our CEO won’t let go of a retired employee

A reader writes:

I took a position with a small nonprofit last spring and have been immensely happy. It’s a great team, and was made even better in April when the one staff member I didn’t care for announced her retirement effective May 31. “Sally” had worked for this nonprofit for over two and a half decades, moving from an entry-level contract job to the organization’s second most senior position. The CEO is a good leader who has been in place for nearly 20 years, the office manager 10, and the rest of us vary from four to 18 months.

Due to the time it took to backfill the vacancy and the importance of training that person, Sally agreed to stay on in a contract role through the end of July. “Quinn” started in mid-June, giving her six weeks of cross-training. It was during that interim that I discovered that every staff member who can count their tenure in months butted heads with Sally. Quinn, too, struggled with Sally, and spent the first two months of her new job feeling incompetent. I limited my interactions with Sally and focused on developing relationships with my new colleagues. Since Sally left at the end of August, our team has settled into our respective roles and is working extremely well together.

During a discussion of upcoming updates to our technology, Quinn asked if she could be made the default log-in on her computer instead of Sally. Our office manager, “Yertle,” explained to our stunned staff that Sally still has remote access to Quinn’s computer and that there were no plans to cut off Sally’s work email account. Just a few weeks ago, Quinn discovered that Sally had responded to a client inquiry rather than referring the client to her.

I asked Yertle why a retired staff member would still have access to files and email. She said, “Sally and Quinn have an arrangement.” I knew from conversations with Quinn that this wasn’t true, so I pushed: “That’s an odd business practice for a former employee to be able to log onto our system.” Yertle made light of it, saying “I don’t think that Sally will ever truly retire,” and then changed the subject. The CEO was not present.

It’s deeply embedded in the office culture to hang on. Historical binders, outdated books, and ancient files align every wall. The retention policy seems to be “retain everything.” Relationships with previous employees who have moved on to more powerful jobs are retained and carefully cultivated. The CEO and Sally meet monthly over lunch, having developed an understandably close friendship after two decades as colleagues.

Sally’s lingering employment creates division between the employees who count their tenure in decades and those who count months. How do we encourage our CEO and office manager to let go professionally?

This is really something that Quinn needs to handle — or her manager or someone else in Quinn’s chain of command or otherwise in a position of authority in the office. If you’re not one of those people, you probably don’t have standing to address this.

But you can certainly encourage Quinn to speak up if she wants to! Unless there’s some major detail missing here, it’s ridiculous that Sally still has remote access to Quinn’s computer and is responding to client inquiries on Quinn’s account. Ideally Quinn would say something like, “I appreciated Sally’s help getting me trained and acclimated to the job. I’d like to fully own my areas of responsibility now, so how do I go about getting her access to my computer removed and ensuring that client emails are coming to me rather than to her?” And if she encountered push-back on that, ideally she’d say, “It’s causing confusion and duplication of effort to have her still doing parts of my job. For example, ____ (fill in with specific inefficiency or problem it caused). If she’s going to stay involved in the organization, can we offer her projects that aren’t my projects? I’d like to be able to fully own my projects, and not feel like my work is up for grabs.”

If that’s not going to happen, Quinn needs to find that out, so she can make good decisions for herself about how to proceed. Those good decisions might be anything from trying to set up a clear division of labor with Sally, to asking her manager to run interference for her, to rolling her eyes and deciding she doesn’t care, to concluding she’s not fully empowered to do her job if Sally is indefinitely in the picture and leaving over it. But before she’s in a position to decide any of that, she needs to get clarification on what’s going on with Sally and for how long she should expect it to last.

But again, that’s a battle for Quinn and her manager to fight.

The question for you is whether your desire to step in on Quinn’s behalf reflects broader concerns you have about the organization and its leadership. For what it’s worth, this is a small organization that hasn’t had a leadership change in two decades, and where for some reason no staff members other than the CEO and office manager have been there more than 18 months. I wouldn’t be surprised if there’s some pretty deeply-rooted dysfunction, totally aside from the Quinn/Sally situation. Maybe there’s not — you say the CEO is good — but you’ll have a much better sense of whether or not that’s true when you see how Quinn’s request goes over (if she chooses to make it).

Read an update to this letter here.

{ 128 comments… read them below }

      1. Hiring Mgr*

        That reminds me of a joke I just saw yesterday:

        What do Titanic and The Sixth Sense have in common?

        Icy Dead People

    1. Bigglesworth*

      Are you thinking of Jack and Rose from Doctor Who or Jack and Rose from the Titanic? The millennia word is throwing me off…

      1. Anion*

        I’m pretty sure Specialk9 is referring to Rose Tyler there, as a joke. (But I liked Rose, personally, despite her flaws. She was certainly better than the Special Special Special MaryPixieDreamSue girls Moffat created for the Smith & Capaldi Doctors. IMO.)

        1. Bookworm*

          Yeah, I was fond of Rose. She irritated me, but she also felt like a real person somehow.

