last-minute interviews, getting feedback meant for someone else, and more

It’s five answers to five questions. Here we go…

1. Recommending someone I laid off without revealing our financial troubles

We have recently let an employee go. I’d like to help her find a new position by reaching out in my network. How do I word the email that says “yep, we fired her” but not “we are downsizing because we didn’t have enough money to pay her” without either blowing back on us as a nonprofit? I want to help, but I also don’t want people to know our crappy financial situation that we’ve had to downsize.

Well, first, it sounds like you didn’t fire her — you laid her off. Firing is for cause; laying off is when you cut the position altogether because of finances or restructuring. So make sure that you’re saying “laid off,” not “fired” when you talk about her.

As for how to recommend her without explaining why you let her go, you could say that you restructured her team and ended up cutting her role, but that she was great (if that’s true). You don’t have to say it was because of finances. But also be aware that they’ll likely ask her directly why she left the organization, and so unless you’ve sworn her to secrecy (which would be unkind to try to do), it’s likely to come out anyway. But it’s not shameful if it does; organizations (both for-profit and nonprofit) do sometimes lay people off. People are likely to be sympathetic, not scandalized.

2. Interviewer gave me post-rejection feedback … meant for someone else

I recently had an interview (two months ago) which, in my opinion, went really well. After not hearing back from them for awhile, I appropriately followed up with them and finally received a rejection …I was bummed but that’s part of the cycle. The interviewer offered to debrief me on the interview and I jumped at the chance – because what better way to understand what went wrong.

This is where it becomes really weird. While she was giving me a “holistic” debrief, she was all over the place and it didn’t even sound like she was talking about me, and then about 20 minutes into the conversation she goes, “Oh dear…I believe I have the wrong file, this isn’t yours….” – rustled some papers and then continued on like nothing was wrong.

Now my concern is, did I miss out on the role because she thought I was the wrong candidate? I’m not even sure how to approach her and say, “hey…did you just score me poorly on my interview ’cause you got the wrong person?”

It’s certainly possible. The fact that she didn’t acknowledge that she had spent 20 minutes of your time giving you feedback about someone else is weird — weird enough that I’m ready to believe that she could be disorganized enough that she rejected you because she thought you were someone else.

If you wanted to, you could reach back out and say something like this: “Thank you so much for your time the other day giving me feedback about the ___ role. I really appreciated your time and insight. I have to admit, the mix-up with originally looking at a different candidate’s notes made me wonder — any chance that that mix-up also impacted the original evaluation of my candidacy, and that it might make sense to keep me still in the running? I don’t want to be presumptuous and I of course completely understand if that isn’t the case, but I did want to ask about it just in case. Either way, I really appreciate your time and hope you find the right person for the role!”

That said, if it’s been two months, this ship has probably sailed.

3. Last-minute interviews

Is it fair for a company to call you for a last-minute interview just an hour prior? I finally got the call for a interview, but she wanted me to be there by an hour. Umm, so not fair.

No, that’s unreasonable; people have lives and schedules outside a company that they’re not even working for.

But hiring isn’t really about fair or not fair, so I wouldn’t look at it that way. I’d look at it as a company revealing useful information about themselves to you.

4. When HR shares your question with your manager

An employee asks HR via email how much of his relocation bonus he would have to pay back to the employer (located in NC) if he were to resign. HR responds and copies the employee’s manager so that the manager is then aware of the employee’s potential intentions to resign. Now the employee is concerned he may be terminated by his manager. Did HR do anything wrong in this case? Should HR have first responded to the employee only and told him HR may need to disclose this info to the manager?

Well, the employee should have assumed that HR might share the inquiry with his manager, especially if he didn’t tell them not to. (HR, after all, isn’t like a priest, where information is supposed to be treated confidentially; they work for the good of the company.)

But the way HR handled this was inappropriately brusque. They should have known that this could be a sensitive topic and at a minimum should have told him, “Hey, this is the kind of thing we normally share with managers.” Just cc’ing the manager on the reply is a pretty thoughtless way to handle it. (And whether or not they really did need to share it with the manager is an open question; there are situations where I could defend that and others where I wouldn’t, so it’s hard to comment on that part of it without knowing more.)

5. Interviewing prospective new managers and asking about their views on work-life balance

My office (~40 people) is preparing to expand into a particular functional area that has, until now, been a fairly minor focus of our work, and the related projects were scattered piecemeal throughout the staff. We’re searching for a director who will build a specialized team to focus on these projects. I have a particular interest in this functional area – I don’t have quite enough experience to qualify for the director role, but I’m hoping that there will be a place on the eventual team that makes sense for me. The “big boss” has asked me to be very involved in the search process (helping our HR person screen applications, take part in interviews, etc.) in large part because of my interest in moving in this professional direction.

Given my interest in potentially joining this team, I’m particularly invested in getting a sense of the candidates’ work and management styles. This post was incredibly helpful in that regard, but I’m really not sure how to ask about expectations for after-hours work, checking email on weekends, and that kind of thing. Our office has traditionally valued work-life balance highly, which is one of the reasons I chose to work here. However, because this new team will operate fairly independently, the director could easily choose to operate with different expectations (note: this work isn’t particularly time sensitive, so doing so would be entirely a matter of personal preference.) I’m not sure how to gingerly ask about this without accidentally leaving the impression that I’m not invested in my work, because I do hope to have a strong working relationship with this person, whether or not I end up reporting to them. I tend to overthink things, so any help would be appreciated!

I’d ask these:

“There’s wide variation in how offices approach work/life balance, work after hours and on evenings, and flexibility. How did you approach those issues on the last team you managed? What are some general principles you use in thinking about those issues?”

“Our culture has put a high premium on people working sane hours (typical hours are X per week), not expecting people to check email on weekends, and (fill in more details here). Have you worked in a culture like that?”

{ 272 comments… read them below }

  1. The_artist_formerly_known_as_Anon-2

    1) It’s a bit odd. The lay-off-ee will probably be asked – “why are you without a situation at present?” and she has two options –

    a) tell the new manager that she was fired — fat chance of that, if she’s also armed with a recommendation letter from her former manager, she’d be lying and it would be apparent…

    b) state that she was affected by a reduction / restructuring and still present the recommendation letter. That’s more plausible.

    This is likely gonna happen (b) — honesty is the best policy. I wouldn’t be too shook up about it. If you had a reduction in force at a non-profit, it’s probably because things aren’t going well there and it’s apparent.

    And if you had to let her go for cause – then you might question giving recommendations for a fired employee.

    1. MK

      It would be completely insane to expect an employee who had been laid off due to the company’s financial difficulties to say she was fired the company’s reputation. Or for the employer to do it during giving references

      But I don’t really think the OP is asking about that; from what I can tell, the OP wants to proactively reach out to her contacts to recomend this employee, but she doesn’t want to come across as broadcasting her company’s troubles.

      1. The_artist_formerly_known_as_Anon-2

        Very difficult to do – “this employee is great, I’d hire her” — “OK, why was she let go?” —“Ummm ummmm, ummm, restructuring, that’s the ticket!” “You couldn’t find a place for her?” ….

        She can’t hide her non-profit’s dismal financial condition and say that the employee was great but we had to let her go in a “restructuring”. Best bet – if she wants to do the right thing – say “financial considerations.”

        1. AB Normal

          I disagree — it’s quite possible to let go an exceptional employee due to restructuring. I had a colleague who was let go of his data architect job a month after receiving a company award for a project that saved the company millions. The entire team was eliminated, and there wasn’t a place to move the data architect to, so regardless of how good he was, the right thing was to let him go. He easily found another job after that. Hiring managers are used to seeing layoffs that have nothing to do with performance problems.

    2. oaktown

      Organizations move people around or eliminate positions for reasons other than massive financial problems. I had a very similar situation to this, I was laid off but was asked to avoid telling anyone that it was for financial reasons, and they in turn were saying they would give me the best possible reference and do any networking that might turn up something for me.

      I wasn’t bound to that, it was just a request, so I could say whatever I wanted. But when asked why I left my last position, I just said “my program was laid down” or “my position was eliminated.” They could infer whatever they wanted, but it could have been changed for strategic reasons, and I just chose not to move into a different role. That wouldn’t be that strange. No one has ever pushed on that answer or asked why the position was eliminated.

      1. jessica

        I’ve written a post below outline some issues with my poorly worded question. The aim was not to have her lie at all
        Why would she do that and we don’t ‘need’ her to lie. The network I’d be looking at to find her some work directly fund us so it’s an issue to come across as ‘broke’ which we aren’t. But it’s not nice to not be able to renew a contract due to funds. Especially when we NEED that employee….but we sadly got told what to do in the end.

  2. Snoskred

    #3 – useful life lesson, when someone shows you who they are, believe them. This goes for companies too.

    If they want you to arrive for an interview in an hour, this is not a good sign for the future. :) It sounds like they might have a pliable relationship with time, plus a pliable relationship with unreasonable expectations.

    1. MK

      I don’t know, it would depend on how it was phrased. If it was “your one chance to interview is in an hour, come at once”, then, yes, it’s a red flag.

      But, if it’s along the lines of “we have a free slot in an hour,is there any chance you can make it?”, it might be just a thoughtless interviewer.

      1. Jen RO

        Well, for the second case, I don’t think it’s thoughtless. I could easily make it to an interview in an hour and I would appreciate the opportunity.

        1. "Find yourself a cup; the teapot is behind you. Now tell me about hundreds of things."

          I suppose it depends how far you are from the interview address when you take the phone call. But if you are out of work at the time, or you just really want to work for that employer, you would probably do your best to get there if you could. If you really need work, sometimes you have to decide if too much red flag-hunting is a bit of a luxury. But once you get there you can make a more informed decision about the employer.

          1. INTP

            But how is the interviewer supposed to know how far away you are? I don’t think it’s thoughtless just because they couldn’t divine your situation to figure out if it would be okay to ask.

        2. Anon for this

          But then you have no time to look into the company/job or to prepare for the interview. What if your suit is at the dry cleaners? Etc.

          1. Sadsack

            If you can’t do it, you say that you can’t and ask if you can schedule it for another day.

            1. neverjaunty

              Except that this isn’t really like scheduling coffee with a friend; it’s the interviewer calling and offering an interview at a set time, for a job OP wants. If OP says “no, I can’t be there, but how about…..” she has to worry that somebody else will get the interview slot, or that the interviewer won’t be available at another time, or will see OP as difficult.

              I can see a few situations where this might be OK. If an interviewer said “we can meet with you Friday at 9, or, I know this is very last-minute, but I do have a free slot in an hour if you happen to be in the neighborhood” that’s very different than calling up and saying OP needs to be there in an hour from the call, which is what the letter actually sounded like.

              1. Sadsack

                Oh, I agree with you and others here that it would be wrong for the interviewer to say that an hour from now is the one and only opening for you. I meant that it wouldn’t necessarily be bad if the interviewer is reasonable and says we can do it in an hour or X time later in the week, like what you described above. It all depends on how the question is posed.

          2. Merry and Bright

            That’s true but if you have been unemployed for a long time you might just think “Great – an interview”. If you couldn’t get there in an hour or you really couldn’t get ready then I agree the smart thing would be to negotiate another time.

          3. TheLazyB

            Yeah if I got that call right now I’d be like ‘well I can make it, but I’ll be in my jeans cause I haven’t got time to go home’. If they acknowledged that and said they wouldn’t take that into account, I might go. But I’d also want them to appreciate the question was out of the ordinary.

        3. Green

          It assumes you’re dressed appropriately, can break away from another job if you have one, and live/work within quick driving distance. It’s really inappropriate. I wouldn’t schedule a meeting that way, much less something that has potential consequences for the applicant.

          1. Jen RO

            I think we are talking about two different things. I was answering to MK’s second sentence (“if you can come now, great, if not, we will reschedule”), not to the first one (“now or never!”). The interviewer would not assume anyway – it’s a simple question, not a summons.

              1. Jen RO

                I fail to see how the simple invitation can be rude. A candidate always has the option of saying no and trying to reschedule. Employers are not gods or kings and should not be treated as such.

