the way a coworker was fired has me worried for my own job

A reader writes:

Recently the marketing director at my company (lets call her Tori)  got fired after 5+ years, and the way it went down has made me feel really uncomfortable. Now, Tori was not particularly great at her job and was prone to being confrontational and unpleasant at work, so most people in the office weren’t super upset that she got let go. I actually think it probably was the right decision too, especially looking long-term for our marketing department, but I have a big issue with how the firing was handled.

Tori’s boss (Jim, our managing director) never once discussed with her the issues he had with her performance. He never set clear objectives for her, and never gave her team goals to hit. Essentially, he let her run her team how she wanted and gave little guidance. The fact that he all of a sudden decided she had to go, after never making her aware that he was unhappy with her performance, has made me feel extremely uncomfortable about my position. Am I going to be suddenly fired too? I feel like there should be some dialogue about your performance before you’re fired.

Should I bring up this feeling with my manager? I love working here, and am very good at my job. I also really value honest feedback and think there should always be a constructive dialogue going on about specific projects and overall performance. But this whole situation has made me feel that I can be let go at anytime without any notice even if I think I’m doing a good job. It makes me reconsider staying here long-term.

I wrote back and asked, “What makes you sure Tori wasn’t given feedback or warnings? That’s not typically something you’d know about as a colleague.”

I’m not 1000% sure she wasn’t given ANY negative feedback, but I know that she never felt that her job was in jeopardy, or was even close to that. Tori and I were fairly close personally, and would always get lunch or after work drinks together once or twice a week. We were pretty open with each other about work issues, and she would have told me if she thought she was in danger of getting let go.

So, the thing is, a lot of people don’t tell their colleagues when things aren’t going well at work. Or they’ll share some things but are embarrassed to say, “Jim told me there are serious deficiencies in my work and he’ll let me go if I don’t improve.”

On top of that, some people don’t fully process that message when their manager gives to them. Tori’s manager might have been quite clear with her, and she might not have taken him seriously. That’s very much a thing that happens — and in fact, you see it more often with people who are, as you describe Tori, “confrontational and unpleasant.” Those behaviors tend to signal defensiveness and lack of self-awareness, which make people less inclined to truly hear feedback when it’s given. I’ve seen people genuinely shocked they were getting fired even though they were told three weeks earlier, “We’ll revisit your work in three weeks and if we haven’t seen (specific changes) at that point, we’d need to let you go.”

Now, maybe that’s Tori or maybe it isn’t. If you know her well enough to be sure it’s not, then there are a few possibilities here:

1. Jim did talk to Tori about his concerns but wasn’t clear enough about how serious the problems were. This can cover a lot of different things — from only having a single conversation, to only talking about it at performance review time, to talking about it more frequently but sugarcoating it or framing it in a way that sounded optional. This isn’t good management, but it’s very common — and it could mean that Tori wasn’t really fired without any warning. It’s still not ideal, but it’s different than “Tori had no idea there were problems.”

2. Jim finally took a serious look at the situation and decided that things weren’t salvageable. When you’re unhappy with an employee’s performance and have seen enough to be confident they can’t turn it around in the way you need, it still usually makes sense to talk with them about your concerns, convey the seriousness of the situation, and give them feedback and an opportunity to get their work where you need it. That’s especially true if someone has been there for years. But it’s also true that sometimes things are so bad that you know there’s no realistic way to salvage them. And sometimes there are outside pressures in play — like maybe you normally would give feedback and warnings and time to work through the process, but you just found out you have a high-stakes project with little ramp-up time that requires someone else at the helm if it’s going to succeed.

To be clear, if that happens, that means the manager messed up by not addressing things earlier. But in some circumstances, moving quickly is still the right call to make.

3. Something happened that was egregious enough to be an immediate firing offense on its own. If Tori screamed at a client or sabotaged a project or otherwise went beyond her normal level of “not great at her job and unpleasant to work with” …, some offenses are so bad that it’s not reasonable to expect feedback and warnings before action is taken.

4. Jim is a terrible manager who doesn’t give feedback or talk to people about serious problems and finally got fed up one day and fired Tori out of the blue. This scenario isn’t uncommon. A lot of managers neglect to manage.

So, where does this leave you? Well, pay attention to what you know about Jim. Do you know him to be a generally competent and forthright manager? Or do you know him to be a weak manager who shirks from his responsibilities? That alone might tell you which of these explanations is most likely.

Also, what do you know about your own manager, if that’s a different person than Jim? Does she give you feedback? Talk to you about where you’re doing well and where you could be doing better? Have you seen her duck tough conversations or sugarcoat hard messages to the point that they’re easy to miss? Do you have a sense of how she sees your work (based on something more than the absence of complaints)?

How have you seen other firings handled in your company? Do managers generally follow a path of progressive discipline (like warnings and/or performance improvement plans) or do things seem more haphazard?

All of this will give you good data. But you can also just talk directly with your boss! It’s okay to say, “I was a little unnerved by Tori’s firing. While I realize there were problems with her work, I got the sense it might have seemed pretty out of the blue to her, and it made me wonder about how that kind of thing is handled. I really value honest feedback and would want to know if anyone had serious concerns about my work.”

You can also ask for feedback more generally. If you don’t have a good sense of how your boss sees your work, ask! Ask, “How do you feel things are going overall?” and “Is there anything I should focus on doing better?”

You can never fully inoculate yourself against bad managers. But all of the above should help you feel more confident about where things stand and how your company operates.

{ 143 comments… read them below }

  1. Jennifer Strange*

    Speaking as someone who has been on a PIP (for reasons that I thought were partially fair and partially not), I agree with Alison that it’s not something you necessarily want to tell your co-workers. I was super close with a couple of my colleagues (one of them is going to be a bridesmaid in my wedding even) and I didn’t tell them because it was embarrassing for me (heck, the only person I told was my partner because even telling my parents made me feel like a failure). Obviously, it could still be the case that Jim was a bad manager and didn’t express to Tori the changes she needed to make, but I wouldn’t assume he didn’t just because she didn’t say so.

      1. Amber Rose*

        Yeah. I tell him little things, but the serious screw ups I couldn’t even tell my husband about. The shame was too much.

        1. Jennifer*

          I almost didn’t tell him, but I felt if I was going to be fired he deserved some advance warning since we really need two incomes to get by. Thankfully that didn’t happen.

          People are always much nicer than I imagine when I do open up about stuff like that. My internal dialogue is so bad. I need to work on that.

          1. I Wrote This in the Bathroom*

            I told my family for the same reasons.

            I told one guy who I’d thought to be a good work friend, the next day after it happened. He literally never talked to me again O_0 Granted, he had already given notice and was leaving for grad school, but in the 2-3 weeks he stayed in the office, he had no interaction with me, nor did he get in touch with me after. That was unexpected.

            After that, I was very careful about who to tell at work, only told one person (who was friends with me, but was also friends with my boss) and framed it as “well you know I’m now on probation, so if you think that being seen chatting with me will hurt your management career, please feel free not to, I won’t mind. His reaction was to pull me aside and give me a ton of advice that ultimately probably saved my job with that company. (There was a lot of office politics involved that I had not known about.) I guess there’s no telling from one person to another. But I don’t think I told anyone else in the office.

            1. Jennifer*

              Wow, I’ve never heard of people distancing themselves from someone because they are on a PIP. I get things being a little awkward, but to not even speak to you is just so mean.

              It actually reminds me of the Nosedive episode of Black Mirror where when your “rating” got a bit low you became a social pariah.

              1. Triumphant Fox*

                Eh, I can see in some offices not wanting to be closely associated with low performers. It depends on the work environment and the optics.