          But Donna is still my favorite companion.

  1. Helpful*

    This is clearly Quinn’s battle and it will be an uphill battle, since the CEO is best buds with Sally. Start getting your resume in order, OP, in case things go down in flames. Best case scenario, it’s not your problem. Worst case, the whole org is a hot mess.

  2. Original poster here*

    Wanted to clarify the turnover on the other positions.
    Person #1 was a backfill – previous two people left on good terms are still in touch regularly due to working in the field
    Person #2 was a new position
    Person #3 (me) was a new position

    1. I'm A Little TeaPot*

      There’s a difference between being in touch and being active in the system. Once you leave the org, you should have all access removed (of course, there are some legit exceptions).

      1. Anon anon anon*

        I agree. It also blurs the line between employee and non-emplpyee. If you have access and are not being paid, what are you? A volunteer? Can you volunteer for a for-profit (I assume?) company that you’ve worked for?

        And what about Quinn’s basic right to privacy? What about the potential for disputes about who did what and why?

        It’s a huge can of worms. I think it would be worthwhile for someone to bring up the legal side of this in order to provide a dose of reality.

    2. MK*

      OP, keep in mind that former employees staying on good terms with the org doesn’t rule out some dysfunction. It’s very possible that these people loved a lot of things about your nonprofit, but wouldn’t put up with situations like the Sally one and left quietly. The conventional wisdom is that a bad employer will be uniformly bad, but I haven’t found this to be always true: my first job was pretty perfect in every way (boss, colleagues, environment, hours, time off, growth opportunities, further training, perks) except the compensation, which, while not below market rate, was at the very lowest end of the acceptable range. Eventually I left (on very good terms), for that reason alone.

      1. copy run start*

        This is a great point. I left a terribly dysfunctional workplace that failed due to bad management and pay, but excelled at having great coworkers, hours, benefits, PTO/flexibility and ability to leave work at work. I learned a great deal at that job, even though I picked up a few scars along the way.

        Said dysfunctional workplace also had high average tenure — most people had 10+ years under their belts. Tenure isn’t always a sign of a bad workplace — many people were planning on retiring there.

      2. RVA Cat*

        This. Having nothing but Lifers and Newbies makes me think is one of those “We’re like faaaaaaamily!” organizations that are several circuses worth of monkeys.

  3. Amber T*

    I do agree that it’s Quinn’s battle, but as someone who is so new compared to everyone else at the firm, she needs all the support she can get. There could be backlash – ‘She’s so new! She doesn’t understand how we really operate!” If enough of the older coworkers (those who have been around longer, not age) also push back, it would definitely help.

    1. NW Mossy*

      And to wit: Sally’s retirement is new too, and it doesn’t sound like this organization is really sure how to process a long-time employee leaving either. It’s all part of the fact that there’s significant change happening, and the whole organization has to adapt.

  4. paul*

    I learned the hard way to view that sort of disparity in tenure with suspicion. Mostly from my work with other agencies in the non profit community here.

    If you’ve got 2-3 people that have been there for a decade or more, and near constant turn (seriously the next longest tenure is only 18 months) I’d be very leery of the office. There’s a lot of different reasons I’ve seen for that sort of churn–everything from crappy pay to a reluctance to change practices that are obsolete to cliques–but it’s pretty much always coincided with an agency that has significant problems.

    1. KTB*

      I could not agree with that assessment any more. My last job was with a tiny nonprofit where the tenure was either 8-10 years or 2 years. The ED had the longest tenure, and was the biggest problem. She also kept in touch with previous employees and would constantly talk about them/compare them to current staff. She was also a horrible micromanager if you weren’t a project manager. And she wonders why I have no interest in keeping in touch.

      1. BRR*

        My nonprofit also has larges disparities in tenure. Nobody seems to discuss why everybody leaves after three years (when our retirement contributions fully vest).

    2. Interviewer*

      It’s worth noting that all the short-tenured staff had issues with Sally. It sounds like the retirement and contract period gave a lot of coworkers hope that good change was coming – yet know they find out she’s still working and will likely never stop. That’s got to be disheartening news, or at the very least, reason for some to job-hunt.

    3. MilkMoon (UK)*

      Agree. I took a “newly created” position last year in a small office where everyone else had worked together for a decade+. I managed five months – about the same time as the young woman who’d held the position before me. I only found out about her, and that the “new” position was not entirely new, from other people in the building. They too were archaic in most ways, including old-fashioned paper filing, and the ways they weren’t were only accepted because it was illegal not to… *shudder*

    4. Kj*

      Co-signed. My last company had a ton of 1-3 year employees, then a few who had been there 15+. Nothing in-between.

