what to say when people ask why an employee was fired

A reader writes:

I just fired someone here at Big Research University. It was necessary, and I’ve got no regrets (and the full support of our department and higher-ups).

But while this person was terrible in many ways, they did have a great relationship with some faculty members they worked with. And those faculty are asking us (no doubt influenced by personal contact from the fired employee) why we did it so “suddenly” (as if anything’s fast at a university), and how we could deprive them of someone so wonderful. Of course, our official stance is to say, “this is an HR matter.”

But damn, does that response not fly. When, if ever, is it acceptable to give more information internally? Faculty are weirdly both fellow employees (although they tend not to think of themselves this way), and also customers with a lot of pull, and are very, very persistent.

I’d say this: “I don’t want to get into the details of Jane’s situation — just like I wouldn’t share confidential information about your employment with others here — but I can tell you that when someone is let go, it’s never sudden or a surprise. It comes after multiple conversations with the person about what the issues are and chances to show improvement, even though people outside those conversations won’t always know that.”

In other words, appeal to their respect for the person’s privacy, but explain how you handle firings in general so that they hear that firings don’t happen out of the blue. It sounds like the people approaching you are assuming that since they don’t know about any performance conversations, there weren’t any. Ideally, this will (a) prompt them to realize that “I didn’t know about this” doesn’t mean “it wasn’t happening,” and (b) convey that you don’t make arbitrary or sudden personnel decisions.

Of course, saying this credibly means that you also need to have established yourself as a fair and reasonable person, which hopefully you have done. Assuming so, this messaging will work with other reasonable people.

{ 161 comments… read them below }

  1. Mike C.*

    So how would you change the message if someone were fired suddenly for reasonable reasons? Something like getting into a physical altercation with a coworker or blatant sexual harassment or getting caught in a serious conflict of interest?

    1. some1*

      Probably similar to Alison’s quote with the added, “Unfortunately, we discovered evidence that Jane violated Chocolate Teapots Inc’s Code of Ethics or Conduct policy to such a degree that we couldn’t continue to employ her at that point.”

      1. Batshua*

        Probably even less than that. You might not want to say THAT because it increases speculation and rumors.

        1. some1*

          You’re probably right – I was thinking of some way to weigh privacy while still making it clear that the person wasn’t fired for being late once. I think that piece of mind is always going to be more important than speculation and rumors, which I don’t think you can ever totally eliminate.

    2. Ask a Manager* Post author

      I’d say: ““I don’t want to get into the details of Jane’s situation — just like I wouldn’t share confidential information about your employment with others here — but I will tell you about how we handle these situations, including hers. Normally someone is let go, it’s not sudden or a surprise. It comes after multiple conversations with the person about what the issues are and chances to show improvement, even though people outside those conversations won’t always know that. However, there are also some acts that are so egregious that we suspend that practice and let someone go immediately — very serious misconduct like a physical altercation, harassment, or similar conduct.”

      1. CMT*

        I might even leave off the last few words there. Although you’re only offering examples of behaviors that would be serious enough to warrant immediate firing, the person listening is probably going to hear those and think that’s what happened.

      2. Chinook*

        AAM – your exact wording was used by my favourite boss when he ended up letting two people go within 2 weeks of each other. One was after much coaching and attempts to help them and the other was for attempting to sell drugs to a coworker in the bathroom (I only knew details because I helped create the paperwork). He actually called a staff meeting because we were a small IT company and people thought he was laying people off with no notice. He followed up by stating that, if anyone had concerns about their job performance or security, they were always welcome to come and talk to him.

        He later asked me if I had any concerns and I said that, because of what I did, I knew he handled everything professionally and with respect and was sure I would be treated the same way if he ever had issues with my work. He literally stopped all fears and rumours by being upfront without giving out confidential information.

    3. Michelenyc*

      At one of the companies I worked for there were a number of people that were let go for the misuse of their corporate P card and violating the sample policy. They would buy inspiration samples from Prada, Gucci, and other luxury goods brands and once the season was over take the samples home for their own personal use. A huge no no. Since it involved quite a few people HR gathered everyone in the company together and explained what happened so there wouldn’t be an issue with rumors.

      1. fposte*

        I can see also that making sense if there were a belief that the company was turning a blind eye to a common practice and they wanted to make it clear that this was a fireable offense.

      1. Mike C.*

        But without the additional clarification, you’re lying or you’re trying to claim that you’re ok with putting someone who is physically assaulting their coworkers on a PIP. You don’t know how much information they already have, and if you are lying like that it ‘s going to make you look bad.

        1. TootsNYC*

          But that implies that the person asking the question knows about the physical assault. In which case, there’s very little confidentiality to protect. So you just say, “You know about the physical assault; I don’t understand why you’re surprised that she was terminated. I’m not going to talk about all the details, but the cause and effect is pretty clear.”

          If someone doesn’t know about the physical assault, then you don’t really need to tell them, and they won’t think you’re condoning physical assault, because they don’t know it existed.

          1. Ask a Manager* Post author

            I think the issue is when someone doesn’t know about the assault. If you just say “we always warn people and give them chances,” that’s not actually true in this case. And if that later comes out, that will destroy people’s trust in you.

  2. hayling*

    I really like this wording. It addresses what they’re actually concerned about (how discipline is handled, if the employer is fair, etc.).

      1. Hollis*

        I work at a big research university that has literally never fired a tenured faculty member in the history of the university. Even when a faculty member was caught molesting his undergrads.

  3. CaliCali*

    The CEO at my company handled communications around a firing with very similar language to Alison’s script. I remarked to a friend about how impressed I was regarding both the openness relating to the process (where it was clear there was a discipline progress that eventually led to the firing) AND a respectful lack of information about the specifics (it was worded “out of respect for [fired employee], I won’t be sharing details”), very much closing any speculative lines of conversation. I came away from it thinking that they handled it well.

  4. Snarkus Aurelius*

    I remember making those same assumptions when I first joined the workforce.  The injustice and unfairness of it all!  And this was “done to” such an innocent and hardworking person!  The Man is terrible!  I was so confident I had all the facts because this person was my best buddy and we hang out all the time at work!  

    Then I got higher up on the food chain and realized that all that glitters isn’t always hardworking.  I also learned that some people can get pretty good at presenting two very disparate sides of their personalities.  That’s why I keep my distance with new people for awhile.

    Most dismissals may need a villain, and, OP, you’re it.  While that might suck right now, you at least have the knowledge that you did the right thing, you don’t have regrets, and you’re covered if anyone higher up scrutinizes this decision.