                1. Jen RO

                  And even if the interview can’t be scheduled for another time, I would much rather get a (long) shot than no shot!

            1. Spiky Plant

              This. There are no assumptions being made here. A time happened to open up and if you can come in to interview, fabulous. If not, let’s meet in the next few days. No big deal.

        4. Florida

          Agree. I have people (not just interviewers, but any type of appointment) say something like, “We can meet you in an hour, will that work? If that’s too soon, we can do Wednesday afternoon or Thursday morning.” That seems perfectly reasonable to me.

          But in OP’s situation, it sounds like the interviewer was more of the first case, “This is your one and only opportunity.” If it were me, I would go to the interview (if I could) and flat-out ask them about it.
          “It’s not often that someone calls and wants to meet me in 30 minutes. Is that how most things happen around here? Or was this an unusual situation?” Even if they say it was a unique situation and explain it, I would still be very cautious.

          1. Cassie

            My friend was just telling me about her interview in another dept several years back – the manager called her and asked her to come to her office now. Friend asked if it was an interview and the mgr said “for a chat… your office is close by anyway, come now, etc”. The mgr said that she had heard all about my friend from other employees and proceeded to ask personal questions like if she was married/had a boyfriend, if she still lived with her family, etc. And then offered her the job.

            So it is absolutely no surprise to us that this manager has routinely exhibited poor interviewing skills, asks inappropriate questions, fails at basic communication, etc. I get that we’re in the same organization, the offices are nearby, but I think it shows how tone-deaf the manager is about typical workplace practices. It also made my friend think long and hard about whether to accept the offer or not.

        5. INTP

          I agree with that. In that situation the interviewer most likely doesn’t expect you to say yes but figures they might as well try, especially if the coming week is very busy for them or something. If you feel like you have to say yes to every suggestion an interviewer makes, that’s on you. When you’re dealing with unemployed candidates very often they will try to make things move very quickly and offer to come in the same day. I don’t see why the interviewer should not throw out a possibility that might work very well for both sides just because someone might feel weird about saying “I can’t leave work today but would tomorrow work?”

          Also an interviewer will most likely be more lenient about whether you’re wearing a suit and such if you come in with an hour notice. If that’s really all that’s stopping you, just mention that your suit is at home but you can stop in from work (in appropriate work clothing, you should decline if you’re in yoga pants that day).

      2. Snoskred

        I agree the second is perfectly fine – can you make it in an hour, if not, when can we schedule it – is a completely different animal from – can you make it one hour from now, this is your one and only only chance to interview.. :)

            1. Colette

              But the hiring manager will get a better opportunity to evaluate the candidate if the have a chance to review the job posting and company before the interview, IMO.

              1. LBK

                That’s still up to the candidate to decide if they’re ready or not, though – even with a week to prepare, not every candidate does, so it’s not like the interview can never occur until the candidate has had a chance to do research. Sometimes you might not get the best possible chance to evaluate everyone; it’s just part of hiring.

                1. Colette

                  A lot of candidates will default to going along with whatever the potential employer wants, though. The employer can ask for an interview on short notice, but I’m not sure it’s in their best interest to do so.

                2. Not Today Satan

                  Yeah, sometimes I’ll agree to an unscheduled, sneak attack phone interview. Rationally, I know it’s not a good idea but in the moment, I just want to seem as un-difficult as possible to the employer.

                3. C Average

                  What Not Today Satan said. Unless you’re some C-level rock star, the power in this equation is with the employer, not you, and if you’ve been out of work for a long time and are especially desperate, you’re going to say yes to things like this, even though they’re neither reasonable nor in your best interests.

                  It’s a crappy position to put people in.

                4. LBK

                  I think it depends how the request is phrased – the interviewer would have to make it really clear that this is truly optional and has no impact on the interviewee’s candidacy if they say know. I suppose not many people would be able to pull that off, though, so I guess it is better to just not ask.

              2. INTP

                Not every interview is with the hiring manager. This could be the interview with HR that is more about an overview of experience and the job role and some behavioral questions than specific detailed questions about the company. (Obviously they should be reasonable when judging stuff like how much you know about the company – but they can easily just make a note to make sure you’ve checked the company website at the follow up interviews.)

      3. The Other Dawn

        I agree. Those two scenarios have totally different meanings. In the first, it’s pretty demanding and it doesn’t bode well if OP is hired. In the second, I wouldn’t even think of it being thoughtless. More like, “Hey we’ve got a free slot coming up. If you can make it, great. If not, let’s see what else we can do.”

        But I can’t tell from OP’s letter as to whether they expect her to be there, or if it was more casual.

        1. Stranger than fiction

          Yeah I hope this wasn’t some sort of test to see how well the candidate can hustle.

    2. blackcat

      It also depends on the field.

      When I was looking for teaching jobs, I was told that this might happen. Despite it being the summer and me having no job, I was up pretty early and showered, etc. I was able to change into my suit and go to an interview quickly. I made no lunch plans that couldn’t be canceled.

      And one day, at 8am, I got a phone call asking me to come in for an interview at 10am. It was a 30ish minute interview. Around noon, I got a call offering me the job. I got a lot of pushback when I asked to respond the next business day (it was a Friday, so I asked for the weekend).

      Various folks had warned me that the call at 8am-10am, then interview 10am-3pm, was a common sequence of events for new college grads looking for public school teaching work in that state (which, at the time, produced more teachers than it needed). This did happen during the summer, and I think many folks were in my position. I’m sure TONS of people, particularly humanities + biology teachers, got passed over because they didn’t answer their phone or couldn’t come in that day. When you’ve got 50-200 applicants, 20-30 of whom are equally qualified, you can do that. I also got the impression from the principal that she had picked that day to fill that position–it was a one day operation.

      1. Another Salesperson

        This concerns me as a parent. Hiring teachers is the principal’s most important job. There should be more than one day spent on that process. If I found out that’s the way the principal of my kids’ school hires, I’d be discussing with the principal first, but escalating to the superintendent if they continue to disagree. The teacher in the classroom is the #1 most important factor in outcomes for kids once they are in school. (Obviously there are plenty of factors outside of school hours that affect the kids).

        1. blackcat

          I know that that someone from the district called my student teaching supervisor the day before. So they did check that someone would vouch for my competence. But I do find it very strange that they hire teachers without watching them teach (I ended up teaching at a private school, where standard interviews were full school days including one or two sample classes taught to students). That said, I can only speak to *high school* hiring practices. One crap teacher at the high school level isn’t going to ruin a kids academic career. Elementary teachers who are with their students all day have a much larger impact on a single student (as opposed to a smaller impact on many).

          The reality is that a principal of a 3,500 student school (like that one) has an incredibly busy job. Hopefully someone on their staff vets people before calling them in for interviews, but they may not have funding for such a staff person. Personally, I thought such hiring practices were just a function of a broken system–I always make the good faith assumption that the folks within that system were doing their best. I also wouldn’t be surprised if it was the superintendent who told principals to spend no more than X amount of time on hiring.

          1. Another Salesperson

            fair point on the difference between higher level v. elementary. Still interesting.

        2. tesyaa

          It sounds like there are many qualified candidates, and if there’s a tight hiring timeframe, it may be neither realistic or necessary to evaluate every candidate in depth.

    3. KAZ2Y5

      You know, this actually happened to me yesterday and I think it was legit. I am unemployed at the moment and looking for jobs. I had an interview with one branch of a certain company over a month ago but had not heard back yet. A couple of weeks later an opening appeared in another branch closer to me and I applied for that one. This week I emailed HR to ask about the timeline for the first position (it had been almost 3 weeks since they said they would decide). I never heard back from HR, but yesterday the second branch called me up and explained that they were needing to pick someone for their position (I got the impression they had drug it out at long as they could and needed someone). They had just seen my resume, were impressed, and wanted to interview me but had to do it that day. So, I spent 10 minutes getting ready (I was about to walk my dog!) and apologized for not looking as polished as I usually did in interviews and did it.
      I think that HR either just blew off my second application, or put it in a corner somewhere and forgot about it and was reminded when I emailed them about the first. Most stressful interview of my life (!) and I am now waiting to see if I actually did a good job.

      1. C Average

        Good luck! I am impressed that you can even (mostly) pull yourself together for an interview on that short of notice.

        1. KAZ2Y5

          Thanks! I’m not sure how impressive I was lol. I work in the medical field, so most of the jobs I apply to are similar in function and I have a good idea about the questions they will ask and generally what they will deem important. Also I had already interviewed for another branch of this company so was familiar with them.
          At least I know I was the last one interviewed and that they will start deliberating as soon as they talk to my references. So hopefully I will find out quickly one way or the other.

      2. neverjaunty

        Good luck! I hope that the position turns out to be good – but your potential employer, too, is waving some red flags. Hope it turns out well.

        1. voyager1

          Regarding #3. I have had that happen, though I had several hours notice and I was already off that day. Personally I wouln’t read much into it.

        2. KAZ2Y5

          Thanks! There are some things I’m not really excited about, but I knew about them before the interview. I do believe their reasons for the quick interview and put most of the blame on their HR dept for this.

    4. Malissa

      Amen! I pushed back on one employer that wanted to interview the next day. Dude, I already have stuff planned. Thankfully they were very gracious and offered me a different date. The big rush? They actually wanted me in there so quick because I was a strong candidate and they didn’t want to miss out on interviewing me.

  3. Laurel Gray

    #4 is a perfect example of an abhorrent use of the cc function in email. Sickening.

    1. Not Today Satan

      Yeah, it’s a huge peeve of mine when people Cc others in a response to you. I mean, sometimes it makes sense, but people do it way too often even if the original email was delicate in nature.

      1. Ama

        Yeah, when I add people to an email reply, I try to always throw in a sentence about why (“Hey, this is what I think the answer is, but I’m cc’ing Jane because she’s really familiar with this project and might have more details.”). It’s helpful not just for the person I’m replying to but for the person getting looped in. My office is really bad about putting people in the cc line without telling them whether it’s just for FYI purposes or if they’re supposed to weigh in, so I’m trying to subtly combat it.

        1. Jo

          It’s never occurred to me that I might be able to delicate influence how attentive others are to their cc’ing practices. You’ve just given me a golden line I can use privately with my cc-happy manager: “Was this just an FYI, or do you need me to weigh in/take action?” Love it. Thanks!

          1. SophiaB

            I thought it was a rule that people in the ‘ to:’ box have an action, but people in the ‘Cc:’ box are there for FYI. I’m now a bit concerned that I’ve made that up and taught it to other people as though it were the law.

      2. brightstar

        I do this when I’m approving change in schedules for my employees so my manger has an overview of who’s in and out. I just add her as a CC but told my group I’d do this.

        Otherwise, I always adds a sentence explaining why and never for sensitive information.

      3. LBK

        I worked as a sales support person so I would always copy in the account manager in when one of their clients emailed me directly – it used to drive me nuts when they would repeatedly reply back to me. I’m including them for a reason! They need to know what you’re saying!

      4. ThursdaysGeek

        There are times in an email conversation that I realize I need to cc someone, add them into the conversation. And I try to always go back through the email chain and make sure there isn’t anything potentially embarrassing or awkward to either of us in any of the emails, when we thought it was just between the two of us. If there is, I won’t rope in the other person using that email chain.

      5. INTP

        Sometimes I do it because my boss and the scheduling manager in my department like to be up to date on every little thing (which is reasonable, we deal with a high volume of small projects and something could slip through the cracks). If a project manager emails me about a project being late or rescheduled without CCing my boss, that puts me in the position of having to either CC them on the reply, craft a separate email to update them, or answer when they don’t know why the project was late and email me. It’s easiest just to CC them, as the person should have done in the original email – it’s not supposed to be my job to keep everyone up to date on the project. When I try to loop my managers in and they repeatedly reply to just me, it also makes me feel weird – like are they just being forgetful or deliberately trying to keep this exchange under the radar?

    2. Anna

      I’m with you. I worked with someone who used the cc function as a weapon. “This person is not doing what I want them to do, so I am responding to their email and cc’ing their lead.” It never EVER went the way the cc’er wanted. Like, ever.

