to have some leverage to keep the badmouthing at bay.

    Of course, non-disparagement clauses can only go so far when said former firm then proceeds to collapse in the largest law firm bankruptcy in US history, complete with the senior leadership being charged with 106 counts of fraud and “cooking the books”.

    1. I'm a Little Teapot

      Hahahaha! Some companies don’t need anyone to badmouth them – they do it aaall by themselves through bad behavior.

      (And OP’s company, or any company thinking of attempting to muzzle criticism, should remember the Streisand effect. Heavy-handed attempts to shut people up or cover up problems usually end up backfiring, making you look much worse, and getting more publicity rather than less.)

  7. Lily in NYC

    More awesome stock photography…Those dudes look shady. And congrats on having the highest views on your last piece there!

  8. TT

    I think that how the complainer is received by the staff will depend entirely on how professional the setting is and how well leadership manages performance issues and firing. I saw this happen at my old job, it wasn’t even surprising. The bad behavior of the former employee reflected the poor management of the office. There was a running joke that our office was really Melrose Place. When a disgruntled co-worker sent a broadcast blast against management at another job it wasn’t received well by the staff at all. One big difference between those two situations was the overall treatment of employees.

  9. Apersonymous

    For the first time, this site just took me to 2 apps on the iTunes Store! I didn’t know about the problem until I saw it in the comments and then it just happened.

  10. Weasel007

    A severance agreement would put a stop to this if this person was fired. Usually there is a statement in there that neither party is allowed to bad mouth the other. The company should have used this.

  11. The_artist_formerly_known_as_Anon-2

    Well, a couple of points missed here.

    First of all – the working world is not the Lawndale High School Fashion Club or a snooty college sorority. If someone is fired, it doesn’t mean that all social and professional contact between the fired employee and his/her former colleagues ceases completely. In fact, the fired guy or gal still may very well retain the circle of friends and associates.

    Management has to accept that there will be such contact. Management also has to accept that sometimes firings and layoffs have detrimental effects on workplace morale – indeed, sometimes a “harum scarum**” style layoff is intended to undermine morale and break the spirit of the employees!

    But that aside – a fired employee can come back to haunt you in several ways ….

    1) spread bad tidings about your company, not just to your remaining employee base, but in the business community as well

    2) if the firee lands on his feet, in a much better position, in a growth company, expect some of his friends to follow him over there. At one place that I was, for all intents and purposes, thrown out — I landed a position with a 30 percent increase, and better conditions. They were PARANOID that I was going to be taking people with me. They were also angry that I was “the bad guy they were getting rid of” and I landed on my feet and in a position 1000% better… but they feared I would lure my colleagues away…

    3) I mentioned bad morale. Some people may think “Oh, God, I’m NEXT….” — after any firings, and certainly after any layoffs, there are “aftershocks”.

    4) Competitiveness – if an employee is fired from Standard Chocolate Teapots, and lands at Acme Chocolate Teapots, and they build better products, and have higher sales — of course, your fired employee is still your problem, except, instead of being a problem in your workplace — he’s gonna work AGAINST you now!
    Do not view him as doing this because he’s a bad person – he is just doing his job, making a (competitive) living.

    And there is no way to stop that one… it may be that his new job requirements are to make you and your products look bad!

    ** a layoff not conducted for economic and business reasons, but to merely scare the hell out of those left behind. You will sometimes see a highly profitable organization lay off a limited number of people, but they take care to insure that it’s broad-based, and a couple of popular and efficient workers will be included.

    1. John

      One thing I notice is everyone is mentioning the employer side of thins. Lets be honest with ourselves, all companies have had employees that were somehow or someway mistreated by management/co-workers etc…. They left/quit/fired and are not going to speak highly of an employer. Nowadays you have YELP, GLASSDOOR ETC…. There is little legal action an employer can take against a former employee who discusses their bad experiences about them. In addition your employees are not necessarily going to side with you on the issue. They know “a little” about the situation and it may affect their employee length there.

      I’ve trashed talk former employees to other co-workers. Other co-workers have trashed talk their current employee to me. Who cares.

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