    1. The Other Dawn*

      Same here. When I was a teller supervisor in my old bank, I remember my manager was fired and it all seemed so sudden and unfair. The tellers were really shaken up about it and there was lots of talk about how the senior management team was out to get people, etc. Now that I’m a manager, I realize that he likely had been spoken to several times about his performance and just didn’t improve enough. (However, it’s perfectly possible that senior management didn’t communicate to him the gravity of the situation; communication wasn’t great in those days.) And no one outside of the management team would have, or should have, been privy to those conversations.

    2. Ad Astra*

      It’s also possible that someone who was truly awesome at the part of their job that you saw but couldn’t get it together in some other area that you might not be privy to. So the fact that someone gets fired doesn’t mean all the nice things people say about them can’t be true. It took me a few years in the working world to figure that out.

    3. Jillociraptor*

      So true. Folks can be really good at one part of their job, but really terrible at another (in addition to just being good schmoozers). And also sometimes what feels like excellent service to you is really barely meeting expectations in the context of the person’s job. Since you couldn’t do what the person does for yourself, and have no expertise to judge the quality, it seems great; you just don’t know any better.

  5. Artemesia*

    Been there firing someone who had built an empire which she devoted to insubordination and quite artfully. These lines of Alison’s are perfect.

    1. some1*

      It *should* be, but if “it’s an HR matter” (basically, MYOB) isn’t putting the brakes on the questions than I don’t think that will. Besides, the LW knows why they are asking – they think their friend was doing a great job and was fired out of the blue for no reason.

      1. AnotherHRPro*

        Faculty are a unique employee group. They generally consider themselves “senior” to all non-faculty and therefore have a right to know. They really don’t consider themselves employees at all and have a significant amount of clout.

        1. Dan*

          Tenured faculty aren’t really “employees at will”… at least not in the sense the term is used outside of academia.

        2. olives*

          I wanted to mention this too. It’s unclear what this particular person’s role is, but in my experience often the people in charge of employees are not at all the same people in “charge” of faculty. As AnotherHRPro mentioned, faculty carry an enormous amount of power at universities and I don’t think they would even be considering the possibility that they’d be let go in a similar way. It’s just not done that way – faculty performance is measured in such a different way from typical at-will employees that most faculty feel relatively immune from these concerns. (Obviously, there are differences between tenured and non-tenured faculty. However, evem non-tenured faculty are significantly more likely to part based on mutual agreement than be truly *fired*.)

          My guess is that these folks literally just want the guy back, because they liked him, or maybe because he did personal favors for them. And furthermore, they’ve been conditioned to think that if they raise enough hell, they just might get something done about it.

          1. olives*

            Or thinking about it a little more, and perhaps a bit more charitably – they’re not asking whether they can get fired that easily. They want to know if their *other* favorite employees will get fired that easily.

            1. Agnes*

              Faculty are *supposed* to run the university; it’s called shared governance and is a bedrock principle of most academic institutions (if more honored in the breach, these days). Allison’s script about it being confidential is good, but the idea that mid-range HR would be involved in faculty job performance situations is not accurate, in most situations. Faculty appointment/tenure/promotion is usually handled by the department/school/university committees involved; HR has very little say except about to be searches are run in accordance with the law and that benefits are administered. So “as I would handle your confidential matters” may not come off too well; it’s a bit clueless as to how the university is supposed to be run.

              1. olives*

                Yes! Thank you, Agnes; this is what I was trying to articulate, though as I am speaking from secondhand rather than personal experience I wasn’t quite able to capture it as succinctly.

              2. olives*

                The power differentials here just aren’t skewed in a way that makes this script the right one to use.

    2. Rat Racer*

      Well, I think people ask because they are curious, concerned, maybe unnerved, maybe just nosy. I that the response “Why do you ask?” would be reserved for an inquiry that is much more inappropriate. It’s natural for people to be curious or concerned when one of their colleagues is let go unexpectedly. I wouldn’t want to make someone feel put on the spot or uncomfortable by saying “Why do you ask?” My vote goes to Alison’s approach of putting boundaries around revealing any personal info, but reassuring employees that they are not (unbeknownst to them) in line for the guillotine.

      1. TootsNYC*

        And the real reason they’re asking is, “yeeks, could I get fired so easily?” but they aren’t really going to want to say that, and especially not if you’ve given them that “why do you ask?” pushback response.

    3. Bookworm*

      I do think you want to be respectful and not dismissive, however. It can be unnerving to watch someone get fired if you’re under the impression that they’re doing good work. (As it sounds like this woman’s colleagues thought, based on their positive relationship.) Especially if someone is young, new, or struggling with something themselves, it can make people wonder if they’re going to make a mistake one day and have the anvil dropped on them. So I think it’s reasonable for the employer to answer thoughtfully and assuage any fear.

      1. Windchime*

        I agree. Because what the person is actually asking is, “Could this happen to me out of the blue, too?” Once people are reassured that firings don’t happen out of the blue (except for the egregious situations that have already been discussed), then they should be able to relax and not be afraid.

    4. John Cosmo*

      “Why do you ask?” is NEVER a good answer to any question, inappropriate or not!
      “Why do you ask?” is almost always considered rude and evasive!
      It usually leads to the questioner informing you why they are asking the question, and then to more questions. On rare occasions, if you’re verbally adept, you might be able to spin your asking “Why do you ask?” as a means to more precisely their original question.

      1. YouAreHere*

        I disagree- frequently the types of questions that would result in a “Why do you ask?” are rude and *in*vasive, and you’re essentially redirecting the questioner to either admit “because I’m horribly nosy” or “because I have a legitimate reason that I will now explain so you can know that I’m not just digging for gossip”.

        1. Rat Racer*

          Yes – I totally agree with you, YouAreHere. I think the response “Why do you ask?” has been recommended several time on these message boards as a strategy to deflect inappropriate/intrusive questions like “Why are you taking so much PTO?” or “Why are you/aren’t you eating XYZ?” for example.

          “What happened to Jane?” is not an inappropriate question, even if as a manager, you can’t disclose the real circumstances.

      2. Dan*

        Huh… I work in a technical field, and often times we respond with “why do you ask” because we suspect the asker doesn’t truly understand their problem, and therefore asks for/about the wrong thing.

        We also use “why do you ask” to make sure we frame the answer in a way to minimize the likelihood that what we say is misinterpreted.

        Or we use “why do we ask” to gauge the level of detail we give.

      3. LQ*

        If the question you’ve asked me is rude it is not rude of me to push back. You’ve been rude, I’m not required to be open and responsive to that.
        You can question the utility of the question (which I think I would) but I’m not going to bend to capslock if someone is being rude. I have the right to know why they are asking invasive and inappropriate questions.