      1. Else*

        This weirdness happens a lot in academia – a bunch of new hires will come in together, work for ages, and then retire together. Then another lot of new hires will come in together… If you’re one of the random individual hires that are made before or after the most recent mass cluster, you can be a bit left out

      2. Luna*

        Seconded. My first job had “Lifers”- the people who had been there 8-10 years or more and were never planning to leave, despite the fact that the pay sucked- then a bunch of (mostly young recent college grads) employees who would cycle in for 1 or 2 years and leave. Every now and then one of the new employees would eventually become part of the Lifer group if they clicked with the in-crowd, but for the most part the newbies had to band together because we would never be fully accepted by the others. We were totally disposable to that company. It was not a good working environment.

    5. kittymommy*

      Yeah, that jumped out at me as well. Going from 10 years to a mere months seems like a huge gap. There seems like there’s a lot more happening than just Sally not leaving.

    6. ToxicityRefugee*

      Yep. I left my last job on good terms and have maintained relationships with my old department a lot of former colleagues from there. In the case of the colleagues its because they are great people who I genuinely enjoyed working with despite our environment. In the case of the department I work in a small field, didn’t move far away and really don’t have any other option. It was a toxic environment when I left and as far as I can tell from the outside has only got worse since then.

  5. MommyMD*

    It may be off but unless Sally is interfering with you directly I would keep out of it. Quinn has not complained to you about it, may not be truly bothered by it, and the powers that be allowed it. If you stir it up only 18 months in, CEO may feel you are trying to direct office policy. Sally may be monitoring things from afar but isn’t that much better than having her there? She may be on contract for this roll. Try not to think so much of the them versus us and months vs decade divide. It sounds like you have a good group. I would keep it positive and just go in and do good work. I wouldn’t mention Sally unless she came up in the context of work. There’s always going to be someone who annoys us.

    1. Aurion*

      The problem is, if OP might be viewed as “direct office policy while only eighteen months in”, then wouldn’t that stigma be even worse from Quinn, who has only been here for five months? Alison is right that this is ultimately Quinn’s battle to fight, but if she doesn’t have the support of her colleagues, she might not feel like this is a battle she could fight.

      Yertle claimed that Quinn and Sally have an arrangement which OP knows to be untrue. Maybe this won’t be a battle Quinn could win, but it certainly doesn’t sound like Quinn is fully informed of the situation and on board with the arrangement.

      1. MommyMD*

        OP is not going to help herself butting heads with the CEO. If Quinn is unhappy Quinn can speak up. Nothing illegal or horrible is happening. Annoying, yes. OP has no standing in this.

  6. Persephone Mulberry*

    Are you sure the CEO is as invested in/aware of Sally’s continued involvement as Yertle is? It doesn’t sound like anyone has had an actual conversation with him/her yet. Maintaining a collegial relationship with a longtime employee via lunch every few weeks doesn’t necessarily mean the CEO won’t back Quinn’s desire to fully own her new role.

    1. Original poster here*

      Quinn has read this AAM and is going to have the very conversation Allison recommended.

  7. phedre*

    If the CEO doesn’t seem to care then there’s not much to be done other than deciding if this is a deal-breaker and you want to find another job. That’s not to say that this kind of dysfunction can’t be cured – it can! – but it takes dedicated leadership.

    At my current nonprofit, I came onboard right as the ED of 25 years retired and another senior employee left. There was a ton of lingering dysfunction, but the senior leadership made a deliberate, concerted effort to address it. Even with a conscious effort, it still took at least a year or two for the organization to shake off the last of the negative culture. And that’s with a committed leader! I’m just skeptical how much can be done if you can’t get the CEO’s buy-in.

  8. Marley*

    Never letting go of anything? How bad are we talking here? Because if the CEO suffers from hoarding syndrome, and it shows at the office, there’s going to be dysfunction at the office.

    Given some extensive personal experience, people who suffer from hoarding syndrome often have issues with personal boundaries as part of it. The way that hoarding distorts thinking affects relationships, because how someone with hoarding syndrome categorizes “normal” just doesn’t jive with that of the average person. It’s really tough.

    1. paul*

      ooph. when our last CEO left (I think she’s since died) we finally got to clear out the storage building onsite.

      I took emphatic joy at going full Office Space on old floppies–and I mean these were the 5″ type, not the little 3″ers.

      This was in…2012? 2013? something like that. Hoarder CEOs are awful to work with.

      1. AKchic*

        Oh my goodness, YES!

        I took an unholy delight in destroying old floppies and diskettes when IT told me I could destroy them in 2009. They had been in storage since 1991-1992 “just in case we need them”. I was on light duty at the reception desk since I’d been in prelabor for over a week, so the prospect of cutting, stabbing and smashing things was therapeutic in my opinion.

          1. AKchic*

            Who knows what had been stored next to them in the 18 years they had been in two different buildings. At the time of their rediscovery, they had been in what we dubbed “The Vault”. A room that could only be accessed via the server room / IT manager’s office, which kind of looked like a fall-out shelter, but really wasn’t. Cinderblock walls all around, lined with shelves, we stored a hodgepodge in there. Old client records, fur coats they said were going to be auctioned off for fundraising purposes (never happened, the coats are still there and I left last year), stationary from 1980, art supplies, ice melt, emergency supplies, a pillow and blanket (IT manager – I was on to you), snacks, office supplies that hadn’t seen the light of day in at least 6 years…

            1. Else*

              Hah! My first job, I went to go clear out and organize the storage closet and found many things, including a) a half-filled bag of dirt, b) a typewriter, c) assorted pieces of confidential testing materials scattered loose, d) random tchotchkes from someone’s trip to the Caribbean, e) a forgotten and very expensive special screen that had had to be re-ordered, and best of all, f) a black silk blindfold. (!) (!) (!)