    3. Chicken

      Eh, it’s a bit rude of HR, however the employee should have known better than to ask HR something in writing (and almost certainly using the company email system!) that he wanted to keep confidential.

  4. Panda Bandit

    #3 – I learned this the hard way. When I was younger, a restaurant tried that on me and I went along with it because I had no other options. I bolted out the door, had a fairly long walk through mud and snow because the bus didn’t go all the way, but still arrived looking presentable. The interviewer was rude and seemed absolutely bored by the whole thing. I didn’t get the job. Now I know that was the better outcome.

  5. Cheesecake

    OP#1. No,no,no, not “fire”! She was laid off because you were downsizing. All companies do some downsizing or restructuring; it does not mean they are in financial troubles. I don’t think it will backfire and your network will ask about your company’s finances.

    1. Fact & Fiction

      My mind is just blown that somebody’s manager would use the word “fired” when they clearly DID NOT fire the employee. Letting someone go do to your company finances is VASTLY different than “firing” someone. If this manager uses the wrong terminology with reference checkers, she is going to open up a can of worms that could cost that worker a ton of job opportunities. Whether or not she can give that worker a good reference, she darn well has the obligation to use the correct terminology surrounding that worker leaving her company.

        1. Windchime

          Yeah, I’ve also seen/heard people use “laid off” when they were fired for cause. It’s an important distinction.

          1. No name, no state

            I had a colleague whom I believe was let go because she wasn’t working out for us and they told her she was “laid off.” I think that must have been to make it easier on her when she applied to other places. She did periodically re-apply to our office when her job was re-posted. She has not been hired back.

        2. LBK

          Wow, that’s really weird. I’ve never heard them used interchangeably – or maybe I did and didn’t realize the person was giving the wrong impression about their termination!

          1. Myrin

            I’ve just realised that there’s no different terms for these expressions in my mothertongue. I mean, there are two words, but they’re interchangeable and the one that technically means “laid off” still carries connotations of “fired”. How impractical.

      1. Cheesecake

        I am sure OP confused terms, because she wants to reach out to her network to help ex-colleague vs just answering phone screening questions. I doubt if you want to help you would use term “fired” on purpose. But OP’s concerns about covering up her employer are a bit exaggerated. Once i hear “was let go because of downsizing” i never ask “oh, are you guys in trouble?”; i am only interested in employee at this point, not at what exactly happened with the business.

  6. Rebecca

    #1 – I had to read this twice to make sure I understood. You laid off an employee because of money issues, not because of performance issues, and now you’re more worried about your company’s appearance than the employee’s chances of getting a new job? You say you want to help, but it really doesn’t look that way. If you say she was fired, just how do you think this will look to new prospective employers?? These days, most companies downsize to make their balance sheets look good. Please don’t say this poor woman was fired.

    1. Carrie in Scotland

      Yes this.
      Where I work, the organisation is looking for 150 posts to go (voluntarily) because the staff %spend is higher than the national average (by about 5%) and with less funding, something somewhere needs to go.

    2. Cheesecake

      I was also confused at first . But because OP wants to be proactive and reach out to her network to help ex-employee get a job, i assume OP mixed up the words somehow. Otherwise this good intention will do more harm than good. And it will look really strange saying “yes, we fired her,but are you guys interested to give her a job?”

    3. Graciosa

      The part that really ices the cake is that the company is a non-profit.

      Aren’t they typically looking for funding? Is it really that terrible to have people find out that you need money? What if (gasp!) someone was moved to give?!?

      1. LBK

        My guess is the concern that existing donors might hear about it and then be worried that the organization they had contributed money to would fold (thus wasting their donation, to some extent).That could lead to withholding any further donations.

        Not sure this is totally logical, but I can kind of understand the concern about the company’s financial status being made public, even if it’s a non-profit.

        1. INTP

          I agree with that theory and think it’s totally logical that the nonprofit would want to conceal that they’re in dire financial straits, especially if the reference checks are nonprofits in the same area competing for the same donations. But at the same time, I think if you try to make it look like someone was laid off without financial necessity, you wind up making it look like they were not a very valued employee at the least. OP doesn’t owe it to the employee to reveal all her organization’s vulnerabilities but shouldn’t try to purposely conceal the financial aspects. Just saying they had to lay her off but she’s a great employee who would be rehired in a heartbeat if her position were recreated is enough.

        2. Alchemy

          If it’s a non-profit there’s really no mechanism to hide its financial state. If it’s tax exempt then certain IRS forms are public information, and if it relies on large donors it’s most likely releasing even more information to them in the interest of transparency.

          A donor finding out someone at the non-profit was laid off isn’t really a big deal.

          A donor finding out someone at the non-profit was laid off, but her boss falsely claimed she was terminated for cause, for the sole purpose of deceiving the donor about the non-profit’s financial workings, is kind of a big deal.

    4. Florida

      On top of not being fair to the ex-employee, once your contacts find out the truth (which they will eventually), they will realize that you lied. So you can lie and say she was fired which hurts your reputation and her reputation. Or you an tell the truth, which hurts no one.

      You can say the company restructured, the project she was working on ended, her position was grant-funded, her position was eliminated, or a number of different things that do not reflect poorly on anyone (choose the option that is true in your case). People view any of the above as sucky situations where no one is at fault. You could even keep the explanation as short as “Jane was laid off.” You don’t have to provide details.

      If you feel you can’t tell the truth in your email, please please please do not send the email. You will hurt your ex-employee more than you will help. It seems to me you want to help her (otherwise you wouldn’t have even thought to send the email), so please be truthful in your email. If you feel being truthful will harm your company’s reputation (which it won’t), then you are better off not sending the email than lying about the situation.

      1. ThursdaysGeek

        I don’t think the OP is lying, at least not deliberately. I think, as Alison says above, she isn’t realizing the vast difference between the words “laid off” and “fired”, and thinks if the employer has an employee leave for any reason, then it’s a firing. It’s not.

    5. INTP

      Agreed. Even if the manager uses the word “laid off” but tries to imply that it had nothing to do with finances, she could sabotage the woman’s chances by making it look like a very common situation in which someone’s firing is labeled as laying off or restructuring to make it less contentious. (Sometimes the person being laid off/fired isn’t even aware of this. At my old company they would put the person on a PIP and then tell them that their position was eliminated, which is weird to me – if you are going to tell someone they’re being laid off without cause, don’t bother with the fake PIP.)

      OP doesn’t have to talk about finances in detail with a competitor calling for a reference check but it would be very unkind to try to hide or downplay the financial situation. Just say “Laid off without cause” without extra detail.

  7. NJ anon

    #1 I just interviewed someone who is losing their job at a nonprofit because the grant money for the project she is working on is running out and not being renewed. At our nonprofit we have the same issue. Happens in the nonprofit world all the time.

  8. "Find yourself a cup; the teapot is behind you. Now tell me about hundreds of things."

    #1 It would be awful to risk harming your employee’s reputation by implying you had fired her for something she had done. By taking Alison’s advice you can explain the layoff without damaging your organization’s reputation. You don’t need to do this at your employee’s expense. She is already losing her job as it is. It could sprial too; what answer will you give if prospective employers ask for a reason for “firing” your employee? This could get way out of control. Employers have layoffs all the time.

  9. Juli G.

    Obviously they screwed it up but is anyone else fairly impressed that there was a 20 minute feedback session for a rejection?

    1. "Find yourself a cup; the teapot is behind you. Now tell me about hundreds of things."

      Yes! Ultimate irony that the one time there is feedback it is completely screwed up.

    2. Colette

      It depends on how substantial the feedback was, and how involved the interview process was. I highly doubt most interviews have 20 minutes of useful feedback to share.

      1. Sunflower

        Yea that seems like a lot. Maybe it’s academics, tenured position involving research?

    3. Merry and Bright

      You are normally lucky to get a “thank you, but no thank you” after an interview never mind feedback.

    4. INTP

      As a former recruiter that sounds exceedingly unpleasant to me. 99% of the time it would either become an argument or a person desperately trying to convey that they really do have these traits that you think they don’t have but simply didn’t manage to get them across in the interview, and they’ll leave still thinking you’re wrong. Many of the real reasons people didn’t get hired would not be mentionable – “Fenix is kind of a snob about education credentials and doesn’t think your school is prestigious enough. Your skills are good but you don’t seem like someone the team would want to sit down and have a beer with.” Then the candidates would blame you for being an HR idiot who is incapable of seeing their true value or for being a petty gatekeeping tyrant when the real reason is the hiring manager just didn’t like them.

      I just don’t see the point from a business perspective unless this is a field with relatively few interviews and very unique hiring practices, like academia.

  10. CatDog

    You should be seriously wary of any potential legal implications from wrongly telling people this woman was fired. Otherwise she could have a potential defamation case against your employer if you were to wrongly go around saying she was fired. Make sure her employee record accurately reflects that she was let go.

    Also, I’m slightly alarmed that you’re embarrassed about people knowing your non-profit is struggling. Many, many charities have times where they have to cut back somehow – it’s just the nature of a lack of constant cash flow. Even many for-profits make cut backs. Don’t forget, this is an age where whole countries (Greece isn’t doing so well), banks and enormous retail chains can implode. It’s not embarrassing to struggle financially, but it is to lie about why you let someone go.

    1. "Find yourself a cup; the teapot is behind you. Now tell me about hundreds of things."

      This is kind of the opposite of the letter the other day where the employer wanted to recommend an employee she really had fired.

    2. BRR

      All of this. Plus the 990 is public, it’s not like you can exactly hide a financial situation at a nonprofit (legally at least or without creative book keeping).

      Also while it’s not mentioned, I hope she knows why she was let go (not fired).

    3. INTP

      It might not be about embarrassment so much as business consequences of making your vulnerability known, especially to competing nonprofits with the same causes. If I have $50k that I want to give to a specific cause, have several nonprofits to choose from, and I know one of them is having financial troubles, it might influence my choice because I want my money to go to the cause and not to an organization that is just trying to pay off debts and make payroll or might even fold soon. I still think it’s unethical to imply that you’ve fired an employee or willingly made them redundant, even if the motive is business related rather than emotional, of course.

  11. FrustratedinDC

    #5 is an interesting question, because I recently had a job offer rescinded after I asked those kind of questions. I had the impression from the interview that there was some flexibility, but then found out after I got the offer that it basically expected 24/7 connectivity including when on PTO, and butt-in-seat hours… not really what I was looking for.

    I think I dodged a bullet, but, is there a way for candidates to get this information sooner without coming off as disinterested? I don’t mind work, and I like working hard, but I don’t want to eat/sleep/breathe my job even when on vacation… When did work/life balance become a dirty word?

    1. "Find yourself a cup; the teapot is behind you. Now tell me about hundreds of things."

      Not sure when it started but it certainly got worse during The Crash when unscrupulous employers wanted to start holding staff to ransom, and their staff were so scared of losing their jobs that they felt they had to be on call 24 hours a day.

    2. Sadsack

      Could these questions be asked at the interview when the interviewee is asked if they have any questions? These seem to be questions related to the office/work culture, so why not? Or is that like asking about the salary too early in the process?

      1. INTP

        I think the tricky thing is that if you ask these questions in a superficial way, you’re going to get a glossed over answer. “Oh yes! We really value life-work balance and we offer flexibility.” But if you ask enough questions with enough detail to have a hope of getting a real answer, you look like all you want to ask questions about is how much time you’ll have off work.

        I.E. if you ask for the hours required, it will be common to hear “40 hours with some overtime as required.” Well, you don’t know if “as required” will mean 3 weeks a year or 30 weeks a year, or if “Some overtime” means 3 hours or 20 hours per week. If they say that they like employees to be reasonably accessible outside the office but try not to abuse it, you don’t know if your manager thinks “reasonable” means that you’ll answer your phone at 6:30 PM a few time a year during true emergencies or that you’ll check your email every night and respond to non-emergency questions at 11pm. If you try to follow up with specific questions about what these ambiguous phrases mean, you look like you’re harping on whether you’ll have to answer your phone outside work ever rather than asking questions about the actual job.

        Sometimes the companies that really are quite undemanding will start to offer specifics if you ask about work-life balance and company culture. But if they don’t have everyone out the door by 6pm and require no checking of email outside the office it’s just so typical to gloss over the requirements to make themselves look better so you can’t figure out what you’re getting into.