        I’d also say I ask this question a lot when someone comes up to me with a really big picture question like “How much do you know about Access?” How I answer that is going to depend on a lot of things so I’ll usually asking “Why do you ask?” to get a better understanding of what the issue is so that I can accurately answer it. I don’t think it’s rude or evasive at all. And certainly times when I’ve been asked it, it helps me go, Oh I haven’t given this person the information they need to answer my question. I’m not agog at their rudeness, I double back and give them the information.

        Not always rude, not never a good question.

    5. Chinook*

      “A good answer for almost any inappropriate question: “Why do you ask?””

      But sometimes asking why someone was let go is not an inappropriate question. That is why AAM’s answers are perfect – they answer the question really being asked, which is if someone was treated fairly.

  6. wellywell*

    Faculty, esp. tenured are often not reasonable. An they can be extremely entitled and even bullying. My guess is that OP has tried “reasonable” and it simply doesn’t work at all with these folks.

    (worked for years in academia)

    1. Amadeo*

      Basically this. I work for a university in a state with no budget for the past 8 months and when I try to tell faculty that we are broke and cannot do software upgrades to the latest version, they pretend that either they can’t hear me or I never said it. And make weird assumptions and weird fusses about other things too that I never in my life would have believed was an issue, ever.

        1. Amadeo*

          LOL! I knew anybody who lived in this state that came to this board would know immediately which one I was talking about. Hopefully you feel more secure where you’re at than I do! ;)

    2. fposte*

      Eh. I was in an identical situation at my university, and it was the students who were filled with indignation, largely because nobody offered the kind of message Alison is describing. It’s reasonable to want to know why this person who made your life easier is doing away.

      1. Meg Murry*

        Oh, yes. I have seen massive student protests over “unjust firing” of a favorite staff member, even in situations where the reason for the firing was made public, and even in situations where the reason was pretty horrific, not to mention illegal.

        1. Blurgle*

          Thing is, students can get their own self-worth wrapped up in their connection with the Great Silverback to the point they think the Great Silverback is absolutely and without question, exception or discussion incapable of doing wrong.

    3. neverjaunty*

      Which is why AAM’s script is brilliant. The brighter faculty members will quickly catch the implication of ‘just like we wouldn’t share your information’ and decide oh, yes, perhaps this isn’t so unreasonable after all.

      1. Agnes*

        Except it’s really not parallel. Faculty hiring/firing/promotion is handled almost entirely through faculty committees. Even with universities where shared governance is more notional than actual, faculty retain a lot of power over this. When there is a firing of a tenured person, it generally brings in legal and perhaps the head of HR, not mid- to low-level staff. So I’m not a fan of Allison’s script for this specific situation, because it doesn’t actually describe the situation.

        1. AnonR1UniversityDeptManager*

          yes- that part of Alison’s script is not academically correct but the spirit of it is. If I had knowledge of why a a instructor- as many academic institutions have many adjuncts who are not on tenure track and tenure track instructors who fail to make tenure- is being let go, I would trust they would want me to be discrete in that case.

        2. neverjaunty*

          Then either the faculty are bothering the wrong person (as HR didn’t handle the firing) or they are interfering with personnel decisions outside their jurisdiction (because those matters aren’t handled by faculty).

          1. Cassie*

            Usually, the Chair of an academic department is just first among equals – they aren’t the boss of the other tenured/tenure-track faculty. So even though the Chair and HR/manager have the authority to fire a staff member, I think it’s generally a good idea for the faculty as a group to be aware of general staff issues – shared governance and all of that. You don’t want any single person to have too much authority, without checks and balances.

            The OP doesn’t have to get into specifics, but I don’t see a problem with stating the general reason the person was let go. E.g. for violating university policy, for committing fraud, etc. It also signals to everyone else that major violations to policies will be taken seriously. Also, universities are rife with gossip. Wouldn’t be surprised if the faculty don’t already have some fantastical story of what happened to the staff member. You’ll probably have a group that side with the fired staffer (how evil of management!) and you’ll have a group that will side with management (what a terrible/pointless staffer!). And honestly, most of the time the faculty don’t even care that much – they just like to talk and hear gossip.

          2. JayemGriffin*

            From my reading of the letter, #2 is almost certainly the case, but from faculty’s perspective, EVERYTHING is their jurisdiction (their department, other departments, the food service workers at the student-run cafe…)

            In case you can’t tell, I also work in academia.

    4. Annie Moose*

      Ha, my sister used to work in a university bookstore, and she had so many stories about professors doing crazy things…

      She always used to complain about graduation, before which the professors had all been explicitly and repeatedly warned that if they wanted to attend the ceremony and needed regalia, they had to request it early. And every time there’d be an influx of professors who just couldn’t be bothered to make requests ahead of time. The bookstore always had to make sure there was PLENTY of extras on hand because they couldn’t get the professors to write a simple email or make a single phonecall.

    5. Sparrow*

      Yep. A big part of my job involves finding ways to tell faculty that they’re wrong without ruffling their feathers. I can write one hell of a diplomatic email, let me tell you. Rationality does work the vast majority of the time, but there are always a few who get huffy no matter what you do. You pretty much have to recruit other faculty to back you up, unfortunately.

    6. Hollis*

      I’m support staff at a university and almost every staff member I know basically lives in fear of the faculty. I know of more than one instance when faculty members got physically violent when they didn’t get what they wanted. Those faculty members are still employed in the same capacity they were prior to the physical altercations.

  7. Stephanie*

    And those faculty are asking us (no doubt influenced by personal contact from the fired employee) why we did it so “suddenly” (as if anything’s fast at a university)

    That last parenthetical remark made me laugh as someone who’s done a few university job interviews.

    1. Stephanie*

      Aaaaand HTML fail. But yeah, it sounds like this person wasn’t particularly great at his job and figured getting in the faculty’s good graces would save him.

  8. Fedhopeful*

    In an email to my boss covering many topics from our meeting, I included information on our discussion of a promotion I’m being considered for by way of a new job description and title to reflect my work. He responded to that email with his notes on all topics. He later responded to another part of the email, copying me in a colleague with whom I was meant to liaise. Now this colleague has personal information about my employment. Am I right to have a conversation with my boss about my discomfort in having my private employment matters discussed. The colleague in question is above me and reports to the same manager. He’s not a higher up with pertanence to my possible promotion or any decision making capacity.

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      To expand on fposte’s excellent suggestion — I keep comment threads here on-topic, but you can either email this to me or, or she suggests, post it in tomorrow’s open thread. Thanks!

    2. Fedhopeful*

      Thank you fposte and Alison. I thought tangential topics were acceptable for the comments section- apologies for the misunderstanding. I’ve submitted the question via email with additional details and background.

      1. Dan*

        Tangential in the sense that the exact topic drifts, but is still related to the original topic? Yes, that’s acceptable — that’s part of the normal course of conversation.