          2. paul*

            In our case, in a non-climate controlled building, just loose in cardboard boxes. I’d wager good money most of them weren’t readable.

      2. Not Australian*

        When one of my old employers moved out of their premises we uncovered hand-written ledgers going back to 1849…

        1. Robin B*

          My old employer (a small bank) had hand written savings account passbooks from 1911… written in Polish.

    2. New Window*

      Huh. That lends new light on the situation with ex!Boss. They seemed to have fit that pattern far too well.

    3. K, Esq.*

      When our billing lady retired and I no longer had to share my desk drawer space, I took such joy in shredding documents older than me. Yesterday it took 10 minutes to convince my boss to let me throw out the Word Perfect manuals from the year 2000 to make space for actual reference manuals we need.

      1. KTB*

        I got to do that at a previous job when we moved into a new office building! One of my predecessors had printed out EVERYTHING, including emails, and kept it in various binders. Nothing gave me as much joy as recycling all of them. Every last one.

      2. SCtoDC*

        Ugh! I have worked for this boss. It’s so annoying! Do you know what I was doing in 2000?? Getting my driver’s permit! Let the old stuff die.

    4. Seal*

      I inherited several department run by hoarders, including a few employees who were hoarders themselves (I swear, librarians are the worst for this!). While purging the worthless garbage left behind by multiple 30+ year employees was cathartic, dealing with the hoarding employees they left behind was a nightmare. One guy became physically ill shortly after I started at the notion of my sorting through his hoard that had taken over our public area. He would sneak around spying on me to make sure I didn’t toss something he deemed important to keep. Another employee’s mantra was “but [predecessor] said we had to keep this!”. That part was mentally exhausting.

      1. another librarian*

        I have dealt with two hoarding colleagues over the last 25 years. The first covered every surface from the floor to ceiling of our workroom. Books, old newspapers, magazines, publisher’s catalogues. There were six desks buried there. No staff member had a desk to work at. She went on vacation and the assistant director broke his leg, and suddenly I was in charge. I cleared the carts, sent the books to cataloguing and packed everything else in banker boxed labeled with the director’s name and the date. Built a wall with them. Everyone got a desk. Nothing was said when she and the assistant director returned. The second was my predecessor at this position. Spent my first six months putting things in order. Years later still uncovering old floppy discs and such. No mercy.

      2. aebhel*

        Librarians are awful about this. I was almost burned at the stake when I started because I decided to start recycling ancient reading lists–pages typed up on a typewriter, in yellowing binders, containing lists of books that we no longer owned. You’d think I was drowning puppies by the way some of the staff carried on about it.

    5. Sled dog mama*

      Reminds me of my last two office clean outs. One the office had material dating to 1964, this was 4 years ago. Current clean out I got rid of a file drawer of vendor product brochures from the mid 90’s and many many multiple copies of published papers from the early 90’s. I get keeping one copy (maybe if it was a game changer) but 3-7 of every single paper!? Especially more than 10 years after the technique described is obsolete!

  9. AndersonDarling*

    In some organizations, key players are kept on the payroll as part of their retirement package. COOs and VPs of Everything get a reduced salary the year after their retirement and then a smaller salary the following year, then they finally stop being paid 5 years down the road. The idea is that they are still transitioning the current staff, are available for speaking engagements and can handle emergencies. (must be nice getting paid for years to retire *eye roll*)
    I wonder if this is what is happening. Otherwise they cannot have a non employee doing work and not being paid for that work.

      1. NnnoooOOOooo....[doppler effect]*

        But they do have to formally classify her as a volunteer, and get her to sign whatever contracts and confidentiality agreements are necessary for volunteers, and also maybe limit her access to only the kinds of things that are in her new volunteer job description.

        What the OP seems to be objecting to – quite rightly – is having someone lingering in a vague and unspecified manner, while being outside chain of command and with no clear job responsibilities or legal contracts. Which could mess the non-profit up in a variety of ways, from labor law, tax law, donor requirements, confidentiality and data privacy breaches… and don’t even get me started on the requirements from grant-making bodies!

        It doesn’t matter what kind of paid/unpaid position or contract Sally gets – as long as she gets one – and doesn’t get any access to anything without one.

  10. CBH*

    I feel like this could lead to legal issues for the company as a whole.

    Unfortunately OP as much as you want to help/ question, as everyone says this is Quinn’s battle.

    1. Myrin*

      I was just thinking that. If Jamie were still here, her brains would probably fall out and then promptly explode.