    3. The Cosmic Avenger

      Apparently it was always a dirty…phrase? to some, but as mentioned above, the recession made it easier to openly scorn things like having a personal life, setting boundaries, etc.

      If I were desperate I’d probably not ask at all, but rather wait until I found out after being hired…but as of right now, at this point in my life, I’m grateful that I can afford to be very picky, and that I work for a company that values that balance.

      1. FrustratedinDC

        It’s early and I haven’t had my requisite amount of coffee ;) dirty term, maybe?

        1. The Cosmic Avenger

          As long as you’re properly caffeinated now, that’s all that matters. :)

      2. Not Today Satan

        I hate that so many parts of the job that are most important to job seekers (salary, benefits, how many hours a week) are somehow forbidden to ask until you actually get the job. And in the commenter above’s case, it looks like they DID wait till they got the offer to ask and still lost the job.

        1. Mike C.

          Agreed, it’s a load of crap. Even when you’re just asking so you can fully understand what you’re taking on, too many assume that you’re unwilling to commit. That, and the assumption by many employers that the conversation only goes one way.

          1. Not Today Satan

            Exactly! I’m willing to work over 40 hours, but I’m just trying to get a sense of the job/culture. I used to often ask but I guess I’ll stop. :-/

          2. Partly Cloudy

            Exactly. The candidate is interviewing the company as much as vice versa, to make sure the job is a good fit for them as well. And a good hiring manager shouldn’t *want* to hide such information, as they should be interested in getting the best person for the role and all that it entails. How happy, productive, and tenured is your new hire going to be if they feel like they were bamboozled during the interview/hiring process?

      3. AdAgencyChick

        Yeah, I think when you need an out, it’s harder to ask — I have not been asking recently, although I care a lot about work-life balance. But the last time I was recruited when I wasn’t actively looking, I asked flat out. I had a decent situation and I wasn’t going to leave it for a sweatshop.

        …the thing is, I was lied to. After several months at that company, which I hated, I was asked to interview someone else and was told to pump up how happy I was and how awesome the company was. It became clear to me that my interviewers had also been encouraged to sell me a bill of goods.

        So, even if I were in a position where I felt like I could ask it in the interview because I’m in the power position (“hey, YOU called ME”), I don’t think I would bother any more. I’d just do my research by asking as many people *outside* the interview process as I could. (My industry is small and insular enough that that’s usually not hard to do.) If employers can call people who aren’t on your list of references, I can damn well ask friends and friends of friends who have no vested interest in hiring me!

        1. Judy

          That is where I recently found my linked in network to be of most use. Oh, look, former co-worker’s son works at Teapots, Ltd. Let me shoot her an email and to ask if her son would be willing to talk to me.

          1. AdAgencyChick

            Yes, this too. The one and only time I’ve rescinded my acceptance of a job offer was when I used LinkedIn to track down the person who I was going to be replacing. She used the words “soul-killing” to describe the company.

            She might have had an axe to grind, but then I called a friend from the industry for advice, having no idea that he had also done business with that company. He said, “OMG, run.” So I ran! Fortunately the agency I was at didn’t want to lose me, so that was that.

        2. Colette

          I think you can get some of that information indirectly as well, through asking things like what a typical day in the job is like, how often the team has immovable deadlines, etc.

        3. AdAgencyChick

          Also, to relate this more to OP5’s situation — there’s no reason OP5 cannot go to the big boss and ask that providing references from former direct reports be part of the hiring process. So often hiring managers focus on checking with a candidate’s former managers, which is important, but direct reports and peers often have knowledge that’s just as valuable, sometimes even more so.

          And, if the big boss is one who values work-life balance and the OP feels comfortable doing so, it would be worth asking her the same question OP asked Alison. “One of the things I love most about working here is that we do so much great work while still getting to have a life outside of work. I really want us not to lose that, but I also don’t want to give anybody the wrong idea that we’re not invested in the work.” And then ask for suggestions on how to do that — if I were the big boss in this situation, I’d want to ask the candidate myself about how she manages work-life balance with her direct reports.

          1. Ultraviolet

            I totally agree that OP5 should ask the big boss how to factor work-life balance into candidate selection. Hopefully the boss will bring it up with the candidate themselves, as you say. And even if they don’t do that, their approval could help the OP feel more confident about discussing it with candidates.

          2. OP5

            Oh, soliciting references from team members/direct reports is a great idea. I will definitely ask about that. Thank you!

        4. The Cosmic Avenger

          That sucks. What’s almost as bad is that sometimes telework and flex hours are often completely up to the manager’s discretion, so sometimes you can have it, then it can (somewhat more legitimately) be taken away when you get a new manager.

          1. Camellia

            Hmm, we must work together. We are totally at the mercy of the current manager for telework and flex hours.

      4. ThursdaysGeek

        I guess if I were desperate, I wouldn’t ask either. But they might find out I wasn’t as available anyway: “Sorry, I must have slept through the phone ringing.” “Oh, I got busy and didn’t get a chance to check my email last night.” “I’ll be camping and I doubt there will be any connectivity.” I can enforce the boundaries even if you don’t respect them.

    4. C Average

      I think if 24/7 connectivity is a deal-breaker, it’s probably best to look at companies that don’t have a global presence, or to find an expressly geography-specific role within such companies. Otherwise, you really do have to be somewhat available all the time. If you’re pursuing a role with “global” in the title, you’re probably going to be working some nutty hours.

      1. FrustratedinDC

        This was not a global anything – I certainly don’t mind being available to answer emails, but not for the price they were putting on it, and I would expect my coworkers ot at least participate in picking up the slack while I’m on PTO – I’ve always been happy to cover for coworkers in the past so they can enjoy their R&R and come back refreshed.

        Like I said, a bullet dodged.

      2. ThursdaysGeek

        No. Good companies,whether global or not, realize that people do better work when they get adequate rest and time away from the job.

    5. Spiky Plant

      Actually, I think this is one of those things where you totally can ask, as long as you’re asking the right question. If you’re looking for a 40 hour a week job, and only want to go over that rarely, and you’re in a position where you would decline any job that you knew would be over that, then just ask. “What are the typical hours of someone in this position? I give 100% at my job, but I’m looking for a culture where people don’t need to put in 50 hours a week just to feel like they’re keeping up.” Or something like that. You don’t need to worry as much about being perceived as disinterested because organizations with cultures that value what you value will recognize what you’re asking, and not dock you for it. It becomes a filtering system working for what you want.

      If you’re more desperate, and 50 hour weeks are not a deal-breaker and you just need to get a job, well, it’s one of those things that you maybe shouldn’t ask about for the reason you cite, because ultimately the culture isn’t a factor for you, so there’s not much reason to ask about it. If you’re not in a position to be choosy, just don’t ask about things that aren’t ultimately going to impact your decision.

    6. Stranger than fiction

      I think the dirty word is live hard play hard – cause that usually means work hard work more, and now work life balance is what other companies try to advertise to let candidates know they’re the opposite of this work hard play hard thing

      1. FrustratedinDC

        You mean I can’t find a job where I can actually come in and do my job well, but have a life (and I like my life) as well? :(

      2. AVP

        I always read “work hard play hard” as “work really hard at your job, and then work even harder to have a life because we’ve given you no time in which to figure that out.”

      3. INTP

        I would run far from a “work hard play hard” company. IME it means you’re expected to be at work for 12 hours and then go drinking with your coworkers and act like you’re thrilled about it and have no desire to be at home ever.

  12. "Find yourself a cup; the teapot is behind you. Now tell me about hundreds of things."

    On #2, I used to work for a company where HR did the initial sifting and screening and some of the managers reckoned they were weeding out good staff before the hiring managers got a look in. When they changed the system, hey presto – staff turnover improved greatly. So when I read about HR disorganization like these I am not surprised. Really good, experienced and qualified HR professionals don’t mess up like this but when I hear HR stories like this I shudder. Do organizations really want incompetent HR people and recruitment agents loose on their recruitment?

    (Rant over).

    1. Judy

      In most places I’ve worked for as an engineer, the hiring managers do all of the screening. I know at a former company, my department started screening because HR hadn’t given them my resume. I had applied on the company website, and a few months later had a resume given directly to a manager by a former coworker who knew they were still looking. They hadn’t received it from HR. I was told this had happened a few times, so they just started doing their own sorting and screening.

      1. Anaïs

        I am an HR Generalist and I do quite a lot of recruiting as well.
        I see the recruiting process as team work, I do everything together with the hiring manager – from writing the job posting to reviewing the applications, from shorlisting applications to interviewing, I draft the agreement to be reviewed by the hiring manager, we then coordinate the on-boarding and induction phase. Synergy has brought along pretty good results.

      2. INTP

        I’m curious how this would work. When I’ve recruited for engineering roles, the vast, vast majority of resumes received were from people with irrelevant backgrounds, out of the country or thousands of miles away, required H1B sponsorship, new graduates applying for every level of position, etc. The hiring managers would have been very annoyed at having to sift through all that. On top of it, the candidates chosen often had to be recruited from Dice or Monster or referrals when qualified people wouldn’t apply.

        This was in a highly desirable city and I wonder if that has anything to do with it, if people all over the world were just applying to every job there that hit a certain keyword. An 18 year old aspiring model from Florida applied to our Software Engineer II position.

  13. MT

    #4, I wont defend HR, but I worked with a company where the relocation repayment was subject the manager’s approval. Since the relocation came from that specific’s manager’s budget.

    At the end of the HR works for the company, not that employee. If i had employees who were thinking about leaving, i would like to know.

    1. Cheesecake

      +1 to not defending HR. But under no circumstances would i ever put questions like this in writing. OP had to go and talk to HR. You don’t just shoot emails like “Judy, can you please remind me deadline for midterm evaluation? Oh, and by the way, if i resign, do i pay my relo bonus back?”

      1. "Find yourself a cup; the teapot is behind you. Now tell me about hundreds of things."

        Yes. I would also hesitate to ask face to face. I think first of all I would see if the answer was in an employee handbook, or the written agreement issued when the relocation payment was made. I took one once and I had a signed terms and conditions document. On the whole I try and find out sensitive information through other routes before giving management the heads-up on stuff.

        However, I’m not saying that any of this applies in the OP’s case or meaning any criticism.

        1. Merry and Bright

          I get this. Working as an admin, I am used to seeking things out for myself where possible though the OP might have tried this of course.

  14. E

    #1 – can you really keep your downsized finances a secret anyway? Ultimately most non-profits release audited financial statements each year as well as annual reports and 990’s. To anyone tracking that stuff, your financial data shouldn’t be hard to access enough to see broad trends (like operating budget shrinking).

    1. Cheesecake

      Honestly, who is interested in this particular non-profit finances? If i hear that there is a good candidate out there due to lay off, current situation of ex-employer does not bother me (if funding issues did not happen because of that employee)

      1. Ask a Manager Post author

        It’s pretty common to discuss what’s going with other orgs in your field — if an allied org is laying people off, that’s usually talked about it. But it’s not usually a scandal; it’s more like “did you hear that X Org had to lay off 8 people? That sucks.”

        (Of course, if it’s an enemy organization — an org working on the opposite side of the issue from you — the tone is a little different.)

        1. Cheesecake

          Well, it can be pretty clear from the communication that a person does not want to disclose anything org.specific. I would of course ask what’s going on, but if i catch a vibe that it is “no comments”, i would not push it.

      2. Juni

        I’m a hiring manager in nonprofit development (fundraising) and I regularly keep tabs on when other organizations are doing poorly or laying people off, because I’m not above poaching their best people before we post positions. For every front-line fundraiser position we have open, we get 100+ unqualified applicants, 50+ underqualified applicants, and only 10 or so qualified ones. Our team is large enough, with a large enough network, that referrals have accounted for my best hires. The sole time we restructured a position and the person in it had to move on – we realized we needed a specific skill that she did not have, and wasn’t interested in learning – I basically pitched her to my best contacts at other organizations because she was great but not what we needed anymore.