  9. HRChick*

    I work in higher ed, as well and had a similar situation.
    The faculty demanded that an HR Rep meet with all the faculty and give them an explanation. They’d stop by my office and tell me how horrible we all were for firing this person – she was a SAINT.
    If they had known what she’d done, they’d be breaking out the torches and pitchforks, looking to get her head on a stick.
    I just told them that we do not take any termination lightly, but we are unable to discuss employees’ private information.

    It took a while, but that eventually died down. It was very hard to take while it was happening though.

    1. Thread's OP*

      Wow. Thanks for this — this sounds EXACTLY like what I’m dealing with. Glad to know it will, eventually, get better.

    2. NotAnotherManager!*

      I have dealt with the same thing. We had deliberately not exposed the problems that this person created within our department to the customers because our job is to provide great service to them, not to air our dirty laundry with them. When I got the third call about how disappointing and upsetting it was to lose such a “valuable” resource, I used part of Alison’s script but also added that it was reassuring to hear that we were successful in ensuring challenges we had been having internally did not affect the external teams. My call volume died down pretty quickly after that.

      1. BRR*

        This is semi-similar to a situation I was in earlier this year and a very good point. My work quality sometimes wasn’t good but my boss would edit it to ensure a good product was presented to those outside our department. It can be debated whether or not my work quality was poor enough to warrant being fired but to others I only did high-quality work.

      2. TootsNYC*

        ” reassuring to hear that we were successful in ensuring challenges we had been having internally did not affect the external teams.”

        ooh, nice! “We’ve been covering up some screwups; that’s why you think she’s so great.” Except, of course, you didn’t say that.

  10. Tommy*

    Wondering if the OP could clarify whether the fired employee was actually given ample warning that they were being disciplined? Because if the faculty members are asking this as a result of talking to the fired employee, then presumably the fired employee could tell them it wasn’t sudden.

    1. fposte*

      That doesn’t mean the fired employee will, though. Fired employees are often not filled with the desire to make their soon-to-be former employees look better.

      1. Observer*

        It’s not even deliberate lying, in many cases. People often just really, really don’t get why their behavior was so bad, why management is being so touchy, and that management really means it when they say “x”.

    2. Thread's OP*

      Happy to — yes, the employee had plenty of notice (written and verbal), but still managed to be surprised. As you note, the employee could tell them it wasn’t sudden; evidence, however, suggests that the employee is choosing not to.

    3. I will be anon for this, thank you.*

      I once worked with a fellow who had ample warning, ranging from general notices to the whole team to specific notices for him (one of which he, bizarrely, shared with me to explain why he was so distracted that day – shared, as in forwarded me the email to read).

      He was completely shocked when he was fired, despite that I know he continued to not meet the terms in the memo he showed me. Completely. Shocked.

      1. Creag an Tuire*

        “shared, as in forwarded me the email to read”

        Perhaps he was hoping you’d say “Sorry, I was temporarily swapped with my evil clone after a transporter accident yesterday. Of course I didn’t send that, you’re doing fine! Go home, you’ve had a hard day.”

        1. I will be anon for this, thank you.*

          Oh, I hadn’t sent it – I wasn’t his boss, just a more-senior peer. Hence my finding it bizarre that he sent me his (at least second, from what it said) written warning, including its clear statement that he could be terminated if he didn’t correct specific things. (It may have been would; I did not memorize the email, and it has been some years.)

      2. Windchime*

        We had this guy, too. He didn’t understand why it was a problem that the team couldn’t trust him to do anything because everything he did resulted in someone else having to redo it (and do damage control with the end users as well). He kept saying, “But it’s all OK! It’s fixed!” So yes, he was totally shocked when he was fired.

      3. Mallory Janis Ian*

        I know someone who is so much like this. He had students, under his direction, commit a huge copyright infringement at a firm owned by one of the other professors.

        The other professor (the firm owner) had allowed them access to proprietary materials with strict instructions for how they could access them and how they were not to print anything or download anything onto external hard drives, etc. They were only to use the material onsite and only for the very limited purpose of the class project, which was simply documenting materials and technologies used in the designs. The professor leading the class directed his students to download files and files and files of project images which he took and installed on his university computer. He then had the students alter the images and make new projects out of the altered images.

        When the firm owner found out what he had done, he was livid. He went to the dean of the school to seek mediation, and if he didn’t get satisfaction there he was going to get an attorney.

        The students were terrified that this was going to affect their chances of getting a passing grade in the final design studio of their academic careers, and many of them sent the professor emails expressing their dismay at the position he had put them in. And the professor forwarded the student emails to the dean as an example of how persecuted HE was. **mind blown**

        1. neverjaunty*

          A surprising number of people have installed mental filters that block out any information that is unwanted or unpleasant.

        2. JessaB*

          If this is the final design thing of their school careers, and they were given instructions on content useage, they SHOULD fail. Unless what they’re saying is the professor hid the usage guidelines and outright lied to them about the scope of their permission, every last one of them should be failed. I don’t care how good their entire career at school was, if a design student doesn’t learn about useage and copyright on day one, it’s their own fault. I would not want to hire any of them at that point. That’s an incredible breach for someone who will go out into the world working with other people’s stuff.

          IF the professor deliberately lied about the scope of access, the other professor SHOULD get a lawyer and tenured or not the professor should be gone for committing a crime, even if it’s a civil offence. I have too many friends in the comics industry where there was a lot of poor treatment and theft in the early years, and there is currently a lot of goofing around with contract clauses and trying to do people out of their royalties and fair work.

          This is kind of one of my big deal issues. You don’t let people get away with this especially at that level, and especially since a student working with someone’s work should make sure in advance they get the parameters, so either the professor actually edited them before handing them out, lying outright, or the students didn’t even bother to check. The second is a failing grade, the first is “I’ll be glad to testify in your copyright case that our prof deliberately lied to us about this.”

          1. Mallory Janis Ian*

            The students didn’t know about the usage guidelines, which were laid out only to the professor, who was a good friend of the firm owner until this debacle ended the friendship. The students thought their professor was guiding them correctly.

    4. NotAnotherManager!*

      Well, sure, they COULD, but in my experience terminated employees (a) selectively leave out the this-is-a-problem discussions and even formal performance improvement plans from these discussions; (b) are looking for recommendations/references and provide zero information about their reason for departure; and (c) as others have noted, are simply SHOCKED that you are actually terminating them regardless of the number of times you have said/written “If X does not happen by Specific Date [or Y continues to happen], you your employment will be terminated.”

      Also, I have found that my definition of “ample” and their definition of “ample” are not ever the same thing when it comes to performance warnings. I have had people who were provided multiple, progressive written notices of specific performance requirements with deadlines — that we reviewed with them and they signed — that didn’t see a termination coming.