    2. Original poster here*

      I see it as 3 distinct issues:

      1. IT for staff should be cut off upon the end of employment. If the employee is brought back in a contract capacity – as has happened for Sally and for other contractors – IT gets reinstated for the duration of the project. The level of access should be suitable to the project needs. Since Sally was in such a senior position, she has full access to everything, including personnel files in her retirement. What happens if someone accesses her computer from her home?

      2. Quinn, along with another staff member who came to fill a newly created position a matter of months before Sally announced her retirement, have since both expressed that they’re worried our CEO is keeping a “bench” of former employees as back up. Neither has had any performance issues and our team recently completed a massive project with great success. But keeping the retiree around undermines their ability to fully take over their programs.

      3. We need to address the retention policy for documents. There are things around the office from the 80s – and I haven’t even dug through the store room – that nobody would notice if they disappeared. There’s a culture of hanging onto them “in case we need it.”

      1. Cor*

        (Am I allowed to give generic legal advice on this forum? Apologies if not, please delete.)

        You should push for a document retention policy to be put in place, if you have that kind of pull. The most expensive part of litigation is paying people to go through every piece of paper that might be relevant (and every old computer disk/drive/CD). It will be much cheaper to toss it now than to have to keep and review/produce it if you’re ever sued.

        1. Tippy*

          I have to agree entirely with this. Follow IRS guidelines, unless there is something else industry specific governing retention. This allows you to say “we have a written policy to only keep emails, documents, etc etc for XX years.” Definitely helps reasonably CYA in a discovery process.

  11. AMT27*

    Couldn’t this potentially lead to legal issues? If Sally is doing actual work and not on the payroll any more?

    1. DataQueen*

      I’ve seen this happen very frequently in the non-profits I’ve worked at – a senior staffer gets to retirement age, cuts back their hours, and becomes a volunteer. They may not need to work anymore, and are lucky enough to not need a paycheck, but still love the mission and want to contribute. If that’s the case, the arrangement should be spelled out more clearly than it has been for Quinn, but I don’t see anything particularly strange about the scenario.

  12. McWhadden*

    This is very common in my organization. I am in the legal department but sit in the same area as HR and HR still has people who have been retired for years coming in or calling in. And still fielding calls from employees on their cellphones. I know that’s true in several other departments, as well. (One is the former labor counsel and she is lovely with a lot of institutional knowledge. Others seem less crucial.)

    It doesn’t help the situation but it’s something that some organizations do when they can’t just let go.

  13. TotesMaGoats*

    Your staffing “age” is a huge red flag for me. Seriously, the highest roles have 20 years in but everyone else is less than 2. That’s….curious.

    thumbs up to everything Allison said. If Quinn can make changes then I’d hang around but if this is shot down I’d start looking elsewhere and Quinn too!

    1. Original poster here*

      Sally was widely disliked, and a very difficult person to work with due to her constant disapproval. I only worked with her for a few months and was thrilled to see her go. She made me feel incompetent and like I wasn’t trusted. During staff meeting she’d inspect my calendar and demand to know if my meetings were personal or professional.

      Of the “new staff,” two of us are in newly created positions. I did have a predecessor who barely lasted a handful of months. I’ve heard from being out & about in the community that she and Sally disliked each other deeply.

      The new staff with the longest tenure filled a vacancy. She, too, disliked Sally and did her best to avoid Sally. A naturally reserved person, she’s become more open with staff since Sally left, though is still on her guard with Yertle, the office manager. Yertle and Sally were a difficult duo to live with, and Yertle still does some of the meddling behavior the Sally did but without a partner, the energy behind it tends to dissipate quickly.

      1. aebhel*

        Honestly, this sounds a lot like my situation when I started my current job: my predecessor had been around for 30+ years, and stuck around part-time after I was hired. It was supposed to be for a couple of months to train me, but she stuck around for almost two years. Essentially, she wanted to keep all the tasks she enjoyed doing, dump everything else on me, and maintain full control over how everything was done; it was impossible for me to get anything done, and she was a really difficult person to work with.

        Eventually, she got into a conflict with our new director and quit in a huff, and everything was much easier after that. I don’t have any advice, but you guys have my sympathies. That’s such a frustrating situation to deal with.

  14. WellRed*

    Even if Sally is getting paid, the fact that she can access Quinn’s computer, AND that Quinn didn’t even know this, seems dysfunctional to me. And yes, I know the computer belongs to the company.

    1. Q*

      Well, she knows now!

      I wonder what would’ve happened if Sally decided to use the computer while Quinn was in the middle of something!

      1. nonymous*

        At my workplace, when the IT staff remotes in, there is a little window that pops up allowing me to cancel their control. Also, depending on how they remote in, it’s possible the person in front of the computer gets shown a locked screen.

      2. Original poster here*

        When I remote in to my computer from home, there’s a screen showing the remote log-in session on my computer when I return to the office. Quinn would also see the same thing.