  15. Mike C.

    #4: What the HR rep did was stupid and incredibly damaging to the career of the employee. Assuming and then implying that someone who asks about the specific terms of an agreement is looking to leave is no different than assuming someone who asks about the law is looking to commit a crime.

    Now this employee is at serious risk of being fired, laid off or being denied promotions, training and good projects. At many companies, losing your job (even if laid off) means you have to return the relocation money.

    Nice work, HR.

    1. Colette

      I can only think of two reasons to ask HR that question – either you e planning to leave, or you are mildly curious and think HR is there to answer trivia questions. Either way, it’s reasonable to let your manager know about it.

        1. ThursdaysGeek

          Or your parents are getting older and you’re considering whether it would be worthwhile to look for a job back in your hometown now. There are lots of reasons why you might want to know that before you’re considering leaving, and knowing that you have to repay will mean you don’t start looking after all. And in 2 years, when the question is moot, enough might have changed that you wouldn’t think of leaving this great job.

      1. Cat

        I don’t think being mildly curious and asking someone who’s job it is to know is something to tel someone’s manager about. People get to ask about their benefits even if they’re not immediately using that information.

        (I’m biased: recently I noticed that my 401k employee contribution was showing as 60% vested rather than 80% vested, which it should have been based on my time employed. I debated whether to ask HR because I knew that it could imply I was looking to leave, which I’m not, but ultimately decided – you know what? It’s my money; I should get to know the answer to that question.)

        1. Judy

          You mean matching contribution, right? I’m pretty sure any employee contribution is always yours.

        2. Colette

          The difference to me is that you only need to worry about repaying relocation if you leave. Retirement is relevant in other situations.

          1. Cat

            Right, I think I would have been more reluctant to ask about relocation and that’s harder to frame as innocuous, but there’s still a lot of grey area – the precise amount of my vested employer contribution really only needs to be straight when I leave. HR should be used to operating in that grey area and should cut some slack to employees, who may not be.

          2. Mike C.

            You’re falling into the same trap I mentioned in my original post – you’re assuming that someone who asks about the law is looking to commit a crime.

      2. Pontoon Pirate

        HR should be available to answer questions about your salary, benefits or any other career impact point, trivial or not. And there are myriad reasons I might ask my HR the very same thing, up to and including I’m looking to leave. But maybe I heard misinformation and I want to clarify. Maybe somebody asked me the question and I didn’t know the answer. Maybe it’s Thursday and I just want to know.

        HR isn’t your priest, but it’s hugely irresponsible to not think through the implications for looping in someone’s manager on a policy question without a really good reason. If, as the argument goes, HR is there to protect the business interests of the company, then I would also argue that it’s against a company’s business interest to needlessly create a culture where folks are afraid to ask for helpful information.

        1. Partly Cloudy

          I mostly agree. The original letter was specifically about repaying relo if the employee was to resign, so I understand that it looks like the employee is thinking about leaving. But to *assume* so is foolish and could very well start unnecessary drama.

          Also, let’s say the employee DID ask because s/he was thinking about resigning… so what? Firing him/her would be silly because then the company would probably have to eat the relo, and I doubt they’d start secretly looking for and hiring a replacement on the chance that the employee ISN’T going to quit and really was just curious. Then the company would have wasted time and resources on recruiting and could end up overstaffed.

          1. Florida

            Agree that it is foolish to assume and that it is better to let him resign than fire him and eat the relo. The problem is we are dealing with people who frequently make decisions based on emotion rather than logic. His boss will probably assume that he wants to leave. I’m not talking about whether the boss should assume that, I’m talking about what the boss likely will assume. That is likely going to affect his relationship with his boss. This whole situation sucks.

            In new hire orientation and similar situations, HR talks like they are your best friend. (“Come talk to us if you have any problems. We’re here to help.”) It does make you feel like they are there to help and maybe even that they have a vow of confidentiality. But really, their main job is to protect the company from its employees.

            1. Not Here or There

              +1, I’ve come across so many situations where HR sell themselves as a sort of “work therapist” type roll, or really stress coming to talk to them if you have any issues, even going so far as to tell people that “this is a safe place, and what we talk about here won’t go beyond this door”. It’s really easy to get duped into believing them, especially when you’re having a really difficult time at work and feel you don’t have anywhere to turn.

              1. Observer

                Actually, if HR actually tells you that what you say is confidential and will not be shared, that might very well be different, because then there is an expectation of privacy – one that the company created. If HR says this and you act on it, there is an argument that they made a promise and they are bound by that. But, that’s apparently not what happened here.

                1. fposte

                  That’s also not likely to be binding in any legal sense. It just makes it more understandable that the employee would be forthcoming.

            2. Observer

              But why are your assumptions about how the boss and HR are going to react any more reasonable than the assumption that the OP *is* going to leave? We honestly have no information that makes the scenario you describe “probable”. The one thing I DO agree is likely, because it’s just so common, is that it probably will affect their relationship.

              1. Florida

                I guess what I’m saying is the reason it will affect their relationship is because they assume that OP is going to leave. If OP asked the question and every assumed that OP was just curious about the answer, it wouldn’t affect their relationship. It would be like you asking HR how many vacation days you have left – it’s just a bland question that no one thinks anything of.

                But, being human, the boss (and HR) will likely assume that OP is going to leave, or is at least thinking about leaving and weighing their options, which is why it affects the relationship. Also, if HR didn’t assume that, they probably wouldn’t have copied the boss. Do they copy the boss when you ask a bland question about your health benefits?

                In any case, the ultimate problem is that it does affects the relationship (we both agree on that part), and that’s what OP has to deal with.

        2. Green

          Come on. Employees should exercise at least some common sense and discretion when e-mailing the place that pays their bills to ask “How much do I owe you if I quit?”

          Obviously (1) you should ask for a copy of anything you sign at the time you sign it and retain it for your records. (2) You should assume the terms of the original agreement will be in force (for example, I know places with 2 year relocation payback policies, that sometimes waive payback or don’t collect, but it’s better for you to assume the worst), (3) Ideally employees would be able to find all the policies for themselves in a handbook or intranet, but if not (4) It’d be better to request a number of policies at once — “Hi, for my records could I please have copies of any documents or agreements I’ve signed? I’d also like the disability leave policy, retirement policy and X.”

            1. Green

              OP is not a “victim.” It’s not like HR is walled off from the rest of the company; they’re not your personal consultants. They work for the company, not for the employees.

            2. Ask a Manager Post author

              I don’t think this is a situation where “blame the victim” applies. That’s really overstating it. The employee didn’t ask for confidentialty. It’s not outrageous that an email you send at work might be seen by your manager.

              1. Mike C.

                Having HR strongly imply to your manager that you’re going to leave based on little more than uninformed speculation is outrageous, however.

                1. Observer

                  Where do you see any evidence that this is what HR did, though? Either the OP strongly implied it in the original email or not. If the OP did that, then the implication came from her, and if she didn’t, then it’s not there.

                2. JB

                  From the OP’s letter: “An employee asks HR via email how much of his relocation bonus he would have to pay back to the employer (located in NC) if he were to resign. HR responds and copies the employee’s manager.”

                  There’s nothing here about what the HR employee said other than that they were responding to the question. If the response alone was enough to “strongly imply” that the employee was going to leave, then it was only because the question itself had that implication. If you mean that just asking about it strongly implies the person is leaving, then if that were true (and I’m not sure it is), the HR person was arguably right to let the manager know. If one of my reports strongly implied they’d be leaving in the near future, I’d want to know so I could start planning for replacing them.

                3. Ask a Manager Post author

                  Look, Mike, do you think the employee’s original email implied that the employee was thinking about leaving or not? If yes, then the HR person wasn’t totally out of line to loop in the manager. If no, then simply forwarding it won’t change the meaning.

                4. Fabulously Anonymous

                  I don’t see it that way at all. Granted, I’m a very literal person, but HR didn’t imply to the manager that the employee was thinking of leaving. HR just included the manager on a response. That’s all. And we don’t know why either. Maybe it’s company policy to always cc managers. Maybe the manager is supposed to field those questions (unlikely, but we don’t know). Maybe there’s some other reason.

          1. Sunflower

            100% agree. One of the reasons a handbook exists is so an employee can find out about sensitive nature things without having to let anyone know they’re asking. If OP didn’t work out the relocation payback in his contract…well that was his first mistake. Since we can’t turn back time though, asking for copies of it along with other policies would give off a different impression than ‘I’m looking to leave’.

        3. Colette

          If it’s truly just a question out of curiosity, the OP can just reply with “Thanks! A friend of mine just got an offer from another company, and she was asking how we calculate relocation repayment.” or whatever the situation is. However, based on this specific situation, I’d bet the employee is considering resigning.

          1. Pontoon Pirate

            Sure, but until she actually resigns, there’s no need to stir the pot or create tension. Considering isn’t doing; we see a lot of commenters here who talk about looking sporadically or get unexpected offers and they want to do due diligence; it’s good to have the info you need to make an informed decision.

            1. Colette

              If the employee is considering leaving, that’s something her manager should know. Maybe it’s a fixable problem – but even if it’s not, it might be a sign that the employee should be the one laid off in the upcoming layoffs or that another employee should take the lead on the mission critical project that’s just starting up. That may not be in the employee’s best interest, but it is in the company’s.

            2. Sunflower

              Well when the employee asks a question like this, she’s already stirred the pot. People do things all the time at work that, whether they have reason to or not, raise eyebrows- this isn’t that different. This info is pointless if it’s not disclosed until the person resigns. And HR isn’t disclosing to create tension- it’s about the company being prepared. I think the manager should talk to OP before making assumptions about anything but I don’t think HR should pretend they never heard it. If you found out your employer was checking out the costs of laying you off, you wouldn’t be a little worried?

          2. Mike C.

            It’s too late. Once that seed of “Suzy is looking to leave” is planted, the damage has already been done.

              1. Mike C.

                No, she didn’t. HR was the one to came to the conclusion that Suzy was leaving, and came to that conclusion with no evidence what so ever. It’s not Suzy’s responsibility (nor is it really even possible) to anticipate every crazy or irrational belief that this HR rep might come up with.

                1. JB

                  See, I’m just not sure where you’re getting that. Maybe I’m reading the question wrong. But HR just responded to the question and copied the manager. The manager maybe concluded the OP was leaving, but I don’t know that HR did. It looks like HR just thought that was a possibility or for some reason thought the manager should know.

                2. Merry and Bright

                  I would take it that HR came to that conclusion because they tipped the manager off about the OP’s question.

                  Unless it is company policy to routinely copy the manager in on stuff, that is how I read it.

                3. JB

                  @Merry and Bright I would agree with you if the OP had said in that in their response, the HR person had said “Suzy, since you’re looking to leave soon, here’s our policy.” They didn’t. So it sounds like either HR concluded that based on what the question was, or we don’t know what the HR concluded other than they though the manager should know. And maybe they thought the manager would want to provide some more information. We just don’t know. The HR manager should have talked to the OP first, but just the mere act of CCing the manager doesn’t mean that the HR person made that conclusion.

                4. LBK

                  All HR did was pass info along. What information the manager wants to conclude or what actions they want to take as a result aren’t on HR. Do I think they may have had their own thoughts about what it meant that led them to decide that the manager should be involved? Yeah, probably. But it’s not like they replied “Here’s your final paycheck since you’re obviously leaving” – nothing has been done that the employee shouldn’t have been aware was a possibility when they decided to give someone at the company (remember, again, that HR employees are just employees of the same company as you but in another department) information that could imply you were leaving. That information is no less destructive given to HR than to the person sitting next to you in your own department, in that if you need it to remain confidential, you need to specify as such.

        4. Laurel Gray

          So is it unreasonable to think that an HR manager would reply back to the inquiry with the answer and ask the OP if they are thinking of resigning and if so THEN looping the manager in via a forward and not necessarily a cc??

      3. neverjaunty

        If I ask HR about medical benefits, would it then be OK for HR to loop in my manager so he knows I might be thinking of taking PTO?

          1. Judy

            If you were asking about medical benefits for, say, cancer surgery, or knee replacement, you’d be needing to use your PTO.