  11. De Minimis*

    My key takeaway is “See, you can fire employees at a university!”

    Good question, though…I will try and remember this advice now as an HR person in a small organization.

    1. JessaB*

      OH yes, particularly for academic theft and possibly sabotage – if this professor deliberately lied to the students about the scope of the permissions this is a huge issue.

  12. Guinness*

    I have been fortunate that the people I have terminated have been people that no one was really sorry to see go. I did have someone let go after a violent incident, and people did want to know the details of what happened, but more from a gossip standpoint, which was easier to shut down.

  13. Suffusion*

    Work at a large public research university. We have an active faculty senate that has in the past been at odds with the administration over all sorts of issues. Since HR actions come from the administration side of things, it is very easy for faculty members to jump to the wrong conclusion about any particular firing. The language Alison suggests is solid, but works under the assumption that the people you are talking to trusts the process used or that they trust that the process was followed. She notes as much at the end of her response. So if HR isn’t perceived as fair and reasonable, how does one respond to inquiries like the one OP is receiving?

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      You still say the same thing, but you recognize that you have a much bigger problem on your hands and need to work to solve it. There’s not really any other approach that will make that bigger problem not be a huge factor in how it goes over.

      1. olives*

        I still think the response doesn’t quite address the situation – since the HR folks don’t handle those issues for faculty typically, if HR isn’t perceived as fair and rational it won’t make faculty feel worried, more annoyed and disgruntled. The amount of time your average faculty member worries about how HR will treat them personally is near zero, even though obviously they do rely on the discretion of HR with regards to leave, benefits, payroll, etc. Not hiring and firing, though.

        I also don’t think it’s always HR’s problem to solve if the faculty think their actions aren’t fair and reasonable. There’s an awkqard gap to bridge here where faculty aren’t always going to get say in admin hiring and firing decisions – yet, if it was them having the problem with an employee, they could advocate to have that employee let go.

        The script here seems to address a morale issue, when I think it’s more of an internal PR problem. It’s more appropriate in provate sector institutions.

    2. BRR*

      Faculty might very well not be aware of disciplinary procedures for non-faculty employees. But the common faculty vs. admin attitude at many institutions may trump rational thinking.

  14. hbc*

    I’ve had this complaint about a very friendly, likable temp who did excellent work but had to go. The generic privacy thing wasn’t satisfying people, so I said, “I realize he was a hard worker and easy to work with, but that’s not enough to keep a job here. If he was caught sneaking money from the Honor Box a couple of times, or he lied on his timecard when he was late, or refused to wear his safety gear, it doesn’t matter how good his work was.” One of those actually was true, but any or none of them were possible. For most people, having examples allowed them to understand a little better.

    Though months later, in a moment of frustration when that situation was brought up by his biggest defender, I said, “So you’re saying when you and I had that talk about your texting a while back, I should have gathered everyone up and announced that you were given a warning? Because that sounds like what you’re asking for.” Not necessarily recommended, but making it personal turned it around for him.

    1. Tommy*

      “So you’re saying when you and I had that talk about your texting a while back, I should have gathered everyone up and announced that you were given a warning? Because that sounds like what you’re asking for.” Not necessarily recommended, but making it personal turned it around for him.

      I’ve been publicly scolded for my ungrammatical texts, too. It felt really harsh at the time, but I’ve (mostly) gotten over it now.

  15. Anonymous Educator*

    I find this fascinating. I’ve been at a few places where people were fired, and there wasn’t a lot of confusion about it.

    Either the employee was underperforming, and everyone else knew it (so it’s no surprise)… or the employee left suddenly, and the administration gave some excuse (“personal / family issues”) that had nothing to do with the real reason (e.g., theft of expensive school property, inappropriate conversations about underage students).

    Maybe that’s just my experience…

    1. I will be anon for this, thank you.*

      There was a lot of confusion around the departure of a customer service person I once worked with, in the company in general. This person was personable, friendly, punctual, always willing to jump in and help, and – as those of us who were the experts supporting them on the product in question – completely clueless in a way that frequently led, not to getting nowhere, but to actions that actively made the situation worse. Repeated training and coaching had not addressed it, and being willing to jump in and help becomes actively dangerous when you’re not actually able to do so usefully.

      But I’m sure many people who did not work on that particular product were surprised at the action, even though several of us who DID work on it were heaving sighs of guilty relief. (Because the person was really nice, and we did feel bad for them – at least I did. But not bad enough to want to have to spend 4+ hours cleaning up something that started out as a 5 minute job before this person jumped in and got creative….)

    2. Muriel Heslop*

      Maybe it’s a school thing? It’s usually hard to keep underperforming a secret from peers. We did lose a well-liked aide to lunchtime pot-smoking but no one was up in arms about it – merely curious.

    3. Not So NewReader*

      The grapevine pretty much covers the data on who is pulling their weight and who is not.

      My experience is the opposite of yours though, I found that someone, somewhere leaked. It was just a matter of time before the news got to me. And I try to avoid this stuff and yet it finds me.

      I think that bosses can set the stage before hand, hopefully long before it’s necessary, by talking about the importance of not gossiping, not maligning people, etc. I think that sometimes this stacks the deck in the boss’ favor. HOWEVER, the boss has to be walking the talk.

  16. Amy Farrah Fowler*

    The only related situation I’ve been in was when my ex-boss left my company. I work remotely and only had contact with him by phone and email. One day I called in to get some feedback and his phone had been rerouted to someone who told me she was covering for him because he was out that day. Then a couple days later, I get an announcement that I have a new manager. I wasn’t trying to pry, but management refused to even tell me if he left by choice or by firing. I assumed it was by firing, but it didn’t sit well that they didn’t at least say something to the effect of Alison’s script to assure me that if I hadn’t had warnings, etc, that my job wasn’t on the line.

  17. Amtelope*

    I think Alison’s wording is good. Things that I might add to address particular concerns the faculty may have about things other than the process:

    In response to “How could you deprive us of someone so wonderful?”: one worry here may be whether the tasks she was doing for them will still get done. You might try: “I’m glad you had a good experience working with X. We’ll be hiring to cover her position/will work out coverage for those tasks, so we’ll still be able to support you in doing Y.” (Assuming that’s true.)

    In response to “Poor X, she’s wonderful and this is a terrible thing to do to her: it may be possible to divert concern for X into something the faculty member could practically do to help (other than pestering you.) You might try (after the general explanation of why people are fired at your institution that Alison suggests): “I’m glad you had a good experience working with X. I’m sure they’d appreciate being able to use you as a reference in their job search.” (Especially if you know X isn’t getting a good reference from you.)

    1. olives*

      I like these scripts a lot! I think they much better reflect the things the faculty are likely to be concerned about.