                1. Jennifer*

                  To the point where you won’t even say hello? Sounds pretty nasty to me. I guess I can understand not wanting to be friends for people that are very career-driven. I don’t pick my friends based on their job performance.

            2. Close Bracket*

              A good work friend is still a work friend, though. Situational friendships typically end once the situation ends, which it did once he left for grad school. I’m sure it was very hurtful to experience, but I wouldn’t read too much into it. It may have been that he didn’t want to be associated with someone who was PIPed, but it may also have been that some people have no idea how to act toward someone who is going through something tough. And, as you say, he was leaving.

            3. PBJnocrusts*

              Bathroom, that is amazing- that your colleague helped you in that way:) I’ve just come out of a toxic workplace and nice things like that blindside me. I’m used to people throwing each other under the bus.

        2. RUKiddingMe*

          I know I would never tell my husband. The other side of that is that I am 99.9999% sure he would tell me if it were him. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

      2. Doug Judy*

        I was on a PIP many years ago at and old job and to this day, only my boss, HR and I know. Not my husband, not my best friend, and certainly not my coworkers. And I was very close with some coworkers, and tell my best friend and husband literally every other thought I have.

        I completed the PIP and went on to be a very good employee and worked there many years after and left on my own accord. I still haven’t told anyone. I might now disclose it to my best friend of the subject came up but I don’t think OP can assume her former coworker would for sure have disclosed.

    1. londonedit*

      Definitely. If my boss was having serious ‘you are failing at this and you must improve or your job will be in jeopardy’ conversations with me, there is absolutely no way I’d be telling my colleagues about it. I’d probably be too embarrassed to tell anyone at all. I’m not saying that’s a good approach – I’m sure if I was in that situation, and I confided in someone like a close family member, it would be helpful and I’d probably get some good advice and/or support. But still, my perfectionist, ‘must be good at everything, can’t be seen to be failing’ tendencies would totally come out and I’m sure I’d be too ashamed to admit I was going through that sort of process at work.

      1. Emily K*

        It can be especially difficult to share with a coworker if it’s someone you work with directly in any capacity – there’s an added layer of guilt on top of the shame because you feel like you’re letting them down by not being as good at your piece of the work as someone else in your role might be. Like you’d be admitting, “You’re out here doing great work and I’m the dead weight dragging everyone down and if they really knew how much I was falling short of expectations they’d probably wish they had a more competent coworker.”

    2. Lizzy May*

      Yep. I was on a PIP I felt was unfair but I didn’t tell anyone. Not my coworkers, not my friends, not my parents. I just did my work, met the PIP extras (creating an action plan, extra coaching and work tracking and doing additional learning) and hoped that the level of work I was doing would be recognized. (It was.) Even though I knew I was right, I still felt a great deal of shame around being PIPed. I’ve since done a great deal of emotional work around a very common feeling that your job is your value and I don’t think I’d be as embarrassed now in the same situation but I absolutely believe that someone wouldn’t share a PIP or a “you could lose your job” talk with a friend/coworker.

    3. Public Sector Manager*

      We have a brand new supervisor who has been put on a PIP. But the supervisor has told everyone within earshot that they aced their probationary period, that executive management is looking to them to promote to manager as soon as possible–none of which is true. And it’s exceptionally embarrassing to be in management and to be put on a PIP.

      Jim could be a bad manager, but evidence of that should come from sources other than Tori.

      1. Escapee from Corporate Management*

        Totally agree with your last point. OP, please don’t accept Tori’s word as 100% accurate. I’ve heard too many people complain about “being blindsided” and “bad management” when I knew (as a manager) that was simply not the case. Please do your due diligence as Alison outlines.

      2. tangerineRose*

        “supervisor has told everyone within earshot that they aced their probationary period,” this kind of lying seems like a fireable offense right there.

      3. Tech girl*

        I find it sad and disappointing that you think someone being put on a PIP is “exceptionally embarrassing.” As someone who’s been on a PIP and was subsequently let go, I’ve had to do a lot of work emotionally to get over that feeling and realize that my self worth is not based on a job or what one person thought of me. At the end of the day, it’s just a job. Also, most people are not going to be good at every job they ever have. That’s just life. I hope you can reframe how you feel and how you talk about other people who are having performance challenges. You never know what someone is going through. (I for one was experiencing a lot of mental health issues that were triggered by a boss that HR had gotten tons of complaints about but wouldn’t address them.) And to anyone reading this that is feeling bad about being on a PIP, remind yourself that you are so much more than a job!

    4. The Bimmer Guy*

      Ditto. I got hired on with the same company as my best friend, A, on the same department, but doing completely different things. While our manager, K, thought A was the best thing since sliced bread, he was less enamored with my performance, which was partially warranted and partially not. I was put on a PIP and then summarily fired a month later. A was outraged on my behalf, but I hadn’t told him I was ever on a PIP or that that K was even disappointed with my performance.

    5. Liz*

      This was me as well, a number of years ago. I had been hired to work for one manager, in a split dept – think teapots and coffeepots, similar, but not the same, to work on teapots. Then I was told I was being moved to the coffeepot side, um ok, with really NO good reason given. I am still convinced, close to 20 years later, it was only to justify my new bosses’ promotion.

      Anyway, even when i had been moved, initially it wasn’t clear who i reported to, him or his boss. And when it came time for my review, i was blindsided by a whole bunch of stuff i either wasn’t doing, or wasn’t doing right. Yet no one had actually ever told me about any of it, and most of it wasn’t stuff i could just pick up on myself.

      I never told my parents, as they wouldn’t have gotten it and so on. I told a couple close friends at work, but other than that, i told no one. Thankfully, my immediate boss wasn’t really on board with it, and i managed to do everything i was supposed to, and am still here.

      So yeah, there are managers who will just tell you you’re doing a crappy job, but never actually TELL you how you can improve.

  2. Jennifer*

    I know how you feel, OP. I’m just anxious by nature and every time my boss asks to speak to me I assume I’m getting fired. One thing I have done to counteract this is just by taking initiative and asking for specific feedback, as Alison suggested. For example, I knew I needed improvement in a certain area and thought I made sufficient improvement, but instead of worrying that I hadn’t, I just asked. It put my mind at ease to hear I was on the right track.

    Best wishes, OP.

    1. JustaTech*

      I think you’ve got an excellent point here: regardless of how Jim handled Tori’s management, OP should just ask for feedback from their manager.
      OP might get some specific feedback, OP might get “you’re doing a good job, keep it up”, but either way it will tell OP’s manager that OP cares and is invested in their job and doing it well. Hopefully it will make OP feel better, too.

    2. The Bimmer Guy*

      Same. Get fired once (see my above comment), even if it’s expected, and it makes you panic. I outright asked my current boss to stop sending me IM’s with “Can we talk?” and no other context, first thing in the morning, and he has obliged.

      Now, he’ll send me something like: “Let’s chat about the new UI roadmap when you get in.”

      1. Jennifer*

        Omg, my stomach feels like it’s going to fall out of my body when I get those messages. It’s terrifying.

        1. Mommy. MD*

          I literally feel like I’m about to have a heart attack lol. I always look at my schedule and make sure I’m on it for the full shift. After 20 years and good performance reviews.

      2. I Wrote This in the Bathroom*

        A “Can we talk?” IM first thing in the morning from a boss would probably send me to an ER with a heart attack. I’m glad yours changed the wording!