      4. Not Here or There

        There are so many legitimate reasons that you might need to know this information to plan “just in case” or weigh cost/benefits without meaning that you’re actually planning on leaving: a loved one recently found out about an illness and you’re weighing the cost/ benefits to going there to take care of them (or having them come here, or paying for care for them), your spouse found out they might be up for a promotion that could require relocation, your spouse is in the military and could be posted to another base, etc.

        There are so many different situations like these where you might be trying to put together plan B’s, and you don’t want or plan to leave your job, but need to know what the consequences are if you do. The way HR handled this jeopardizes the worker’s job on what may very well be a “what if” situation.

      5. Mike C.

        Or maybe people want to be sure of their responsibilities. Or maybe they’re curious. There’s two more.

        1. Laurel Gray

          Right. I get the argument that HR has a duty to management etc but to loop a manager in on an inquiry is so obnoxious particularly when done in this way. I don’t know why they can’t just respond with the specific language from the handbook and the usual “let me know if you have any questions” and later mention it to the manager. And if any and all HR inquiries are subject to getting back to one’s direct manager, I guess we should all just keep PDF copies of our employee handbooks downloaded to our work desktop and navigate things ourselves.

          1. Observer

            I don’t know why they can’t just respond with the specific language from the handbook and the usual “let me know if you have any questions” and later mention it to the manager.

            In other words, loop the manager in, just keep it secret from the person who asked? I’d think that’s even worse.

            And if any and all HR inquiries are subject to getting back to one’s direct manager, I guess we should all just keep PDF copies of our employee handbooks downloaded to our work desktop and navigate things ourselves.

            I believe that this is exactly what some of the others were suggesting. It’s not a bad idea at all.

            Unless you have an explicit promise of confidential, sure, your emails are subject to getting back to your manager (and a lot of other people as well.)

            1. LBK

              Agreed, it’s worse to loop the manager in without making the employee aware that that’s being done.

    2. Graciosa

      We don’t know that this is what happened.

      There’s a big difference between “If you were to leave, the amount of your retention bonus to be repaid is $X” and “Joe – I had no idea you were even looking for another job. We’ll be sorry to see you go, but to answer your question, the amount of the retention bonus to be repaid is currently $X. Do let me know your exact last day of work so I can adjust it depending upon the length of notice you’re giving, and good luck in your new position.”

      I would agree that the latter response to a straight “How much – ?” question would be out of line, but the first is just factual and leaves open the possibility that Joe’s reason for asking was simple curiosity.

      I will add that I don’t think anyone in this scenario is a poster child for their role.

      The OP/employee loses some points for imagining that HR is on the side of anyone other than the employer (I don’t know why so many people have this delusion, but it’s certainly widespread).

      HR loses some points for not communicating that loyalty to the employee in advance, and for brusqueness.

      It’s not clear from the letter whether or not the manager has done anything with this information at all. If she threatened the employee with firing, the manager loses major points for overreacting to a normal event – people do move on, and being gracious about it is the right response.

      However, the letter only says the employee is afraid – not that the manager did anything to cause this. If the employee’s reaction is the product of guilt without any action by the manager, I’m not going to blame the manager.

      I do think the manager should have a conversation with the employee and just ask about the employee’s intentions. If the credible answer is “I was just curious” I would ignore it.

      However, if the manager has reason to believe the employee is leaving, planning for it is part of the manager’s job – and that includes not giving the employee critical roles in new projects. This is probably not what the OP wants to hear, but it is what I would do. And yes, that does mean that there are consequences to the employee for having asked the question in this particular way.

      If the reason was simple curiosity and the manager treats it as something else, there are two possible remedies – honest conversation and time.

      1. Colette

        I’m not sure how HR could have advised the employee in advance about their loyalty – as soon as the question was asked, they could have legitimately felt the manager needed to know.

        1. Not Here or There

          If HR felt that the question was being asked because the person was about to resign, they could have very easily gone to the person (before saying anything to the manager) and either asked if that was the case or said “If you’re planning on resigning, I need to let your manager know”.
          By just brusquely copying the boss without any sort of background information or giving the employee a heads up, HR just opened the door for a lot of assumptions and needless pot-stirring.

          1. Colette

            But I don’t think HR has an obligation to tell the manager only if the OP says she’s planning to resign, I think just asking about it is enough to advise the manager so that they can talk with the OP.

            1. Not Here or There

              No, HR doesn’t have an obligation only if the OP is planning on resigning, but I think HR does have an obligation to handle this type of question with care. A better course of action would have been to start a conversation, either for HR to start the conversation with the employee and then bring in the manager if they think it’s a possible reason for concern, to sit down with the employee and the manager, or even just to talk to the manager about the question have the manager have a conversation with the employee.
              This HR rep didn’t start a conversation, they CC’d the manager on a response email. Sure, a really good manager would flag this and know to have a conversation with their employee, but not all managers will do that. Not all managers are really good managers. Some managers, even if they’re generally good managers, might respond poorly or not respond at all. Since the manager clearly didn’t talk to the OP about this, all the HR person did was create an atmosphere of fear and tension.

          2. Renee

            I handle the HR role (and anything else admin) for a very small manufacturing company, and I would not have handled it the way this HR did, simply in an effort to avoid workplace tension and drama. If I suspected the employee was planning to leave, I would have approached the employee personally to discuss their concerns, and then addressed the issue with the manager (after advising the employee that that would be the course of action). That way, the situation is controlled and contained, without misunderstanding. If the employee really was thinking of leaving, perhaps the issues causing that thinking could be addressed. If not, at least all parties would have facts instead of speculation. I don’t believe that HR was wrong in passing on the information, but the way they did it seems likely to provoke unnecessary drama. My boss is great, but his reactions can still be unpredictable if news isn’t delivered with some sensitivity to the situation.

        2. Graciosa

          That’s true – sometimes people do spring things on you and you have to explain your position after the disclosure rather than before. And some things seem so normal to you that you don’t pick up on the fact that the other person regards it as deeply sensitive.

          To give examples from my field (legal), I have had employees come into my office and start off with, “I need to get your advice on a really sensitive matter, and I need to know you’re not going to share what I’m about to tell you.”

          This produces my standard response along the lines of, “I only work for Employer, and my loyalty is solely with Employer. If you’re about to tell me something you don’t want Employer to know because it is against Employer’s interests – for example, if you’ve breached our Code of Conduct, stolen from Employer, or want to plan an action to hurt Employer, I am absolutely going to share it. However, if this has no impact on Employer, I will certainly respect your wishes.”

          I have also been asked to provide opinions on contracts – which seemed normal and routine – and copied the responsible officers (who were about to meet with the other party) when providing an opinion. It turned out that the person asking the question originally had already given the officers a completely different answer, and she was *furious* that I included them in my response.

          The HR person may have mistakenly thought this was normal and routine –

      2. Mike C.

        The OP/employee loses some points for imagining that HR is on the side of anyone other than the employer (I don’t know why so many people have this delusion, but it’s certainly widespread).

        The OP assumed nothing other than that they would receive the terms of their agreement. And the fear the employee has is a real and justified fear. To use a term I made up a few days ago, this HR rep has shivved the employee’s career in the kidneys at this particular business out of sheer incompetence.

        1. Ask a Manager Post author

          Eh, I think that’s overstating it. The HR rep was wrong in how they handled it, but the employee is the one who sent this email; most people have the common sense to know that anything you email to another department could in theory be shared with your manager. The HR rep erred as I described in the letter, but the employee here didn’t really use common sense about the potential consequences either.

          It’s not a shiv in the kidneys to have your manager see an email you yourself sent, where you didn’t ask for confidentiality.

            1. Ask a Manager Post author

              By who? The employee, who’s the one who wrote the email? If not, how does the meaning of the email change in the act of being forwarded?

              1. JB

                This is what I’m saying. If the simple act of asking *necessarily* means that the employee is planning to leave, then the employee needed to think about what would happen by leaving. If I went into HR and said, “I’m thinking about resigning, how much notice would I have to give,” then I shouldn’t be surprised if HR assumed I meant what I said and told my manager. If asking the OP’s question basically says the same thing just in different words (and I don’t think it has to, depending on the wording), then the OP needed to be more careful. Just sending that question to the manager doesn’t change the content, so either it was something that should have been worded more carefully or it shouldn’t have been sent at all.

                I do agree that HR screwed up, though.

          1. Observer

            most people have the common sense to know that anything you email to another department could in theory be shared with your manager.

            Well, common sense seems to be rather uncommon, or so it seems sometimes. But, you are 100%. I tell people that if they don’t want something to show up on the front page of the New York Times (we’re in New York) or they don’t their mother / grandmother or any other specific person to hear about something, do NOT put it in email. If you don’t want your manager to see something, you DEFINITELY do not put it in an email to HR.

          2. Mike C.

            Also, why should an employee have to ask for confidentiality when asking for details about a company policy?

            1. Ask a Manager Post author

              If they’re just asking details about a company policy, then they shouldn’t care if their manager knows that, right?

              I think you’re arguing contradictory things here.

              1. Pontoon Pirate

                In a perfect world. But you get letters all the time from folks who are trying to do the right thing for themselves and/or their company and their managers aren’t acting in a reasonable manner. That’s akin to saying, “if you don’t break any laws you don’t need to worry what the police are doing.”

                Now, HR can be within their right to tell the manager what’s up, but that doesn’t make it less distasteful to be the employee who wants information and has to skulk around and get it (because in a perfect world, handbooks are also comprehensive and up-to-date).

                1. Pontoon Pirate

                  That said, these comments have given me a lot of food for thought and I think I’d advise the OP and anyone in OP’s shoes to think through all possible outcomes of such an email before pressing send.

            2. Merry and Bright

              I don’t know your geographical area, Mike C. But I live in the UK and there is normally a culture of confidentiality with something like this. If I go to HR about a policy or contract question they would tell me the answer, then that’s it. Management would not be involved. Which is why I agree with you but I appreciate HR seems to work differently in different places. So if HR copied my manager into an email as described the alarm bell would deafen me but that’s just local culture perhaps.

        2. Graciosa

          Well, the OP / employee seems to have assumed that HR would not share the news of the query – and it seems that you might share this assumption if you’re concluding that HR is incompetent because the information was provided to the manager.

          HR professionals have posted that sharing the information is a part of their jobs.

          This disconnect between HR’s understanding of their role and the employee’s understanding of HR’s role is really what I was trying to highlight with that language.

          1. Mike C.

            I’m concluding that HR is incompetent because the manner in which the information was shared strongly implies that the employee is going to jump ship when there is no evidence to support such a conclusion.

            I know full well who HR works for and that they share information. What I don’t expect HR to do is to strongly imply that an employee is leaving simply because they wanted a refresher on the details of a contract. That’s bullshit. You should be able to ask about company policies at any time without having your career torpedoed.

            1. LBK

              How!? You have yet to explain how anything was implied other than what the employee stated in their email. Either the email implied they were leaving or it didn’t; something being forwarded from HR makes no change in the implications when the manager receives it.

        3. Sunflower

          Obviously the OP did assume confidentiality or he wouldn’t have wrote in that he felt HR should have told him before he told the manager

          1. Laurel Gray

            Idk, it seems like the type of inquiry where a smart HR manager would immediately respond asking if the employee was considering leaving in the near future and then looping in the manager. There is a way the conversation of resigning and possible repayment of relocation expenses can be had where it doesn’t come off as someone trying to sneakily jump ship or something.

            1. Mike C.

              This, pretty much. You can still keep the company’s interests at heart and not inadvertently make an employee look bad at the same time.

              1. Merry and Bright

                Agree. The HR person could ask the OP to drop by, then say something like “Here’s the answer to your question, Wakeen. I hope this doesn’t mean we are going to lose you anytime soon?”

            2. Sunflower

              I agree that the CC thing was not cool but I don’t see what the big deal is with informing the manager ASAP- I don’t know why you’d have to tell the employee first and then wait some time to tell the manager. Even if HR talked to the employee and employee said ‘no just curious’, I still think it would be forwarded to the manager. It’s true that people do wrongly assume things but it’s also true that it’s VERY rare someone is going to be upfront that they are considering leaving a job- especially since it says in the letter that the CC means the boss knows of his potential intention to resign.