  18. ThatGirl*

    We had a contractor abruptly let go a few years ago, which doesn’t usually happen when someone has been here for more than a couple of months.

    We first all got an e-mail saying that their “contract assignment has ended” and I didn’t think too much of it since I hadn’t worked with them directly.

    Then the next day we got a follow-up e-mail saying “If this person has contacted you in the last 24 hours or if they contact you in the future please let me know” which got me reaaaal curious…

    I later heard that they had kinda stalked and threatened someone they worked with here (I heard it from the co-worker in question) so … yeah, it was a surprise but sounded like the firing was 10000% justified.

    1. Anon Frost Mage*

      Same thing happened here, without any of us hearing the real story later. She’s the only person who’d ever been suddenly separated in the 3 years I’ve been here. I always wondered what happened to her.

  19. Cucumberzucchini*

    Just curious, why does it matter if people know the reason if it’s true? Sally was caught trying to seal $10,000 from the company. Bob was using the office on the weekends for an illegal gambling venue. Falcor was extremely rude to several vendors on multiple occasions. Or we love Ashley, she’s great but she’s just not a good fit for this role so we gave her a generous severance and wished her well on her next opportunity.

    Not knowing why people were fired can make others really nervous if that person looked on the surface to be a good employee and can make them wonder if they’ll be fired too. Explaining the actual reason solves that issue and I don’t see why it matters, generally speaking.

    1. Creag an Tuire*

      It’s about preserving the dignity and respect of the fired worker. Would you want your manager telling all and sundry why you were disciplined?

      1. Cucumberzucchini*

        But if people acted in a way that warrants firing being honest about why they’re leaving isn’t defamation or robbing them of dignity if you word it matter of factly and use a professional tone of voice.

        I think the rumor-mill is way worse than just saying what happened.

        1. neverjaunty*

          And if Fergus is being fired for grabbing Jane at a party, maybe Jane doesn’t want everyone to hear about it?

          1. JessaB*

            And if they were fired for stealing 10k then maybe the lawyers do not want gossip to get in the way of the case against the person or to muck up an agreement to repay in lieu of prosecution. There are lots of reasons beyond just “not embarrassing the worker, or the victim,” that might be in play here.

    2. Adonday Veeah*

      It could matter a great deal to the person being talked about. They might not want their personal business (and it is personal) talked about. If they don’t mind if it’s known, then they can be the ones to share whatever portions they choose.

    3. LawCat*

      “Just curious, why does it matter if people know the reason if it’s true? Sally was caught trying to seal $10,000 from the company. Bob was using the office on the weekends for an illegal gambling venue. Falcor was extremely rude to several vendors on multiple occasions.”

      This kind of thing is just itching for a defamation lawsuit so that’s probably one reason. Even if true statements, no one wants to have to go to go through a lawsuit over it, and if the statements end up being incorrect (sometimes employers are wrong about what they think an employee has done). … hoooboy!

      “Or we love Ashley, she’s great but she’s just not a good fit for this role so we gave her a generous severance and wished her well on her next opportunity.”

      This is not terrible, but as an employee would still make me nervous. Am I the next one on the “not a good fit” list?

      I just think there’s no good way to go about it. People are going to believe who they believe. An employer better be able to credibly say what Alison said, but the employer will have an uphill battle with nervous employees if that cannot make such a statement with credibility. (Credibility would come from employees knowing managers clearly and directly speak with employees rather than with mixed signals, mind reading, mass emails, and hints.)

      1. Michelenyc*

        I was the employee that did great work but was a horrible fit with most of the people in the office. I hated going to that office; so much so that I would wait to get up in the mornings until 15 minutes before I had to leave. Fortunately, I had already reached out to my old company and had a new job lined up the day they let me go. I was actually going to give notice that day. Even better is they were going to let me go on New Year’s Eve but they forgot to tell me so I actually went in just to be told that they were letting me go. I had so much fun saying I have a new job and was going to give notice today anyway!

    4. Observer*

      In general, respecting people’s privacy is a good thing. In some cases, you risk legal issues if you say too much. In others, it’s just common decency. And sometimes there are other people to consider.

      Also, as Allison points out, no one wants their private business talked about, especially when it makes the look less than stellar. And if they see that you bad mouth a former employee, it will color their attitude.

    5. TootsNYC*

      it will backfire because it will create and foster a tremendously gossipy and negatively judgmental workplace.

      And that’s just not good. Even if it is accurate.

  20. The_artist_formerly_known_as_Anon-2*

    Another angle of this.

    One reason this question arises often – a person who seems to be effective and is wildly popular with one group – or an audience of customers, but may not be popular with the peers in his own group. (historical example = Pete Best. If you don’t know who Mr. Best is, Google him.)

    One thing that can happen – is if one person gets a degree of glory in some fashion, even well-earned glory – and his immediate group members resent him, management can remain neutral (“he’s another guy, he’s good”), supportive (but run the risk of angering others) , or, critical (“he’s good, but I just can’t put my finger as to why he is how he is, so I am running him out”)…

    So when someone who is apparently effective in his job is suddenly let go – it’s probably wise to “leak” the reasons to your staff, without openly violating the employee privacy regulations – and that is a difficult thing to do. But it’s incumbent – and fair – for management to squash the rumor mill if they can.

      1. The_artist_formerly_known_as_Anon-2*

        Yep – he’s an historical footnote, and of the six or seven or eight people (interpretation as to whether there were six or seven or eight in that entity) who filtered through that group’s history – he is one of the only three still living.

      1. The_artist_formerly_known_as_Anon-2*

        Too many – but you also have to suppress rumors…. and, I guess, defend management somehow, even if the firing was indefensible.

      2. The_artist_formerly_known_as_Anon-2*

        But basically – if an employee is terminated, from a legal standpoint, you can’t discuss the matter with the general employee population. Or with anyone outside the company (vendors, customers, etc.), other than the fact that (the firee) is no longer with the company. You can’t broadcast WHY he’s gone, in most cases.

        1. Ask a Manager* Post author

          There’s no law against doing that. It’s possible that you could get into defamation if the information wasn’t true, but it’s not illegal to share the reasons you let someone go.

  21. Former Retail Manager*

    I think it’s primarily not mentioned for liability reasons which are plentiful. A factual explanation of a termination can quickly morph into something totally incorrect and scandalous as it moves from person to person, much like the telephone game. And God forbid, an incorrect version of what happened get out and impact the terminated employee’s attempt at securing future employment. It’s just too risky for the company. I also think it’s polite to respect their privacy. Even if a firing is deserved, it doesn’t necessarily mean that person is a bad person or will ever do whatever they did again. People have bad days/low points in life/etc.