      3. Emily K*

        Honestly, even outside of work I don’t like vague, “do you have a minute to talk?” type requests. Whenever I have something to discuss that doesn’t make sense to get into in the opening message I’ll either indicate the topic in very brief/general terms or say something like, “Give me a call when you have a minute. Nothing serious or urgent, just want to fill you in on a bunch of random things.”

      4. Akcipitrokulo*

        Awesome boss would send me outline, or if was something to talk about in person would say/send “can we have a word? nothing bad!”

        There is an argument he shouldn’t have to… but he knew I got stressed and took that into account.

      5. Partly Cloudy*

        I was once called into my boss’s office and told to shut the door on my way in. Turns out I was getting promoted, but holy cow!

      6. Mine Own Telemachus*

        I was recently (as in last week!) told I was being laid off by my boss scheduling a meeting with a totally normal name for the course of our business and actually prepped things based on the description in google calendar.

        None of it mattered because it was actually a meeting to tell me my position was being eliminated entirely.

        So my advice to managers is to NOT DO THAT.

      7. Mama Bear*

        A former boss used to take people out to coffee to deliver bad news and after a while no one wanted to get coffee with him.

        I’ve seen both sides – both where bad management didn’t formalize PIP and the team was surprised and also where it just wasn’t talked about. On the team where there was bad management, the best thing the new manager did was to gather the troops and say “Ok, so that happened. It won’t happen that way again. None of you are in danger of being fired.” You need reassurance sometimes. If OP needs that reassurance, asking the manager directly may be the easiest thing.

    3. Mommy. MD*

      I’ve been at my job for 20 years and still get nervous when they want to “speak to me” lol. Even though it’s always about a small random thing that has nothing to do with my job. I don’t think anyone likes to hear “the higher ups are looking for you”.

      1. Robin Sparkles*

        So glad I am not alone here. I have been in my industry for 16 years -am now a senior project manager and I feel the same as you! It is so crazy how my heart rate goes up the second I get an email or message from a higher up with some version of “can we talk”.

    4. corporate engineering layoff woo*

      My layoff notice was a hastily scheduled “project update” meeting with a misspelled conference room name (not inviting the conference room resource directly) and a reschedule. Meeting was an anxious manager and the site HR person… Fool me once, they say. That pattern will be embedded in my memory going forward.

  3. Amber Rose*

    I tell people a lot of things (I am an open book), but when I really screw up I keep it to myself out of embarrassment. So there may have been a lot going on that you didn’t hear about. We’re never really in on everything that’s going on in a person’s head. People I love who I am super close to still manage to surprise me with things I absolutely never knew was going on. Never assume you’re close enough to someone to know everything.

    Now, if you want to know how you really should not do firing, do not do what my company has inadvertently done: every time someone is let go, they bring in pizza. Now everyone associates pizza with firing and we can’t have pizza lunch for fun anymore. =P

  4. Witchy Human*

    I’ve had several bosses who hated giving negative feedback, even when it was needed or requested. It’s very frustrating. I want to improve, not be flattered.

    I learned how to pre-sugarcoat my own criticism. “Skills I should focus on building” rather than “weak areas that need improvement” etc.

    1. HotSauce*

      Oh, that’s a really great way of phrasing it! I’m going to try that with my own manager who just says stuff like “you’re doing great!” “your work is great”, never anything more specific than that.

    2. Malarkey01*

      I sometimes struggle giving feedback when it’s not necessarily negative but could be better type (I’m always actively working on improving this but it’s a management weakness). Anyway, I have someone who occasionally checks in less formally to ask were you happy with x or did you think I could have handled y better- and that little opening, in a more casual format, helps me give much better and more honest feedback. Seeking feedback instead of waiting to receive it in a formal meeting makes me feel like they are more open to it and phrased like that it’s not a referendum on their entire performance but a gauge on specific tasks that I think give a good idea of how things are going overall.

    3. Minocho*

      I have found that specifically asking for feedback on “areas where I could improve” allows the manager an opening to tell me about those areas where I’m not meeting expectations, and signal that I am open to such feedback going forward. It’s a good way to encourage that sort of feedback. The other thing to keep in mind is that while feelings of defensiveness are understandable when receiving feedback on places where I’m falling short of expectations, I need to handle those feelings on my own time, or I”m discouraging that valuable feedback.

  5. Jack Be Nimble*

    I’m in HR, and we had several recent firings that must have seemed really out-of-the-blue to most of the company — two of the employees had been on PIPs for months and the third was fired for serious misconduct. All of the firings were handled with extreme discretion, because nobody needs to know that so-and-so got fired for failing to meet her goals or for driving intoxicated on a work trip.

    1. Jack Be Nimble*

      Which is to say, it may not be a bad thing that you were unaware of the lead-up to the firing. Allison’s advice is spot-on here — you have to assess the manager and the circumstances, in addition to the firing itself.

      1. tape deck*

        Yes, this. I would be very concerned if my manager confided in me about my coworker’s performance issues. There are things I don’t expect to know, because they’re not mine to know. Whether I trusted that those actions were taken in good faith depended on whether I trusted my management in general.

    2. GooseTracks*

      How do you handle the fear it passes on to remaining employees, though? If the perception is that X Company fires people out of the blue, for no reason, that’s really bad for morale and can drive good employees away. How do you balance the need for discretion with assuring people that these firings aren’t actually random?

        1. Putting the "pro" in "procrastinate"*

          A few months after I started my current job (which was almost 11 years ago) one of my teammates left. I wasn’t really clued into anything at that point and didn’t think much about it. Then my manager came to my next 1-1 and asked me if I had any concerns about the teammate’s leaving. I didn’t understand at the time (like I said I was a little oblivious) but now that I am a manager myself (and a long-time AAM reader) I really appreciate what my manager was trying to do.

        2. Minocho*

          My skip level got let go out of the blue (from my perspective, anyway). It was pretty scary for everyone reporting to her. Her reports who were in the day of the firing were called into a meeting (about half of the employees who reported to her were in on that day) and told we were not to discuss it with anyone, and if we heard anyone else discussing anything, to go to the director and tell the director. The other half of her reports, unless talked to in private on an individual basis, were told nothing.

          I understand it’s likely appropriate that we don’t know why she was fired, but I really don’t feel like it was handled very well.

      1. Jedi Squirrel*

        “X and Y were let go for documented performance issues and Z was terminated for a serious breach of company policy.”

        Just like that. Let people know that the performance issues were documented, so that the rest of your employees can rest easy, because their performance is not being documented in a negative way. And then it might be a bad thing to do a little corporate training on the issue that Z was terminated for, so that your staff is clear on what is and is not allowable in that situation. In the case of the issue above, I would train on the company’s zero-tolerance policy for drugs and alcohol, so that it’s a bit more general, rather than allowing people to think everything except the one item Z was let go for is allowable.

        1. Not Me*

          I would not disclose termination reasons to other employees. You’ll create (a very real) fear employee confidentiality is not being honored.

          When I’m asked why someone was terminated I generally stick to “Just like I wouldn’t discuss your employment and performance with anyone else, I can’t discuss Jane’s employment with you. I can tell you that we take every termination very seriously and it’s a decision that needs HR approval, so it’s not a knee-jerk response made by an individual.”

          1. OhNo*

            I think that’s a good response that makes the issue of privacy really clear to other employees.

            If an employee was concerned about performance issues, though, you might want to add a line like, “I try to share feedback on your performance with you regularly, but if you’re ever unsure or want more feedback we can always meet to discuss how things are going.”

            Just something that lays out how you keep your people apprised of any potential issues, and an open invitation to ask for more feedback if they’re worried, might do a lot to alleviate some of the stress.