              What’s the diff. if he talks to HR or his manager? If he has a good reason(or no reason) why he was asking, what does it matter if HR or the manager hears it?

        4. Cheesecake

          If the fear is real, employee should have talked to manager and to HR. Talk, come and explain the issue. Not firing a “how much?” e-mail. That is a bit obnoxious and as HR i’d be very pissed and go talk to the employee straight away (not cc the boss though)

          1. Mike C.

            There shouldn’t be any fear in asking HR for clarification about a company policy, nor is it reasonable for an employee to believe that simply by asking they would have HR implying that they want to leave.

            1. Cheesecake

              It all comes back to the fact that HR’s first duty is to the company. Clarifying travel policy is not the same as clarifying specific part of relo policy starting with “when resigning…” This is a clear potential risk for the company that needs to be flagged. Again, not in this way, but it needs to be done.

        5. Not So NewReader

          I think that a lot of people would expect implied confidentiality. I don’t think people realize they have to request it. Additionally, I don’t think people realize that someone could not be able to promise confidentiality given certain givens. Call it naive, inexperienced, and so on, however there are plenty of people that do not know this stuff.

          The problem comes in when it happens too many times to too many people. This turns the tide and employees become embittered. I have watched this happen in companies.

          I was in my late twenties when I decided that I was just going to speak as if 100 people were listening at all times. This has saved me so many problems. But I went through some problems before I came to this conclusion. Unless family or friends show a person this stuff there is really no way to learn it except by living it.

          It’s not an age thing, though. I have told people to be careful what they say, it does get repeated. And folks 40-50 y/o have told me I did not know what I was talking about. (This gets interesting when people are running their mouths about the boss within earshot of other people.) I just tell myself I went as far as I could go on that one.

          In a recent example, a half dozen employees went to a company representative regarding a boss. The rep listened actively and sympathetically, which encouraged the employees to keep talking. The employees thought the rep would go to the big boss. NOPE. The rep went to the boss and named names with direct quotes. And all hell broke loose.
          Nothing was resolved as the main goal became “make the boss stop yelling and stop seeking revenge at all costs”. The rep believes the problems were resolved. Reality is that the problems just became a hundred times worse.

    3. Lily in NYC

      I feel bad for the OP, but HR’s job is to protect the company, not individual employees who might be resigning. The HR person would probably argue that he/she did the right thing and would do it again. I used to answer my boss’ phone – she was a monster and people went to HR pretty often about her. Every single time, the HR person called my boss immediately to let her now that so-and-so was complaining about her and then my boss would start a campaign of terror against that person. I learned the hard way never to expect them to keep anything confidential.

    4. Observer

      What exactly did the HR rep assume and imply?

      According to the OP, all the HR actually said was whatever the company policy is. I agree that the rep handled things poorly, but the implication that the OP (or the OP’s “friend”) is thinking about leaving comes from the original email.

      On the other hand, you seem to be making a lot of assumptions here – something that you’ve just criticized HR. There is nothing in the letter to indicate that the company is crazy enough to fire someone just because they are considering the possibility of leaving. I know such companies exist but they are not so common that this is a reasonable assumption.

      1. Mike C.

        The implication of HR’s response is that the employee is looking to leave, and that it was the HR rep’s responsibility to report it right away. Employees shouldn’t be made to look bad simply because they want clarification on a company policy. Would you assume that an employee asking about sexual harassment policies was looking to have an affair at work?

        As far as my assumptions are concerned, it’s been discussed at length in this blog that employees who are known to management to be actively looking for work elsewhere are often denied promotions, raises, training, good projects and are even demoted or fired earlier. This is based on the idea that a business would no longer invest in an employee who is going to leave soon. Does this make sense?

        1. Observer

          You have not really answered the question. Yes, people who are known to be looking to leave are often treated differently than people who are not known to be doing that.

          But, everything else leading up to that requires a whole host of assumptions that you have no basis to make. CC’ing the manager is not “implying” anything. Yet you are assuming that it is.

          The one reasonable assumption that the manager needs to make, and which could easily be exactly what the HR person was implying, is that the questioner had some reason to ask. Just as any smart HR person would assume that anyone asking about sexual harassment policies has a reason to ask. Your assumption that the cc was meant to imply anything more than that, and that the manager will understand it as the questioner being actively looking to leave is no more grounded in what we know than those reactions.

          1. Elizabeth West

            Exactly–it sounds, Mike C., as though you’re also assuming that the manager will just say, “Welp, OP is looking to leave! Guess I’ll torch her entire career right now and also kick her on her way out the building!” and not even ask, “Hey, HR copied me on this; what’s up?” If the OP were asking simply out of curiosity, she can clear it up in two seconds. A reasonable manager, like mine, would just say, “Gotcha,” and move on.

            If the OP’s manager were unreasonable, then it would be different. I’m not saying that HR was right to cc in any case, just that there’s no need to blow it out of proportion without knowing more.

            1. Mike C.

              Only one party stands to lose in this situation, and that party could lose big. Given an average value between “maintaining the status quo after a long chat” and “the possibility of losing out on all sorts of things because your boss isn’t interested in developing you anymore”, this isn’t a good result for the employee.

        2. LBK

          I’m confused how you’re drawing conclusions about the HR rep’s response when we don’t even actually know what that response said. Do you mean that the HR rep included the manager on the response? To me, all that says is “This email I got from your employee contains information I believe you may find useful, do whatever you want with it.” HR doesn’t even have the authority to do anything beyond that, so I’m baffled as to why you think that alone has any impact on how the manager will interpret the email. The potentially damning part is in the employee’s email, not HR’s.

  16. Not Today Satan

    Maybe I’m wrong (because I did get last minute interview requests when I was employed) but I feel like as an unemployed person (especially when going through staffing agencies), they have an attitude of, “well, what else do you have to do?” Which is frustrating because I *do* keep very busy, actually. (plus I want to make sure I have time to prepare, etc.)

    1. Xarcady

      Very true. On any given day when I was totally unemployed, I might have been working a temp job, babysitting for a neighbor to make a few dollars, grocery shopping when the stores weren’t crowded, doing respite caregiving for an elderly relative, volunteering at the local animal shelter, taking my daily walk, baking bread (although I would have abandoned a couple of loaves of bread for an interview), at the library, or walking my disabled neighbor’s dog.

      Stopping most of these, getting home, getting dressed in an interview-appropriate outfit and getting to the interview site could easily have taken longer than an hour–if I could have left at all, seeing as it is probably illegal to leave two small children home alone.

      And I’m still job-hunting for a permanent, full-time job, instead of the temporary full-time job and permanent part-time jobs that I have now. No way could I leave either job on a moment’s notice and head out for an interview somewhere else. Well, I could, but I probably would not be welcomed back.

      And we’re supposed to be temping or volunteering, to help fill in the “gap” on our resumes.

  17. Jodi

    #5 is a little weird to me…”Given my interest in potentially joining this team, I’m particularly invested in getting a sense of the candidates’ work and management styles.”

    OP says that she’s part of a search committee looking for a new director that will head a team that she has an interest in, but is not on. It sounds like she’s trying to cherry pick her maybe/maybe not future manager based on something that she has an interest in, not the whole team. She needs to be a member of the search committee first, and then worry about whether or not she’ll actually report to this person in the future.

    1. Ask a Manager Post author

      Well, she says that her boss has asked her to be to be very involved in the search process, and if that’s the culture there, it seems reasonable to me to assess candidates on how aligned they are with it … even if the OP didn’t have an additional, personal interest in the question.

    2. Graciosa

      I don’t have any problem with the OP trying to elicit the information in an interview – management style is very relevant in hiring a manager.

      My concern is more that I’m wary of asking the question in a way that is telegraphing the “right” answer. I think this is a risk – more with the second proposed question from Alison than the first – and I’ve been trying to think of how to avoid it.

      Brainstorming only (hopefully others will chime in here) –

      How would your employees describe your management style / what aspects of the management style of previous managers have you particularly admired?

      What do you typically share with new employees about your management style and expectations?

      Tell us about a situation when there was a critical business demand on short notice that required significant additional work for your team. How did you handle this, and what were the results? [Possible additions or follow up – What if this seems to be happening on a regular basis?]

      I’m trying to figure out how to ask questions that would leave a candidate free to respond either:

      “Getting the work done is always the priority, and members of my team need to understand that I expect them to do whatever has to be done”; or

      “Critical priorities are always at the top of the list, and the key challenge as a manager is identifying how to prioritize the work when it’s just not possible to do everything / how to identify and address the causes of recurring last-minute ’emergencies’ / ensuring that the team is taken care on a regular basis so that they will be ready, willing, and able to pitch in when there is a genuine crisis.”

      The other factor is that sharing the company’s culture with the candidate is also the right thing to do – I’m just trying to figure out how to find out the manager’s natural tendencies before doing that.

      Sorry, I think this rambled a bit – I usually (try to) post complete thoughts, but I’m still struggling with this one a little.

      1. Pontoon Pirate

        Graciosa, I like your suggestions. One thing I’d be curious about–maybe someone can wordsmith better–is something like, “Tell me how you help your team prioritize competing requests on their time.”

      2. OP5

        Thinks for bringing this up! I’m thinking that open ended questions about their preferred work style would be ideal for the phone screen and then we could go into greater depth on our specific office culture in an in-person interview.

    3. Not Here or There

      The LW was asked to take part in the search. And, why is it wrong for an employee to want to know where a potential new boss stands on things that are important to them? This is something you would ask in a job interview of your new boss, and this situation is pretty similar. I’m sure the company is interviewing the people with the needs of the business in mind, and one of the needs of a business is making sure the new manager fits in with the culture and is a good fit as manager for her team. In that case, wouldn’t it make sense for a potential new employee to be honest about things that are important to them? Plus, work-life balance isn’t really that cherry-picked an idea, most people find being on the same page as your boss with work-life balance to be an essential element to happiness at work.

  18. Stephanie

    #4–Coming from an HR perspective, it is my duty to loop in a manager on a question like this. Not to do so would be failing my responsibilities to the manager. This may not be true in all company cultures, but in my career thus far, it is true.

    Now, how to approach that communication is another matter; just cc’ing the manager in can come off an insensitive, depending on the individuals involved and the culture at the company. In terms of etiquette, when including someone who wasn’t in on an email previously, the addition should be addressed, but generally speaking, this is probably a conversation that should have been taken away from email, and onto the phone or in person, where people have less time to jump to conclusions and start panicking before they can get answers.

    If you want to know about the collection on your sign on bonus should you leave, and you don’t want your manage to suspect you may be leaving, then you need to look at your contract. Asking HR isn’t going to be confidential.

    (One last thought–just because you have asked about this, and you manager is aware, doesn’t necessarily mean that your manager and HR rep are petty employees who are going to treat you differently. )

    1. Mike C.

      It’s not your duty to strongly imply an employee is leaving simply because they want clarification on the terms of a mutual agreement made earlier. You have no proof or evidence of that, and lack of imagination doesn’t count.

      By the way, it’s not “petty” to treat an employee that’s believed to be a flight risk poorly – it’s pretty much standard.

      1. Stephanie

        “It’s not your duty to strongly imply an employee is leaving simply because they want clarification on the terms of a mutual agreement made earlier. You have no proof or evidence of that, and lack of imagination doesn’t count.”

        You are correct. I would not not strongly imply anything. I would present the facts to the manager, and ask if there were any issues they needed help with. I would also ask the employee about their plans and if there was anything they felt I needed to know. And to be absolutely clear, not doing so could put me in a situation of being reprimanded. If we were to send that employee to a conference, or otherwise invest in their training or retention, then that employee leaves, and I hadn’t done my due diligence when the opportunity presented itself, I would have been in the wrong.

        “By the way, it’s not “petty” to treat an employee that’s believed to be a flight risk poorly – it’s pretty much standard.”

        I disagree with you here. It’s petty to treat someone poorly who may leave–all employees will ultimately leave all jobs. Knowing that they are going to leave within a certain time frame may change how much investment is put into training and retaining the employee, however. I agree with you that there are petty managers out there, and that is a very sad and true fact, but my point is that it’s not necessarily the case, and we have no way of knowing in the circumstance spelled out for us by the OP.