    I also agree that it can make people nervous. Best to find a friend or two who have the “inside track” enough to know what’s really going on where you work, not just what they tell you, as these two are rarely the same……sometimes with good reason. If you’re doing a good job and getting good reviews, you should be okay assuming you work in a normally functioning workplace.

  22. Meg Murry*

    Does the university have the PIP/performance process written up someplace? Especially if this is a case of getting rid of an admin, faculty probably don’t even know that there are specific disciplinary procedures for that level of employee. At least at the college I worked for, the PIP process (which was long and involved the union at almost every step) was written into the union contract for admins, and there was a separate process for faculty, adjuncts and staff as part of their contracts too.

    After a few freakouts when people appeared to be “suddenly” let go and lots of “am I next? are we having layoffs?” worries, our HR would periodically send out a link or an attachment to the (long, drawn out, multi-step) PIP process with a boilerplate statement like “We here at ABC Corporation take our performance management process very seriously, and do not let employees go lightly. Please review the attached PIP process and if you have any questions or concerns about your current status please make an appointment to speak with one of us or your supervisor.”

    The wording was better than what I have there, but basically they would send out the PIP procedure and a statement about it, and then tell our managers to also talk to us about it. Then in our team meeting or one on ones my manager would usually say something like “I know there are rumors flying around, but trust me, we are not doing layoffs and if you are not on a PIP right now, you are in no danger of being let go as long as you aren’t committing one of the zero tolerance offenses like selling company secrets to a competitor or grossly violating safety policies. And even if you were on a PIP, there are multiple steps and multiple warnings that would need to be taken before you were let go, including a written final warning.” And then he would usually say something like “so please, keep up the good work, because I really don’t want to go through the paperwork of putting any of you on a PIP” with a laugh.

    I’ve also stolen that boss’s same line during performance reviews – “you are doing great, and if that ever isn’t the case I’ll let you know far before review time. Let’s avoid any situation where I have to give you a 1 or a 2 (below meets expectations) because I really don’t want to have to deal with the extra paperwork”. Because it’s totally true – if someone is struggling I’ll coach them and work with them, but I really don’t want to have to get into PIPs until its obvious that things aren’t going to improve.

  23. SusanIvanova*

    When Mr Coffeecup got fired, our manager started out the meeting with a reassurance that nobody else’s jobs were at risk, in case we’d thought it was a layoff that might just be the first of many. I doubt anyone in our team thought that – his lack of performance was notorious by this point – but it was a nice touch that would’ve been reassuring in a different situation.

    Some of the people asking might have that kind of worry, so telling them that this wasn’t a sudden decision and if it happens to anyone else that person will have plenty of warning would help.

    1. Almond Milk Latte*

      We had a meeting once with a similar discussion about a member of an adjacent team.. An hour BEFORE the guy was let go. Man, did we feel like jerks walking past him on the way back to our cubes.

      1. SusanIvanova*

        No risk of that with Coffeecup – the day he was fired, he wasn’t even in the office, and hadn’t told anyone! Our manager was out on sick leave so it was our sister team’s manager who came round to ask me if I “knew if Coffeecup was working that day”. It was too good a straight line to pass up; I answered “I don’t know if he’s working *any* day”.

  24. Ama*

    I’ve had two bosses fired due to financial misconduct and in both cases the employer mandated that those of us in the know say no more than “X has left Employer” because it made the employer look almost as bad as the fired employee (in both cases they exploited loopholes in the expense reimbursement process that should have been discovered long before they were). I was probably only allowed to know more details as part of their reassurance that my position was safe (which I now realize was also their way of telling me that I wasn’t under any kind of suspicion).

    It got super awkward for several weeks when more senior coworkers who weren’t in the loop tried to pump me for information — I had the standard “you can speak to [boss’ boss] if you have questions” speech but that often failed because they knew boss’ boss wouldn’t tell them anything and figured they’d have more luck pressuring me to spill as an entry-level admin.

  25. Mando Diao*

    While Alison’s response elegantly covers all bases, I’d caution OP against wasting reason on people who seem unreasonable and, well, a bit immature. The fact that they’re coming to OP and point-black asking why the employee was fired is really icky to me. People who do that are already hopping over boundaries, so an appeal to boundaries might not work. These people are being so nosy and unprofessional that I’d probably say something like, “It sounds like Jane is acting like she doesn’t know what she did, but believe me, she does. She’s free to discuss it with you but I’m not getting dragged into this.”

  26. AndersonDarling*

    I just wait one week from the departure because the company will get a reminder email about a specific piece of policy. “Don’t steal equipment and sell it on ebay.” “Don’t get into altercations with your co-workers.” “Don’t gather private information on customers and sell it.”
    It’s not to hard to connect the dots.

      1. Dan*

        Mine’s boring in comparison. Last person I heard of that got fired (been here two years now, never known anybody personally here) got fired for publishing a paper with confidential data, and was even warned not to do it.

  27. AbbyA*

    But employees don’t really have a right to privacy. People just hide behind that. So you can say something if you want especially to clear up rumors.

    1. Dan*

      Precisely. In the general case, it feels like corporations hide behind the “privacy” veil because they have something to hide. I’m thinking about people who feel they have been wronged, and make their case very public. Companies, when asked for comment, say “oops, we can’t say anything for privacy reasons.”

      It would be dirty pool for someone to “bait” a company publicly, and then sue them for breach of said privacy, if such thing is even legally actionable.

      I mean, if I were sitting on the jury, and someone had complained about a company publicly, and then sued them for breaching the company’s “privacy policy” when the company responded, I’m certainly not going to find for the plaintiff.

    2. neverjaunty*

      You can, but in a company where there is a lack of trust anyway, who is going to believe them? “Why, Spimderalla was always nice to me and brought donuts on Mondays, I simply refuse to believe she was shirking her job duties!”

  28. harryv*

    I fired three people as an IT manager. Two of them were completely expected as the employees had serious performance issues. No one questioned it. The other one was more subtle. He was a virtual employee and we revoked his telecommute privilege due to his performance. During his 2nd PIP (basically and extended PIP to give him a final change), he didn’t respond to my IM, email or voicemail which I left on a Friday early afternoon. He didn’t return my call until Tuesday saying he missed my call and didn’t see my v/m. By then, I already notified HR that he was to be terminated. Internal IT couldn’t disable his e-mail quick enough and he sent out a message saying it was his last day and there were people who were shocked that he was leaving. After a few weeks, no one talked about it anymore.

  29. John Cosmo*

    OTOH, sometimes people are seemingly let go for bad reasons. In some cases that could create a problem (down the road) in attracting and retaining talent, but for the most part there are still quite a few unemployed and underemployed people out there and it is just not very serious problem. At my current (but soon-to-be-former) employer there is a lot of turnover due to people quitting for better pastures, but we’ve also had several questionable firings and I feel like I can’t trust the management of the organization. Many of the fired people belong to various minority groups which makes things look even more suspicious to me. Some days I imagine quitting, even though I don’t have another job lined up.