          2. The New Wanderer*

            I think that’s totally fine too. It is really about management actually saying out loud to people “we take this very seriously and wouldn’t fire someone for arbitrary reasons” and not being completely silent about it like they’re hoping the coworkers won’t notice or think about it. It’s reassuring even without the specifics.

        2. Observer*

          What the others said. Also, training everyone about driving safety because Jane drove drunk can come off as passive aggressive – and may not even make sense.

          1. Not Me*

            Exactly, and that would make me think the person has zero idea how to manage if they make everyone train on something they’re doing correctly just because 1 person didn’t.

      2. hbc*

        If you’re doing it right, some people get that little shot of panic no mater what, but it subsides when they get a little time to calm down. There might be an initial “Tori, oh my gosh, that’s so unwarranted, who could be next?,” but then there’s “Oh, wait, everyone hated working with her and she wasn’t particularly good at her job.
        I’m not an underperforming jerk, so I’m probably good.”

        Of the five people I described firing below, no one who worked with them was surprised. The office rumor mill will work in your favor for those farther out. Other than that, it’s “I don’t want to talk details to protect Tori’s privacy, but our policy is not to let someone go unless we’ve discussed the situation with them and looked at all options.”

    3. The other Louis*

      I fired three people who were failing to show up for work, showing up drunk, filing false documents, all of whom had been very clearly told that they were on probation. They told everyone that they had been fired out of the blue, that they had never received any warning, and it was just because a customer or two complained (the customers complained about their not showing up, or showing up drunk). It was a mess, and my boss had been the one who created the mess by talking to them over and over and not doing anything.

      1. Academic department manager*

        I had a report who was on a year-and-half PIP (union position) who told her co-worker friends when she was finally let go that it was a surprise and no one told her she was doing anything wrong. I couldn’t share the confidential information. I just assured people that I worked closely with HR and my supervisor with this employee for some time and that was all I could say.

        1. Door Guy*

          I’ve got an employee that the President has already been talking about letting go due to costly errors being repeatedly made. Said employee has been sat down with and spoken to on multiple occasions, he’s on a PIP, and even after all of that, if he gets let go, I will put cold hard cash on him blaming everyone but himself.

      2. The Man, Becky Lynch*

        I’ve noticed that people who are terminated for egregious behavior will rarely take the blame. There’s always an excuse, it’s always a fabrication or a witch hunt.

        It’s really to save face in the end, it’s always “The Man” to blame. They’ve always got that axe to grind at your expense!

        No man. I just don’t want you to show up spun out on meth but sure, tell them that it’s because we suck. I’m not really worried about your opinion of me, you showed up high AF and was acting erratic towards others, get outta here. [Nobody believed him that we were the problem in that case though, it was a public display of WTF WTF WTF WTF]

        I mean it’s usually for really bad lapses in judgement like that of course, which are often a deeper problem in the end. Very rarely is the termination that wake up call that they screwed up royally and need to fix themselves, which includes accepting responsibly.

      3. Jack Be Nimble*

        We had the same situation with the employee fired for misconduct! She expressed a lot of shock, dismay, and confusion to anyone who’d listen. And it may have felt very shocking to her, but she knew that the higher-ups were Not Pleased with her antics well before the axe actually fell.

        I myself was fired from my first job out of college for performance issues that had been discussed repeatedly with me and I was absolutely SHOCKED! I mean, sure they told me it was a problem, but to actually fire me???? The gall!!!!!!!!!!!!! I told more than a few face-saving lies after that!

    4. Lora*

      On the last one I disagree. For really really egregious stuff, I think there is nothing wrong with publicly stating, “ABC Corporation does not tolerate drinking on the job or drinking while driving EVER, and ESPECIALLY not in a car the company has rented for you. If there is even one such instance of drinking and driving a company car, we will terminate you on the spot. Clear?” And as a manager, if you are ever going to look obviously angry, that would definitely be a good time to do it. I don’t think there’s anything at all wrong with making an example out of someone when they pull something really horrible, and it’s not at all bad for morale of employees who were maybe stuck on a work trip with Drunk Driver Employee or feared having to share a car with them, or even just heard about it. You don’t have to say “Jane got fired for drunk driving in the company car” but just stating very loudly that the company takes drunk driving in a company car seriously and EVERYBODY better remember it, is enough.

      One of the more morale-building firings I ever saw was the firing of a manager who had openly propositioned a few female employees for sexual favors in exchange for promotions, good reviews, etc. The day the director fired him publicly on the spot for asking a client for sex, ALL the women in the department were grinning ear to ear and honestly the men were relieved too – he was a gross jerk all around, the guys were practically running a book on when he’d finally be fired.

      1. Jack Be Nimble*

        The last firing wasn’t actually for drunk driving — I changed the details to add a few more layers of anonymity. It’s difficult to clarify without obviously spelling out what the issue was, but suffice to say it wasn’t something we wanted to publicize, for the employee’s sake!

  6. Construction Safety*

    I think I would look at Jim & how he handles his other reports to get a better understanding on what (might have) transpired.

    1. Antilles*

      Definitely look at how he is in other aspects of his role.
      As a concrete example, if you see him regularly push back to clients on tight deadlines or upper management on budgets, it’s pretty unlikely that he’d be unwilling to give tough feedback to his employees…but if you see a pattern where he dodges all difficult conversations, it’s reasonable to think he’s probably soft-pedaling those conversations with Tori and maybe you.

  7. It Happens*

    At my last job, managers never told staff about any issues until they were sat down and put on a PIP or straight up fired. Several of my coworkers had stories of being brought in and put on a PIP and hearing issues for the first time without any opportunity to explain things or improve on them before things went that far. One worker was put on a PIP, everything went well, and then 2 years later was brought in and fired for a rehashing of the PIP. She never had any conversations with her manager or upper level admins between those meetings to learn about any issues before that. It was the way they operated. It wasn’t until I’d been there for two years and saw the pattern that I learned why so many of my coworkers walked around every day with a constant fear that they would be fired at any time.

    1. Liz*

      yup. as I commented above, this was my one and only PIP. Except for the rehashing and firing 2 years later. It boggles my mind how companies can expect workers to “fix” what’s broken if they don’t have any clue what’s broken!

      1. Not a cat*

        I was fired from a 5 year-old PIP….5! I was promoted 2X during those 5 years. My read (and this may be my ego talking) was I was too expensive (and internally influential) for new (unskilled but related to owner) management.

        1. RC Rascal*

          I would have consulted an attorney on this one. Using a 5 year old PIP to fire you after 2 promotions smacks of another motive like discrimination.

        2. Door Guy*

          The VP I’m working with likes sharing the story of getting fired from his last job (21 years ago). He was at the top end of his pay grade and when the wages were re-done he (and several others) were over the new maximums. They all got fired one by one for setting a toe out of line. He was let go for “misappropriation of funds” when he didn’t get the deposit in on time.

    2. some dude*

      I worked at a place where over a few years 20 people were fired with no warning, no pips, nothing. I asked the 5-6 I knew well enough and none of them were on anything like a PIP. They were just told to resign. So it happens, and it is scary and icky.

  8. Some Director*

    Allison’s #2 possibility happened to me, from the other side.

    She was blindsided, I still feel bad about it, but it was a perfect storm of circumstances and I know I made the only choice I could.

    I had just recently taken over a team. There was one person, I’ll call her Kim, who hadn’t been performing well for a while and the previous manager (my boss) told me he had been very disappointed in her performance and would be ok with me letting her go.

    She’d been hired to do X and Y, but the role had morphed more into X and we didn’t really need Y anymore. She wrote me a LONG heartfelt letter saying how she really only wanted to do Y, and wasn’t happy doing X (and she wasn’t really good at either, honestly).