  15. Anon for This*

    It sounds like Quinn’s manager is the CEO. If the CEO won’t change or let Sally go, then I don’t really see how Quinn has a chance here.

    And I get it. I work in an organization with a CEO who wants to hold onto long-time senior staffers for as long as possible even when holding onto them is detrimental to the organization as a whole and drives off talent. Honestly, in this case unless the CEO gets on board, the only hope is that Sally eventually wants to be retired and stops contact.

  16. MuseumChick*

    Do you work in a small local museum/historical society? I’m getting flashbacks to my time working on places that this….I need a cup of tea now.

    1. NaoNao*

      Twist: Sally is married to a museum volunteer who keeps the collection items in his house! :) (a previous series of letters and updates shared a similar theme with this one)

      1. MuseumChick*

        Is it weird that my brain started putting together a family tree that includes some of AAM’s most memorable persons?

  17. Seespotbitejane*

    The bit about how the company hangs onto everything gave me hives. I’m in the middle of an enormous scanning project to digitize my company’s document archive. When I asked people which documents were critical they told me “all of them” every time. Now that we’ve got people actually going through the documents I can say, “Oh, what about this pick slip from 1994? Or this undated handwritten receipt that there’s no way to know what it’s for?” Turns out it’s not actually all mission critical after all.
    TL:DR I feel your pain.

    1. Original poster here*

      About a week ago – before the computer discussion happened – Quinn, another colleague, and I were all in the office alone. We started opening drawers and laughing about how old some things were. We gleefully recycled a few things to see if anybody noticed.

      Nobody has.

      1. I'm A Little TeaPot*

        Honestly, the stuff that isn’t needed you can dump and it wouldn’t be noticed, except that others would see the open space. Unless of course you’re dealing with people who have a mental issue with stuff, they can be hyperfocused on it and would notice (and meltdown).

      2. Ask a Manager* Post author

        Oooof, please don’t do that. Unless you’re in a position to be absolutely 100% sure that those things can be disposed of, this could be really bad. Maybe 98% of it can go but if you throw out the one thing someone actually needs in six months, that’s not good. If it’s not your place to do this (and I don’t know if it is or not), you really really shouldn’t. Yes, they seem like they’re hoarding things unnecessarily, but that doesn’t mean everything there can be thrown out.

      3. DataQueen*

        Just to echo what what Alison said – given that your tenure is in months, there may still be many things that you don’t know about yet that could be the reason things are held on to. At my non-profit (and the laws could vary by state/IRS determination) we have to keep copies of cheques over $1,000 for 12 years. We have to keep batch deposit slips for 7 years. There are audit purposes for these things, and yes it means we have file cabinets full of things no one has looked at since they were put in. But if we ever get audited and those things are gone, we’re in deep trouble.

        1. Nita*

          Yikes, please don’t do that without asking! Maybe it’s really garbage, but unless you’re sure… Just something that happened to me recently – a new employee at a bank I work with tossed some paperwork of mine because they were sure it’s garbage. It wasn’t noticed for four years, at which point I needed it returned from the bank. And it wasn’t there. The number of hours I’ve put into trying to restore it is ridiculous, and I’m pretty sure I’ll be looking at some massive financial losses (basically all my earnings for three or four years!) because the people who would be able to fix this issue (not the bank) are unable or unwilling to do it. All because someone thought a single piece of paper was garbage.

          1. MakesThings*

            Jesus Christ, I am having a hard time processing that *ONE* piece of paper can be completely irredeemable like this!
            Hope you don’t have to sacrifice 3-4 years worth of money out of your own pocket???

            1. Nita*

              Thanks, I also hope not – but the situation is complicated and snowballed from a tiny, easily fixable mistake to something truly ridiculous. It’s not super uncommon for banks to lose documents, but in my case it’s put me at the mercy of another party who may take advantage of the lack of paperwork (and has been known to do sketchy things to others).

  18. Scarlott*

    My last job was at an organization similar to this in respect to the leadership and the low retention rate. It actually wasn’t so much that leadership was bad, but that ownership made a hard and fast rule to pay engineers the absolute minimum, and raises were a set amount across the board with no opportunity for merit raises. Even when you got a “promotion”, it would just be to a better position. As a result everyone would take the job because they didn’t have better offers on the table, and would leave as soon as another offer came along. It’s not necessarily because of bad leadership, just they decided that other than the top positions they didn’t need the benefits that come from having a very experienced staff.

    1. The Other Katie*

      Refusing to pay people a good wage to start, failing to provide any rewards for increased responsibilities or excellent performance, and as a result suffering from what was probably really expensive turnover? (Hiring engineers ain’t cheap!) This is awful leadership!

  19. Someone else*

    The thing about changing the “default user” really struck me. I don’t know what system they’re using, so I realize it’s possible it may actually have such a thing, but I’d expect whatever user that pops up on the login screen, if any, to be the last user who logged in. So this sounds two red flags for me:
    1) Sally may have been logging into Quinn’s computer every night in order for her to daily pop up first when Quinn arrived to log in.
    2) Quinn never realized that’s what was happening.