    There was an HR administrative assistant who wasn’t cutting it, although he claimed he never received any written complaints or warnings. After he was let go, his first replacement quit after a week, the second replacement quit after 2 months and the third replacement quit after 4 months. Then the department revised the job description, removing some of the responsibilities and reassigning them to other people after the fourth replacement was hired. In retrospect, I think it’s pretty safe to say that there was something wrong with the position and that any performance problems probably were not the fault of the first HR administrative assistant. It’s just too bad they didn’t revise the job description before they let him go.

    There was the info systems programmer who was let go seemingly because she availed herself of Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA) to care for her dying mother; the staffing coordinator who was let go after using FMLA after the birth of her first child and after attempting to work from home; and a customer service rep who was let go after two surgeries (although she claims that she still had quite a bit of unused sick-leave and vacation time left and that she was reimbursed for the unused vacation time). The cs rep did say that she was having problems getting along with a new supervisor (after 2 previous ones both quit) who was micro-managing her and that while she had received verbal warnings, she never received a written warning or Employee Improvement Plan. She was let go the day before the organization paid out annual profit-sharing bonuses.

    I suppose that I have to take the stories of my former co-workers with a grain of salt, but the professional non-answers offered by Alison don’t really cut it and make it look like something is being covered up. (And maybe something is, which may or may not be a bad thing.)

    1. Creag an Tuire*

      I think Alison’s pretty up-front that the script in question only works if you’re -not- in the practice of firing people for arbitrary/sketchy reasons. If you are, the response would’ve been “stop doing that”.

  30. AnonR1UniversityDeptManager*

    So I had something very similar except that the fired employee (who was on more than a year and half PIP) was so delightful and helpful to all other departments in the division that after the separation, there was a parade of coworkers who wanted to let me know how unreasonable I had been in my supervision of said employee. The final straw was someone who I was working closely with shared how disappointed in me he was that I had done such a thing to the his coworker. I gave him the Alison answer as I really couldn’t share about missing funds as well as the employee’s inability to complete even the smallest parts of her job description. I shared with my supervisor my dismay at being viewed the evil perfectionist supervisor who didn’t give the poor girl a chance. At the next all staff meeting, the director noted that Cordelia was no longer employed by the University and any questions about that situation should be brought directly to her. She would welcome discussing any concerns. No one took her up on it and the comments and questions immediately stopped.

    On the other hand- faculty who had to work with this individual all let out sighs of relief when hearing she was no longer with the department and out came the stories of inappropriate conduct and failure to complete work as requested. (no none of these people ever expressed dissatisfaction when Cordelia was here)

  31. Anonymous today*

    At my workplace, they generally leak the reason for a departure in the case of a scandal. If it’s simple poor performance, members of the department are informally told that Mary wasn’t getting her work done or that Hildegard was more often asleep than awake.

  32. Kimberlee, Esq*

    I love Alison’s advice on what to tell people when the firing seems sudden… though very often, I’ve seen situations where someone is fired, and it SHOULDN’T have been a surprise, but the person being fired says that it was, that they had no idea their job was actually in danger. If that’s happening, there’s not that much you can do about it! The lesson: if a person’s job is in danger due to their performance or whatever, make that *explicitly* clear to them, using words like “if X doesn’t improve, then we’ll need to look at letting you go” or “your job is in danger if Y doesn’t change in the next 2 weeks.” When it comes to our jobs, we’re really eager to miss subtext that indicates we might be fired. Don’t leave room for interpretation.

  33. VX34*

    Have to say that anyone who takes the script advice had damn well be telling the truth if they use it.

    Employee morale would tank if they were to find out it wasn’t accurate, and no sane people would blame them.

      1. VX34*

        Definitely not a knock on the advice! It’s sound advice, however…well, yeah. I do feel it has to be reiterated that it must be authentic, because if it isn’t, well…that’s bad! And eventually, word would definitely get out.

        I believe this kind of scenario actually happened to me, so, I’m a little opinionated about it.

        I also have seen a somewhat suspicious departure that I’ve seen a colleague experience recently, and it definitely put people on edge since nobody seems to know what really happened…and of course, likely are not to.

  34. Anon for this*

    Coming to this late, but two thoughts. Besides the one that faculty often live in their own little bubbles, and don’t necessarily pay attention to campus-wide discussions or notices.

    1) What’s the culture and general state of people leaving jobs where you are, OP?

    My previous employer cut at least half a dozen people (all non-union, administrator level staff) suddenly – notice on Tuesday, they were gone by Friday – over the course of a year or so, and did a couple of other very abrupt firings.
    There were – and are – serious budget issues in the system, but the way a lot of the cuts were handled was very poorly done, and left a lot of people with sour tastes (people they’d worked with for years gone with no notice, the people making the cuts pretty clearly not thinking about the impact on other staff for coverage of day to day duties/upcoming commitments/etc.)

    While most of us could buy the idea that some of these cuts had to happen, half a dozen at a smallish campus in that manner was a bit much to swallow.

    (My job was also cut, but I was in a different situation, and union, and they went with a 6 month notice. So when I left, I had about a month to touch base with people and let them know I was leaving. I had been increasingly unhappy, and also having ADA-related issues where getting a new job was clearly the better solution, and I’m now somewhere where I’m much much much happier.)

    2) Recognising the existence of connections

    Because a lot of academia lives in its own bubble, people may not pay attention to notices about cuts/etc. until it affects something they need to do. And they also – if they had a good relationship with the person – may be worried whether that person’s going to be okay.

    You can’t solve the second one (if the person left on their own terms, you could ask about a contact address they’re okay passing on) but you can recognise the first part, with a “Oh, we keep hearing that people really loved working with X, and X was great with faculty.” (if that’s true) before saying “But the role has a bunch of other responsibilities, and we needed someone who could handle all parts of the role as well as they’d handled working with you.” And then be nice and clear about who they contact with questions they’d have taken to X in the past.

  35. Jim*

    My response when someone left the company. Regardless of if it was of their own accord or of our accord the response was the same. John Doe of Accounts Department has departed the organization. His accounts are being managed by Mary Smith at extension 12345. In addition the extension number was changed and the voicemail was also updated to have the same message and who was handling the accounts after which the call would transfer to the new extension. Emails also had an auto reply if they were sent to his extension advising who the new representative was and the new email address to direct their inquiry to. In 5 years I never had anyone ask a general “what happened to so and so?” and my response “They left the organization. I don’t have any other information to share.”

    Thank you,

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