    I knew there was no way she could do what we needed, and wouldn’t be happy doing it in any case.

    Plus, there was a BIG project coming up and my boss said that if I was going to make a decision, I needed to make it quickly.

    So I had no choice but to let her go. From her point of view it must’ve seemed like it came out of nowhere, or even was retaliation for her letter. I felt sick about it for a while after.

    1. Faithful Reader*

      Allison’s #2 possibility happened a couple of years ago in my workplace as well. It was a situation where a major project would not have succeeded at all had two individuals remained in their roles. Both had been there for years, were set in their ways/unwilling to pivot in the necessary ways, and feedback had had no effect, and then some unethical practices were uncovered that paved the way for swift action to be taken. My grandboss (who was their direct supervisor) handled it masterfully — even made sure that these two individuals’ former direct reports and colleagues had plenty of support in navigating the change. All that said, to an outside observer, it probably looked like they were fired “out of the blue.” A recent hire on my team actually confirmed this — they were worried because from their perspective (not having been part of our workplace for very long) it did seem very sudden. Fortunately, I was able to provide reassurance (without going into specifics of course) that while it may have looked very sudden, there was in fact a great deal that had led up to it. All this is to say, OP, that even though you have a close relationship with Tori, you may not know all the details, and even if Tori has told you everything, you still only have her perspective. (And it’s likely that Jim could never give you his full perspective because of the need to keep matters like this confidential. I hope he can give you some clarity and reassurance, though, even if he can’t go into detail!)

      Interestingly, I’ve heard through the grapevine that the two colleagues from my example are both doing really well and they’ve come to view the termination as something of a blessing in disguise. (In addition, I occasionally see one of them socially and our interactions are so much more pleasant and relaxed than they ever were when we worked together.)

    2. That Girl from Quinn's House*

      I’ve also been on the other side of it, and the only reason I think the “blindside” method is ever appropriate is because the person has a significant attitude problem, and constructive criticism/negative feedback/a PIP would result in them behaving badly or negligently, or committing sabotage in the interim period.

      There are some people who you simply don’t want present when they’re disgruntled. You just want them gone.

      1. Some Director*

        Do you think a PIP would be a good choice if you know in advance it won’t work? Isn’t it better to be honest and let the employee find a better place where they can excel, instead of giving them false hope?

        Probably the ideal solution in my situation, from the employee’s point of view, would’ve been to work out some kind of severance period, but there’s no way my place of employment would’ve been willing to do that.

    3. Sara without an H*

      Hi, Some Director — I can understand feeling sick about this. There’s no way to fire somebody, even for good cause, without feeling queasy. But it sounds as though you were without much choice.

      I’m curious though: how did the rest of your staff react? And how did you handle that?

      1. Some Director*

        Thanks Sara. Actually, there wasn’t much of a reaction after I made the announcement. One person did ask me about it in private, and I gave the response Allison suggests in her book (my management bible :)) that I wanted to respect her privacy and not share specifics, but that in general, those things don’t come out of the blue, and I explained the procedure that I would typically follow for any performance issues.

    4. The Man, Becky Lynch*

      I’m curious how she was blindsided exactly?

      Did her previous manager talk to her about his disappointment in her performance or did he just let that slide? Did anyone talk to her after you got to that “Maybe it’s better to cut her loose?” discussion?!

      I think it’s pretty cheeky to not see it coming when you tell your boss you want to be relived of X duty, despite you know, that being literally what you were hired to do [along with Y or whatever else duties.] You don’t often get to renegotiate your duties, so this is why it’s crucial to always know that by accepting new ones, you may very well be stuck with them. I have some duties that I’d love to throw out the window or burden someone else with but it’s simply no something that’s going to be allowed unless it’s perhaps to swap duties with someone else [if I were in a department of more than 1 of course, nobody here is qualified let alone would they ever take my the duties I wanna burn in a fire! I’m looking at you collections calls.]

      So she seems to have been out of step with how things really work. Unless it goes back to that thing where nobody ever flagged her performance issues. You say she wouldn’t have been able to improve with a PIP, is that due to the fact she lacked critical skills that everyone was overlooking before or due to the fact she was trained/retrained/coached informally and it wasn’t sticking?

  9. Jedi Squirrel*

    Some managers are really bad at giving feedback. They’re either uncomfortable with it, or don’t have the time (ikr?), or tend to not worry about it if they’re happy with your work. But it never hurts to ask! I’ve always asked my superiors when I felt I needed feedback that I wasn’t getting. It can be really simple questions like “Are you happy with my performance so far?” or “What one area do you need me to improve on this month?” or “Are you satisfied with how I handled the Smith account?” With managers who have difficulty verbalizing things, it can be helpful to ask specific questions like the latter two. At least you are being proactive about getting feedback.

  10. LQ*

    I absolutely get what you are saying here OP. We are in the middle of a re-org and several folks who thought they were doing GREAT are not being promoted and having duties taken away from them because they weren’t performing great. I’m trying really hard to not panic about my role and how I’m doing. I’m vacillating between I’m knocking it out of the park and I’m horrible and shouldn’t be allowed to have this much span.

    So far they are all shocked about what’s happening. But I’ve heard our mutual boss say things about their performance to them. “Building only 10 weasel widgets in a year isn’t acceptable.” “We need to do better than 1 weasel cage in a month.” “I know that your team can do better than this, it needs to improve.” Things like this. It’s not as direct as, “If you don’t start making 200 weasel widgets in a year you’ll be fired.” But it is about as direct as you’re going to get around here. And then those folks continued to either blame their teams (which is horrible) or act like it wasn’t a problem. I would then hear them say later that day that boss thought they did a great job. I don’t know if they were hiding it or just didn’t hear it or what.

    I think waiting for your boss to come to you and say “If you don’t make 200 weasel widgets you’ll be fired.” is a bad idea, especially at a manager or director level. You can propose those things yourself. This is what I’ve done a lot of and I get a lot of actual performance feedback from a boss who is known for not giving it. So that can be a way to go.

    “Hey boss I want to be clear about what your expectations are for me in the next year/2/5 years. These are the projects. This is what the deadlines are. This is how we are going to achieve that.” And then loop back around and check in on them regularly. Don’t wait for your boss to come to you. Gather your stuff, propose a plan, a roadmap, something. Expect that you’ll get it wrong, but it will make you look much better than just waiting. And you’ll feel much better about how you are doing if you can point to good clear success.

    1. londonedit*

      I suppose it’s similar to the way mass ‘reminder’ emails about company policy that are actually designed to target one particular person never end up working. Everyone gets the ‘Employees are reminded that weasels are only to be released from their cages between 3pm and 4pm and must have a minimum of two employees supervising them during free time’ email, but Fergus who always lets the weasels out at 2.30 because he’s bored thinks ‘Yeah, well, no one’s ever said anything to me about it, and the boss doesn’t know anyway, so it’s fine’, and meanwhile Sarah who once accidentally opened the weasel cage at 2.57pm before her colleague Rachel had arrived to help supervise the weasels immediately thinks she’s going to get fired.

      1. Jedi Squirrel*

        My first thought was “I want to work at a place with weasels” and then I realized I’ve worked at places with weasels and it WasNotFun™.

      2. Arts Akimbo*

        This is my favorite thread of the week so far! Are weasel widgets toys for the caged weasels?? I would so be motivated to build lots! Or would I be motivated by quality, so that the weasels had the best play experience possible with their widgets? Either way, being great at one of these metrics might compromise my performance by the other metric. And as for letting them all out of their cages to play… Yeah, just go ahead and put me on a weasel PIP.