    Indeed this is an IT nightmare.

  20. Samiratou*

    OP, does your role have anything to do with data or information security (or does anyone in your org)? Does Quinn have access to customer/client/gov’t or other sensitive information? The CEO may not want to get rid of Sally, but her having access to potentially sensitive data is exceedingly risky, and could run afoul of organizational policies or even laws & regulations, depending. If your job is at all related to such things then that would be an angle you could take, otherwise I would say it’s Quinn’s battle. Though Quinn could certainly also use the security angle, too, as THEY’RE LETTING SOMEONE WHO DOESN’T WORK THERE HAVE ACCESS TO AN EMPLOYEE’S WORKSTATION I MEAN WHAT EVEN IS THAT?!? Not that Sally would ever do anything untoward, but that doesn’t make it any less awful from a security standpoint.

  21. Max from St. Mary's*

    I’ll be the Devil’s Advocate here. According to the OP, the CEO and office manager get along well with Sally, and at least two other former employees worked well enough with her that they still stay in close touch with the organization. That leaves the OP and two other newish employees that don’t, so not exactly an overwhelming rejection and may speak more to an age issue than Sally being unlikable.

    OP says the staff was ‘stunned’ to hear that Sally still had access to Quinn’s computer, but the office manager knew, the CEO knew, and Quinn obviously knew since Sally had responded to a client weeks before, so really only the OP and (possibly one other employee) didn’t know.

    I think it’s reasonable of Quinn to ask the CEO if there’s an arrangement that Sally will continue to work with certain clients, and if so work make sure there’s no duplication of effort. I also think it’s a good idea for Quinn to ask that Sally not access Q.’s computer–if Sally is continuing to do consulting work with the organization, she should have her own computer and e-mail address.

    OP, I really think this isn’t your issue, it’s Quinn’s. As someone says above, you can continue to be happy that you don’t have to deal with someone you didn’t get along with or decide if the organization’s culture just isn’t a good fit for you.

    1. nonymous*

      I would say that, depending on the nature of the work, OP may be able to bring up the security issue from the perspective of regulatory compliance/privacy. But only from the perspective of auditing the entire team. So is there a company-wide policy regarding data access and security? Is the authorized user list updated? Does it include all staff and volunteers, including those off-site?

      It’s up to the org to define their own practices, but especially if they are dealing with confidential client info or grant funds, there’s a likelihood they may get audited or inspected at some point.

      1. MK*

        Sure, if there is any such issue, she can bring it up, but I doubt that will get the results the OP wants. It sounds to me that the OP wants Sally gone permanently (and perhaps big changes in how the org works). Pointing out security issues might get Sally’s access to Quinn’s computer revoked, but if the CEO wants her involved with the company, she will still be part of the OP’s work life.

  22. Quickbeam*

    Companies ( large or small) really need a clear separation of service. 20 years is nothing at my company …we have 50 year people…. but the company tries to sweeten the retirement pie with other perks. No one can effectively work in the shadow of a ghost who won’t leave.

  23. Troutwaxer*

    The problem here is not merely legal or IT/security based, but very practical if you are Quinn. If Sally can read Quinn’s email, then she is able to really make Quinn’s life hell, either through malice or simple misunderstandings. On the side of misunderstandings, she can promise things which Quinn can’t deliver, say “no” to issues where Quinn wants to say “yes,” go the opposite way from Quinn on an issue which Quinn has negotiated verbally but not written up yet, etc. She can also (if I understand correctly) alter documents and surf the web from Quinn’s computer.

    On the side of malice… let’s not go there. Suffice it to say that Sally can make Quinn look really, really bad if she’s so inclined and even implicate her in criminal behavior. She would also have access to Quinn’s private communications with HR, Quinn’s disciplinary information, etc. This is a horrible problem for Quinn, because Sally can tank Quinn’s career.

    So if I were Quinn, I would definitely complain, and I would do it by email and be very loud about it, because the downside for Quinn is really horrible – Quinn’s complaint needs to be memorable, though not over-the-top. Also, Quinn needs to document every time Sally does something on the system and keep records! If Quinn is an administrator on the computer, perhaps she can disable remote logins?

    If I were a client or a grantor, I would be very, very suspicious of this arrangement – the problem of not being able to know who caused a problem or made a promise is very difficult.

  24. Probably Not Manfred Mann*

    I really want the staff to band together and tell the CEO they’ve not seen nothing like the Mighty Quinn.

  25. Run By Fruiting*

    I have a variation of this at my office. A woman who was the secretary for the department head about a zillion years ago is retired but still comes in a couple times a week to do some mindless busywork and get paid, because the bosses think it’s a nice thing to do. Meanwhile we are absolutely bursting at the seams and she’s taking up a desk. Oooooookkkkkkk…

  26. Ruthie*

    Wow, OP, we have an eerily similar culture. I have many of what I refer to as “zombie colleagues.” They’re “retired,” but continue working for years when they feel like it. And it’s not only accommodated, it’s encouraged.