      2. Ask a Manager Post author

        Well, wait. I don’t know that this is fair. If the employee isn’t “strongly implying that they’re leaving” by sending the original email, how is the HR person implying that by simply forwarding along the email? It’s the same email.

        1. Mike C.

          First off, the original email has nothing to do with the manager – this sort of question about the specific nature of benefits is between the company at large (represented by HR in this case) and the employee. One certainly wouldn’t go to your direct supervisor regarding HSA policies or 401(k) cost options for the same reasons.

          By forwarding it to the manager without warning, the HR rep is saying to the manager, “Hey, this is something I need you to know about right now”. The unspoken implication is that the manager needs to know because the HR rep assumes the employee is looking to leave. You wouldn’t see HR copying a manager on questions about the previously mentioned HSA policies or 401(k) options, right?

          Look, we all know that the same message can be read multiple ways based on the context in which it is made or passed on – we’re on the internet after all. What to the employee was a simple request for policy clarification now becomes a warning to the employee’s manager.

          1. Ask a Manager Post author

            And if the employee meant as “I’m thinking about leaving,” they should have realized the HR person would take it that way. If they didn’t, they can easily explain that.

            Look, I don’t agree with how the HR person handled this. I said that in the original post. But I can’t agree that this was a “shiv to the kidneys” or a totally outrageous act from HR.

          2. Stephanie

            When an employee asks a question about rolling over their 401k option, I would ask if they are planning to leave. When an employee asks how long their insurance lasts should they resign, I would ask if they are planning to leave. When an employee asks about COBRA rates, I would ask if they are planning to leave. When an employee asks about our policy on references, I would ask if they are planning to leave, or if they had received that request from a coworker or previous employee. I’m not sure why you think that sign-on bonuses are the only instance where a reasonable person might think that a questions they are asking might be related to a potential resignation. It happens all the time. That’s why we ask the question (or loop the manager in to ask the question, depending on circumstances) instead of just assuming.

      3. Stephanie

        I feel I should also add that questions like these are usually indicators of a deeper problem, and one of HR’s responsibilities is getting to the bottom of “deeper problems.” Employees often feel uncomfortable asking the question they really want to ask, or telling HR about the problem they really have. If they are leaving because of a problem within the company, I want to know, and potentially retain that employee. It’s much easier to retain an employee when you can talk to them during their decision-making process, than after they’ve interviewed, accepted another position, sold their house, and put in their notice. I think you are jumping to the conclusion that all managers/HR are out to get the employee and treat them poorly at any excuse, and that is very far from the case.

        1. Mike C.

          I don’t actually think all managers are out to get employees, I just understand first hand the power these “rare” managers have over others, and the harm they can do when they feel “wronged” or “betrayed”.

  19. just laura

    #4 : I disagree with the people coming down on HR. I think the responsibility is on the employee to be discreet — for example, having a conversation in person (no paper trail!). Also mentioning that you’d like to keep the conversation private would help, too.

    1. Mike C.

      So it’s the employee’s fault that everyone else is jumping to conclusions irrationally? How far does “responsibility” extend?

      1. Colette

        How is sharing the email that the employee wrote jumping to conclusion irrationally? That’s about as factual as you can get.

  20. Person of Interest

    #1 – I was laid off by my nonprofit org (along with 6 others – half our office) for similar reasons. Because we cared about the long-term success of the org, we did ask the board/CEO/communications team to give us some language they would like us to use to tactfully describe the situation to our contacts and in interviews, but they never really did this. In interviews I usually just said that we hit a financial crunch and several positions were eliminated, including mine. As others have said, it’s pretty common in nonprofit land; most people saw it as just one of those things. If you want to try to “control the message” then proactively suggest some communications language for your laid-off person to use, but know that she may choose not to use it. It sucks to be laid off, and people handle it differently. And DO NOT say that she was fired!!!

    1. Person of Interest

      Oh, and FWIW, our board and staff were very generous in tapping their networks for us, as it sounds like you want to do with your person. It was much appreciated, but you have to be genuine about it. It sounds like you are being a bit cagey – you want to recommend her but you don’t want to reveal too much – make her and her awesomeness the focus of your recommendation, not the reason why she is available.

    1. Ask a Manager Post author

      I’m sorry that ad problems are still popping up occasionally; it’s proved really hard to eliminate them 100%.

      I’m going to ask people to try to live with the occasional issue (the ads, while occasionally misbehaving, are paying for the constantly increasing costs of running the site), and if it becomes a real problem (meaning more than occasional) to email me about it rather posting here — it’s a lot easier for me to troubleshoot that way. Thank you!

      1. nona

        That’s fine! I wasn’t sure what to do. I’ll email if there’s a real problem (there hasn’t been).

  21. Roly Poly Little Bat Faced Girl

    I need to express my appreciation and love (yes, love) for specific, suggested language Alison that provides, like in #2 and #5 today. Exceedingly helpful.

  22. Spy Counterspy

    #4 Regarding HR and the relocation clawback. It’s not clear which party is the OP since it’s written in the 3rd person but it’s possible that the employee anticipated this response. Maybe they’re trying to get fired to avoid triggering the resignation clause. Manipulating HR allows them to maintain plausible deniability in case it doesn’t work (hence the crocodile tears). But this only makes sense if they’re already committed to leaving the job and value the relocation bonus enough to burn a few bridges.

    1. Mike C.

      Some places will claw back the relocation bonus even if the termination was the decision of the employer. I know one fellow who’s in this situation.

      The best part of his case is that the value of the bonus is calculated in part by internal company calculations of in-kind relocation help – that is, there’s a “company moving company” whose services are way over-valued. Fun stuff, eh?

  23. "Find yourself a cup; the teapot is behind you. Now tell me about hundreds of things."

    One thing occurs to me here. If the HR staff member was trying to drop the OP into hot water with the manager, at least they are being transparent by cc’ing the manager. I have sometimes known staff who will pass information on verbally so the staff member is unaware, or copying the manager in BCC. Whatever the rights or wrongs of any of these actions, at least the OP is aware.

    1. Meg Murry

      Yes, after all the back and forth here, my thought was “or the HR manager could have BCC’d the manager or forwarded the email thread after replying and OP never would have known”.

      Not saying what HR did was right. But OP has learned never to put anything in writing that she doesn’t want the boss to see – because any email can be forwarded, or printed out and handed to someone. Or heck, if OP had made an appointment with HR, HR still could have called or emailed the manager and recapped the conversation after the fact.

      If OP is actually asking as a general “what-if” its probably best to add some language around the request to make it clear that that is all it is – for instance “I am not planning on leaving, but I just learned of a friend that had to repay his relocation bonus at another company when he left after 2 years. Do we have a policy like that? Is the policy 1 year after hire, or 1 year after expenses were paid? Is it prorated? Again, not looking to leave, but just curious what my worst case scenario would be if I had a family emergency and had to quit or something like that.”

    2. Spy Counterspy

      The employee isn’t necessarily the OP for this question. The HR representative, after witnessing the impact of their decision, could have submitted the question in order to get an objective point of view and potentially validate their actions. It’s written in the 3rd person, which suggests that the OP (whoever they are) is going overboard in order to anonymize the situation. That seems like something HR would do for legalistic reasons.

      1. Ask a Manager Post author

        Nah, there aren’t any legal reasons that could apply. In my experience, this kind of masking is usually done out of an over-abundance of caution by the employee in the situation.

      2. Spy Counterspy

        Legalistic was probably the wrong word: I was thinking more along the lines of non-disclosure agreements and professional risk-aversion. The employee here doesn’t seem like the over-abundance of caution type but maybe once bitten, twice shy.

        Do you know which party submitted the question?

  24. EvilQueenRegina

    When I worked at former job at what I used to call The Real Office, there was one time when they advertised a position but didn’t appoint anyone. Candidate Bob wanted feedback on the decision, Candidate Wakeen wanted to take it as far as an official complaint. There was some kind of screwup and a voicemail about Wakeen’s complaint was left on Bob’s phone. They didn’t realise until Bob called back asking what they were talking about as he never had any intention of making a complaint.

    I don’t know if Wakeen ever found out. He did reapply when the job was advertised again but an internal candidate got it. Wakeen was offered that guy’s old job but told them to shove it.

  25. Not So NewReader

    #4. There could be a back story for the question that would vindicate the employee. Such as, the employee had to move back home to help with a large problem in his family. Maybe the employee is trying to figure out if he even can afford to do this, meaning he has every intention of paying back the money, but how much money does he owe? He has no clue. Why should he have to explain, “my mother is dying, my father is in bankruptcy and neither one of them can take care of my disabled sister and her newborn twins?” TMI, especially if he decides he cannot afford move back home.

    I understand HR works for the company. But I believe that many people out there would find a problem with how this was handled and use that as basis for deciding not to go to HR with other larger problems. Word goes right around a work place, “Bob asked HR a question and the first thing HR did was let the boss know that Bob asked a question. Don’t go to HR for anything, not only do they not help you, they could hurt you.” I have worked on a couple places where this was a common message. “Stay away from HR!”
    It’s interesting to me as I read this because I am realizing that HR (in my stories) was probably totally oblivious to the rumor mill about their own department. In OP’s setting here, not only has this HR person undermined herself but she might have undermined her whole department.
    I guess it depends on where you have worked and what you have seen going on in places. I can’t see this going well for this HR person. If she has to go to the boss for a single question with no background, then what is she going to do when something complex comes along?

  26. jessica

    #1…hey guys that’s my letter!! Apologies for finding all this days later when is been heavily (& usefully) talked about. I had no idea this group was so big, I fell upon this website so wasn’t really expecting it.

    Im not in the US so there may be aome language barrier, but Yes I’ve said laid off. And then I mentioned ‘fired’. I mentioned fired in a flippant way in my question to show how the employee is perceiving what has happened to her or how our other staff and clients will/ have said they feel about it. This flippant use was not the right time to be flippant! Although I’d jumped on my email hours after having to tell her, but I’d written the email and couldn’t figure out how to look for work for her without potentially putting my work in a bit of hot water. Realistically needed to take a few days to not be so upset about it (no, I’ve never fired, let anyone go or not renewed a contract, I’ve been very lucky, on reflection I’m over thinking it!!).

    Background: small non profit (3 management 3 admin and 3 technical staff!!) That receives about 60% funding from 4 big colleges to run a ‘collaborative’ center. Money is tight and as hard as I tried to fight for at least 12months of salary to continue the position, by cutting this and that and raising charges (& I’m not involved in seeking new grants etc), i couldn’t. Further up the chain ceo board level decided to make the cut (although they have no idea the operational sh*the fight they will cause). The 2 managers and I mulled over having to tell her while looking for alternatives. She took it very well and we were surprised (we’ve had some past issues with her and we weren’t sure which way it was going to go).

    Anyway. My concern is my network that I could reach out to for a job for her is specific as its a specific set of skills. This means basically reaching out to the 4 colleges and some government orgs we also deal with. Yes I’m worried about blowback as the potential for funding to be cut or decreased is very real. There are some people in the colleges who don’t like that the college supports us and so I would fear word getting back and them using this to make up negative info to potentially create issue with the funding stream. I can’t say much more without going into specific but suffice to say I want to recommend her and find her a job I just wasn’t sure how to word it. Possibly I’ve just over thought the whole thing and I’d just say we didn’t renew the contract due to funding but she has x y skills if you have anything available here are her contact details.

    Yes people would ‘know’ our financial situation although we don’t have a 990 as was mentioned. Also I honestly know minimal about it all as this I the first nonprofit I’ve worked for!

    It’s already been seen by our clients (from the colleges) that she was fired or that there was a problem despite making it clear it was funding issues….because this is what people jump to and think ‘funding issues’ is a cover up. Or at least here it is. Perhaps it’s the nature of the industry.

    despite all this she called me yesterday and her partner and herself are off on a spur of the moment working holiday not exactly in their field…..so I don’t really have to ask anyone if they have job for her!!! But I’ve told her she can contact me for a reference when she returns.

    hope that cleared up some issues…..happy oooster

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