        1. LQ*

          Clearly you use the weasel widgets to make the weasel cages. Clearly. :)

          (I may be bored of llamas so…though I did love the llama tap dance teacher last week.)

    2. Jaydee*

      I agree. I think if you get feedback that making 10 weasel widgets a year is too low, then you need to have that conversation with the boss about how many weasel widgets are expected and whether those expectations are reasonable. Is it 20? Is it 200? Is it 200 weasel widgets PLUS 100 weasel cages? Just how far off the mark are you? And what is it realistically going to take to meet that expectation?

      1. LQ*

        I think that having this conversation is easier than most people expect if you are willing to kick it off. Even low confrontation bosses will usually be happy to have an opportunity to have this conversation from a positive place. Walking in and saying “How many weasel widgets a year do you need me to make?” Is the lowest effort on your part, so take a little time and looking at how your role interacts with those around you. If you know that the team that uses the weasel widgets is having to go outside and buy mink widgets and repurpose them because they don’t have enough of the weasel widgets, ask how many they buy.

        Partly if you look at something like this and think it is impossible for you to even take a guess if 20, 200, 2000 is closer to true and that there is no way for you to know and why even bother to try? Yeah, maybe you are in trouble. But basically everyone I’ve known who at least digs in and is willing to try to have this conversation is going to do well. The people who throw up their hands at the thought of initiating the weasel widget conversation with their boss are either people who are really struggling or people who’ve been crushed in their jobs (so also struggling, but you can get out! you can do more!)

    3. Rainy*

      I worked with someone once who was utterly useless at her job, but there had been a re-org and she’d been put under the supervision of someone who managed by Mean Girl and she got along great with the new manager as a result. She eventually left under her own steam (I don’t honestly care, anything that got her out of the organization was FINE WITH ME) but if she had ever said “I don’t know why everyone in [division she actually supported] says I’m hard to work with and my performance is unsatisfactory” it would have been a lie. She had to know, because people told her! But she literally did sweet fuck-all except backstab and talk shit, and then couldn’t understand why everyone was pissed at her all the time.

      1. LQ*

        Managed by Mean Girl is a really (horrible) good way to describe some people. There is a weird tendency right now around my office (and it sounds like a little with the OP looking at Tori too) to look at those managers when something bad happens, demotion, firing, etc and think awwww poor them.

        NO! If they were Managing by Mean Girl they were being horrible to those around them, especially the people who reported to them. They were under managing (likely, even micromanagement can be undermanagement) and over harming the people who reported to them. It’s not ok. Have empathy for the people who were hurt by them. (Then if you have left overs you can give it to them.)

  11. SassyAccountant*

    Sadly, its a crap shoot when it comes to this. On one hand she could have been told but didn’t tell you because like others mentioned; embarrassment, privacy, was told not to etc. Or, she could have been told but in such a passive way that she didn’t understand the severity of it so was taken off guard. Alison has counseled a lot of people on how they need to be more direct in their feedback. Lastly, it’s very possible that no one said anything to her passively or directly and indeed avoided any confrontation with her until they could fire her. Unfortunately, I’ve was let go once under that last scenario. I was at a job where the manager went out on maternity leave and two people took over her duties. It was a job where I worked mainly from the road or from home. We did have an office to stop by and I did often on my way home from investigations to talk about issues, concerns, for help etc. Then one day I was called into the office; the manager was back from maternity leave but she was demoted and they brought someone in from Alaska. They sat me down and were like “you work product is poor, you’re not turning enough in and the guy who trained you says you never call him.” I was aghast. I was like “but I have been working with ‘Nancy’ (one of the interim managers) a lot and she said I was doing great, great work product and she’s been helping me! Did you not talk to her?” They were really surprised and said they never had a conversation with her about me (“Nancy” wasn’t even aware I was being called in for this conversation) and had no idea I had been getting more training from her or that she found my work work product good.” I had e-mails from “Nancy” where this was all documented plus my mid-quarter review signed by “Nancy” that all confirmed I was not operating under delusions about how well I was doing. Didn’t save my job though. They honestly said well it’s too bad and too late as THEY felt I was doing badly. First time I met either one by the way was they day they let me go.

    1. WellRed*

      Well a company that’s going to demote someone returning from mat leave is certainly not going to backpedal on this sort of thing. Sounds like they wanted to do some housecleaning (in a bad way).

  12. Close Bracket*

    When I started having serious conflict with my manager, I didn’t tell my work friend the full details, and it wasn’t because I was embarrassed. It was because while she was a friend, she was a work friend, with the “work” part carrying as much weight as the “friend” part. Unfortunately, with her, that meant I was fairly guarded, and I never did give all the details of how I separated from that company.

    I had a number of friends who I met through professional societies who I was also quite guarded with even though we were much more friends than colleagues. It’s tricky navigating how much to reveal when the impact of a detail that gets amplified or twisted in a game of telephone might be quite high.

  13. CaVanaMana*

    I lost motivation, was performing very poorly and did something that was very serious and could have got me fired. I had a very serious conversation with my boss. I didn’t tell my closest co-workers or, if I did, I made light of the situation. Some knew I was having problems and no one knew how serious. I managed to turn the situation around. It could have gone differently and if my boss hadn’t given me that chance (she didn’t have to!) or if I didn’t change and was eventually fired, my coworkers would be worried like the OP.

  14. Anon Admin*

    There are actually bad managers who fire people without any warning or discussion of problems. It happened at my company earlier this year. We had an employee who had been here for 7 years and one day they were called into a conference room with their manager, HR Director, Executive Director and CFO. They were told they said something that made someone uncomfortable and that created a hostile work environment. Their DOL paperwork said something different- “violation of policy”. They were never told what policy they violated, nor what they said that made someone uncomfortable. I’ve know this person since before they started there and they would be upset to know if they had something that made someone uncomfortable. They would have apologized immediately and made efforts to prevent it from happening again. They still honestly do not know what they supposedly said or who they said it to.

    The HR director doesn’t work at our location so as soon as she showed up, everyone knew something was going to go down. The ex-employee’s manager cried during the whole meeting. Then everyone in that department was told that ex-employee had been fired, don’t ask why and don’t talk about it, which of course made everyone talk about it anyway.

    Ex-employee got a new position within days and is actually much happier. That particular department has gone downhill and I now refer to it as the viper pit. They gave one person a “supervisor” title and that person has now caused 3 people to quit and she is now working on a 4th. Of course, none of these people are part her clique, so she doesn’t view them as actual people. Oh, and the ex-employee who got fired was also not part of the clique.

  15. hbc*

    I’ve fired five people, and only one* saw it coming. I guess I need to get better about saying “Your job is on the line” more clearly, but it was definitely not a situation of not having performance conversations or clear goals. Two of the people had been given a to-do list with (easy) daily items due to their lack of progress, with a check-in meeting 2 weeks later, and I guess they thought they were going to get pats on the back for the 10% they got done. One had gone off the rails in a meeting the week before, and when I told him that he needed to change X, Y, and Z in his approach to other people if he was going to work here, he argued and refused, and then was stunned when he was fired the next week. The fourth had dozens of warnings about attendance and other issues, finally blew off a major customer visit with no warning for something scheduled weeks in advance, and was shocked that we fired him the next day when he strolled in (late, of course.)

    I think people who are conscientious and self-aware don’t always realize how obtuse and confident others can be. I’ve had conversations where I swear I can actually see the thing they don’t want to hear being processed, rejected, and forgotten. Alison is dead-on that the people who are confrontational and unpleasant are just those kind of people who dismiss that kind of feedback as wrong and therefore irrelevant, and will be positive their job is secure until the moment it isn’t. And then tell all their friends about how they were fired because their manager was jealous or felt threatened by their greatness or something. The only thing you should take away from this is a reminder to go check in with your manager occasionally if you haven’t gotten any feedback in a while.