    I have no idea what their compensation is like, if they even receive any.

    I’ve been at my job a little over 1.5 years and I still regularly see people or emails from people I apparently work with who have never come up before. Once I was watching a national news program and they interviewed one of my zombie colleagues I didn’t know existed!

    My boss, who I also did not care for, retired after I had been with my organization for about a year. For a while she regularly emailed me, but eventually stopped because I flat out ignored then. But others still get them regularly. And I recently found out that someone on our leadership team still speaks with her weekly! I never trusted her judgment and it turns out she’s still influencing the bad decisions my office makes.

    I have a final round interview at another organization Monday. Please keep your fingers crossed for me.

    1. EvilQueenRegina*

      We have this one guy who I really don’t know if he’s still here or not – the Starks are a married couple who go out to do work in schools, basically a law unto themselves and we never actually see them. One day we got an email from Catelyn Stark saying that for some reason Ned’s email wasn’t working. On investigating this with IT they came back with “We ended his access because we have had a termination of employment form for Ned Stark.” He’s about retirement age, and a new person had been appointed to that team, so people were wondering if he was just trying to keep using his work email once he retired. But then Cersei, his line manager, denied sending the termination request and is still allocating Ned young people to work with, so as far as she is concerned Ned is still an employee.

      Last I knew IT had been asked to confirm who sent them the request and any emails for Ned had been asked to go via Catelyn. None the wiser on whether the guy’s actually working here.

  27. Woah*

    Ugh, the holding on to everything part gave me shivers. When I first worked at my last job, I inherited a desk that had materials from over thirty years ago, predating the the current manager, who had been there for twelve years. The dust! The grossness! I found a few vintage brochures (one encouraged pregnant women to drink and one called lesbian sex unnatural) and otherwise systematically sorted everything. By the time I ran everything past my boss to dispose of, everything else in the drawer was gone. I proceeded to do this for three more large filing cabinets, with permission, and absolutely nothing was kept.
    I’m still confused to this day what the people who worked there before me did for storage. My desk had been occupied until two months before. The employee must have been balancing folders on her monitor or swallowing them or something because Everything Was Packed With Junk. Dusty. Junk.

  28. Bagpuss*

    Woah, this seems like a very odd set up. I think if Quinn is raising it, it would be reasonable to suggest that the practicalities change, even if they still want to keep Sally as a volunteer. For instance, having Sally have her own, separate account on the system (perhaps with Quinn or another full time employee being abl to access that) and Quinn’s computer being hers.

    It would also be appropriate to have some sort of formal guidance for the staff as to what Sally’s role is and some guidance for Sally as to what she needs to do – for instance, notifying Quinn (or other members of staff) if she has spoken to or have other contact with clients, so that there is a clear record and line of reporting for what she’s doing.

    That might allow Quinn to ‘sell’ it to the boss not as ‘get this interfering ex employee out of my hair’ but ‘can we deal formally with this and have clear demarcation between my role and any voluntary or contract work Sally is doing’

    I also think that Quinn can stress that the long handover was helpful but that she no longer needs Sally’s input and (if it is true) that it is actually causing problems because she can’t manage her own work low efficiently if Sally if cherry picking certain things to get involved in and (by the sounds of it) not keeping Quinn in the loop.

  29. ThatLibTech*

    I just had a bit of a flashback to one of my former places of employment, and this explains A Lot.

  30. bohtie*

    as an archivist, all these comments are giving me hives. I can’t stop cackling – not at y’all’s expense but that other people feel my pain. “Everything is critical! Everything has permanent historical value! What do you mean, you ‘appraise’ things before you commit to preserving them??”

    1. Cassandra*

      Likewise (not an archivist, but also cringing). There are folks called “records managers” whose work this is. Some of them will freelance the creation of records schedules.

      Please, OP, dig out from under the piles of useless and possibly-prejudicial garbage. Hire a freelance records manager to create a records schedule and deal with your backlog.

  31. Luv the pets*

    I was the incoming CEO to a small non-profit and was following a beloved leader who had been there for years. One (of many) problems was that the COO was a founder of the decades old organization. I had been mislead by the board on a number of things and at this point I don’t know what they themselves didn’t know, and what they flat-out lied to me about. But, it eventually came out that the COO was no longer competent to do her job, but as a founder and much-loved friend and community member, no-one wanted to fire her. Even the former CEO eventually admitted to me, that she should have helped her friend and colleague retire several years earlier.

    This organization is another one that declared itself “like a family”. I will never work under THAT condition again! I ended up having to figure out how to navigate this very difficult situation on top of a number of other disasters. Rather than fire her outright, I tried to ease her into retirement with dignity, but she ended up quitting with hard feelings any way. I say all this to say, when going into a leadership position, you cannot be too diligent about vetting the opportunity, and look at all red flags very carefully. ASK ask ask the questions you need to to be sure you don’t get taken on a wild ride.

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