    *She threatened to have her husband come and beat up her supervisor. She wasn’t surprised, but still thought it was unfair.

    1. AnotherAlison*


      I had a convo (actually 2) with someone about their attendance and being able to contact them when out unexpectedly, repeatedly. I think that in the couple months following the discussions, they had a lost pet, sick pet, grandparent’s funeral, family in town Th-Fri (yet not requested off for in advance) followed by being out sick that Monday, taking wife to doctor, and probably a couple more after that. (Nm a few afternoons of noticing the person was missing but not needing him for anything specific, so not sure if he sneaked out of the office or not.) Then this was brought up in his annual review with his functional manager, and he’s like, “What? This is brand new information.”

  16. So.Many.Words.*

    I was in the same situation. It appeared that the COO was firing people for poor performance without warning. I worked closely with him on a very challenging project and found him difficult to read, so I was terrified. So I made an appointment and went to talk to HR. She assured me that there were processes in place to address performance issues prior to firing, and that I would know if there was a problem. I chose to believe her – otherwise I would drive myself crazy. (We also had a frank discussion about the challenges of working with the COO, which was helpful.) But it’s a stressful position to be in.

  17. cmcinnyc*

    One phrase that hit home for me: “not great at her job and unpleasant to work with.” And yet this is someone you got lunch/drinks with regularly. I did this–the office f-up also happened to be intelligent, wildly funny, and perceptive–about everyone but herself. She ended up making a spectacular mess, leaving in a swirl of acrimony, and man… I wish I hadn’t been close to her at work because I had to clean some of that up and it was truly uncomfortable. My own performance was good but looking back I can definitely say my judgement about in-house networking was poor. Very poor. I’ve made quite a few changes. Still making them.

    1. Washi*

      Yeah, I realize it’s not the main point of the letter, but that’s not necessarily someone you want to be seen as being personally close to. I came away from the letter thinking that if Tori’s own friend describes her as a poor performer and unpleasant, her firing was probably overdue!

      1. tangerineRose*

        There are probably a lot of good exceptions, but in general, I’d prefer not to be friends with someone who’s unpleasant at work and/or is deliberately slacking at work. Maybe I’m being too judgmental, but I keep thinking that someone who’s a jerk at work might not be that great a friend.

    2. RC Rascal*

      This struck me as well. Politically it is a bad idea to align yourself with someone generally disliked or out of favor. There are people who are charming acquaintances but nightmares to manage.

  18. Rebecca*

    This is why I wish we had yearly performance reviews. It’s showing as a thing in the employee handbook, but we don’t have them. We’re evaluated by other members of the company (a team we support) but nothing is ever shared from that, either. I’ve told that team, look, if you need me to change something, add something, stop something, you need to tell me because I don’t receive the results of your evaluation. I normally find out about anything I’m doing wrong when I get called to the principal’s office, er, I mean manager’s office, to be scolded for something. And I mean scolded, not coached, or asked about it, nothing along those lines. So I too work every day with that in the back of my mind, and when I get the dreaded “can you come to my office right now?” call, I just sigh, put on a neutral face, and hope for the best. All of this adds unnecessary stress to our jobs. And since we don’t get COLA’s or merit increases, I guess they feel there’s no reason to do performance evaluations?

    1. Yikes!*

      Sorry to hear about your situation. Whoever’s in charge sounds like they don’t know how to manage employees. How can you fix something that you didn’t know needed fixing?

  19. Mommy. MD*

    Tori was most likely warned. Her confrontational attitude in the work place is a big negative. In some cases HR advises employees not to commonly discuss a PIP. When a colleague is fired it IS unnerving. Just continue to show up, do a good job, and in a few weeks you will feel much better. I would not bring up Tori with Boss. It can make you look like you disagree with the decision. After a couple of weeks personally I would have a low key discussion asking Boss if there’s any are you need to improve. You do not seems a confrontational person like Tori. Those kind of people, especially yellers, tear down office morale and need to go.

  20. She's One Crazy Diamond*

    Because of the positions I’ve had at my organization (administrative, working closely with HR and finance, somehow having a personality a lot of people randomly want to confide in), I’ve often been privy to reasons someone has been fired or even that the person was fired rather than that they resigned many times, and it’s very common for people, even those who were close to ex-employee, to have a very skewed view of what happened, especially if they liked ex-employee personally but didn’t work closely with them. Some examples:

    – Jane was fired for poor attendance and timeliness in a position that required interfacing with the public, and people who barely knew her thought it was because she was trans, when the reality was that management were a lot more lenient with her than they could’ve been to begin with because they didn’t want a discrimination lawsuit
    -Fergus was fired for repeatedly making biphobic and misogynistic comments, but people thought he was fired because his manager just didn’t like him
    -Wakeen was fired so suddenly that a lot of people thought he quit without notice and gossiped about it

    You just really never know.

  21. Jaybeetee*

    Yeah, I’d be willing to bet there were conversations of some kind or another, and either Tori didn’t tell you about them, or Tori didn’t really absorb how serious the situation was. I think the latter is pretty common, some people just don’t think they’ll get fired until… they get fired. If it’s a bigger company, there are almost certainly procedures in place. You do sometimes hear about “the boss fired Joe because he looked at him funny”-type businesses, but… you’d likely already know if you were working at a place like that.

    Years ago I worked with a woman who had been working for this company for something like 15 years. They rarely fired people, and you could kinda tell that she had gotten “complacent” in a lot of ways. Her attendance wasn’t great, she made errors that were egregious for her experience in the role, her desk looked like a freaking tornado had hit (unusual for the job we were doing), etc. She had a very active family life and it was just clear she wasn’t really focused at work. When she was fired, she apparently was rather blindsided, though I and other colleagues were assured that the manager had been working with her. I’m guessing it was one of those cases where since people were so rarely fired, and she’d been there for so long, she didn’t *really* think it would come to that.

    One thing to bear in mind is that *for most part*, businesses who truly can people on a whim, without warning or a chance to improve, are usually dealing with workers who they perceive as easy to replace, hire, and train. For a director position, where staffing and getting someone up to speed can be a rather onerous prospect, they’re not likely to toss the existing director out on their ear without giving them a chance to turn things around first.

  22. Admiral Thrawn Is Still Blue*

    This subject makes my eye twitch. July 1 I was sat down and informed my services were no longer required, and the only answer to my questions was, this was the decision that was made. I worked as an admin and sole office person at a small church.

    No, no warning at all, except for the small indications people give, like not letting me finish sentences, etc. Essentially I was set up to fail, by denying the OT I needed to do my job; causing quality and quantity to suffer. He then went to the elders and complained repeatedly. I could write volumes on this subject but he just wanted me gone.

    I believe there were multiple reasons, including that I knew too much about him and his family. And now I’m left with emotional scars and financial damage I’ll likely carry forever. So yeah, major eye twitching.

  23. NW Mossy*

    I’ve been in the “it’s Tori” situation as the manager, and while I’m sure my Tori will swear up and down to this day that that their firing was arbitrary and capricious, it was anything but. They had years of negative reviews, a mistake that probably should have been career-ending, and a demotion all before I got there; my six months of progressive performance management was simply the garnish on top of an already prepared dish.

    What I learned from the experience is that even when you’re being very clear and direct, sometimes, you run into someone who simply can’t or won’t hear the message, usually for reasons you have no insight into or control over. For a good while I was pretty sure I was failing because I couldn’t get my Tori to understand the feedback and use it, but there’s a reason why we have that old adage about leading horses to water. I’m still bummed about how the whole situation went down, but it was a good lesson in the limits of what a manager can do.

    1. KC no band*

      Yep, been there. I had an employee who I had several sit downs with and explicitly said “If you can’t build 80 widgets per day by the end of November, you will not be working here.” He said okay every time and gave lots of excuses. December 1st my boss and I went together to his office and let him go. He was shocked and couldn’t believe he would be “asked to leave immediately”. He was completely floored. My boss ended up helping him take down his personal things (including a bookshelf) and carried them to his car. The whole time he kept saying how he couldn’t believe he was being asked to leave the same day.

    2. Jellybean*

      That’s the problem with people who are “confrontational”. They won’t hear the message because their brain goes into attack/defense mode. You could write it as plain as day on a piece of paper in block letters and they’d swear up and down that it was “out of nowhere” because they don’t actively listen (and lord knows, they do not reflect either).

      I’d just move on and trust that you don’t have all the information to make a judgement, period.

  24. Batgirl*

    If she was “confrontational and unpleasant” then she probably wasn’t a great listener. Jim could have given her a very serious message and all she heard was ‘blah blah’ and all she thought is “This is no big deal- I am way more confrontational than this!” and her only reaction was “Yes but….”.
    In other words, she didn’t know she was getting told off because she’s too hot headed to register heat.

  25. Lucky black cat*

    I knew someone who was genuinely taken aback at being fired after literally being given a list of things she needed to improve on to keep her job. She said she hadn’t tried to improve on them because she didn’t agree she needed to. Apparently she didn’t expect them to fire her. It’s amazing how deluded people can be.

    1. Academic department manager*

      yes. This was exactly my experience. I couldn’t have been more clearer, more direct communicating the actions that they needed to take to keep their job. In the end I understood that they didn’t believe they “had” to do what I asked in a timely and accurate manner. They said that because they did some of them, sometimes, they had demonstrated improvement and that I was being totally unfair.

  26. Quill*

    LW: Keep in mind that what you know of Tori’s work ethic. Sometimes people are set up to fail (I was at one of my previous jobs, where they wanted a new grad because anyone with experience fled that house of evil bees immediately,) and sometimes they’re just sloppy enough that a less involved manager doesn’t escalate from on the spot corrections to an actual plan until they sit down and look at the trend.

    1. Just Another Manic Millie*

      I found out that I was set up to fail at my first job, where I was secretary to the president of the company, when I picked up his mail to give to him, and a small piece of his newspaper tore off. I picked it up and saw that it was a help wanted ad for my job. I asked him if he wanted to fire me, and he said yes, that he always fired his secretary before she finished working one year for him, so that she would never get a raise nor be able to take a vacation. I had never asked for feedback, because I had never been told that I had to do a letter or a report over because of a typo, I was never criticized for the way I spoke to someone or do something, I was always on time, and I was always pleasant and friendly to everyone, so I thought that I was doing okay. I was very upset to find out that everyone in the office knew that it was just a matter of time before I was fired, and I was told by a number of people that there was a betting pool on the day that I’d be fired, but I had ruined everything because I happened to find the ad (and I quit before I had a chance to be fired).

      At another job, I was set up to fail because one of the executives told me in front of the other admin that I was better at typing and shorthand than she was. She promptly burst into tears and shouted “I’m going home!” and ran out the door. When I got to the office the next morning, I saw that the branch manager’s door was closed, and I could hear her inside his office screaming. She was very cold to me that day. At 4:55 PM, the branch manager called me in to say that I was being let go, because the other admin said that if he didn’t fire me, she would quit, and since she had been with the company for years, and I hadn’t completed my three-month probation period yet, he figured that it would be better to keep her instead of me. Since I was fired before my probation period was finished, I was ineligible for rehire by any of that company’s branch offices. I was set up, because no one told me to be careful not to be better than that admin at anything. (Or have someone think that I was better tha her.)

      1. The Man, Becky Lynch*

        I have to laugh at these short sighted dillweeds because they are…constantly training people due to this kind of whimsical nonsense, which isn’t efficient at all.

        But woah, I’m sorry you’ve dealt with these people.

        1. Just Another Manic Millie*

          I guess they would rather save some money than be efficient.

          At another company, after I was there for over eleven years, they instituted a new way of giving out raises. A committee would evaluate everyone at the same time and decide who deserved raises. However, we were told that the committee was never able to meet, because someone was always out sick or on a business trip or on vacation. We were never told exactly who was on this committee, so we could never prove that all of them were in the office on the same day. And it was never explained why each committee member couldn’t just make up his own mind as to who deserved a raise and give a note to the chairman of the board, and if every single committee member said that a particular employee should get a raise, then he would get a raise.

          I gave two weeks notice at the end of July, saying that I had found a new job and was tired of waiting for the committee to meet. The office manager guaranteed that the committee would meet by December 31. I said that I didn’t want to wait that long.

          The committee did not meet by December 31. In fact, I found out that an employee asked a vice president (who everyone thought was on the committee, but, of course, no one could be sure) when the committee would meet, and the vice president said that he never heard about such a committee. Soon after that, the employee was fired because of suspicion that he had stolen money from petty cash, but since there was no proof, he was simply told that his services were no longer needed. He obviously was not given any warnings. He most likely thought that he was fired because he asked when the committee would meet, instead of patiently waiting and waiting and waiting some more.

  27. animaniactoo*

    One of the people at my current company had great success early on by pushing her manager to review her on a regular basis. She’s now under a different manager, but she continues to thrive in a company where, yeah, they don’t always tell you so specifically by talking to her manager and saying upfront “Is there anything I’m doing now that you want me to be doing differently?” “Is there anything that I’m not doing that you want me to be doing?” It’s a very direct approach that doesn’t leave room for the somewhat open-ended ambiguity of “please let me know if there’s anything you want me to do differently”, and by continuing to ask it as a regular check-in has meant that if her manager forgets something or doesn’t realize it at the time, there’s an easy opportunity to circle back to it in the near future.

  28. ThisColumnMakesMeGratefulForMyBoss*

    I’m not generally a worrier, but I’ve been laid off in the past so I’m on higher alert at work than in my life. So I get it. But I also see that you’ve made a lot of assumptions in your letter to come to your conclusion that you may be next on the chopping block. Everything Alison said is spot on, and if it makes you feel better have a conversation with your boss to put you at ease, and make sure they know that you welcome feedback, both positive and negative.

  29. Lost Oregonian*

    We recently let someone go after months (years really) of feedback and opportunities to improve. I had given her a mind-numbing amount of feedback, which was particularly challenging because it was mostly soft skills stuff. Her other supervisor had also given her a ton of feedback including a PIP. When she was let go, she still told everyone she had never heard a word of constructive feedback, that she had only ever heard how great she was at her job from any of us.

    When I went to my supervisor exasperated, he suggested that she was right. She had not HEARD a single word of the feedback we had given. That didn’t mean we didn’t give it. Sometimes, you can do everything right and people will still think you got it wrong.

  30. Observer*

    Keep some things in mind.

    “She had no idea that her job was in jeopardy” does NOT equate to not being given goals, guidance and / or management. Even if Jim didn’t give her adequate supervision, it doesn’t mean that there was none. So you are already making a fairly big leap here.

    And, in fact people who fit the profile you describe are the most likely to dismiss feedback and instructions they don’t like, and to miss clear signs that their job might be on the line. They are also the least likely to tell others about these problems even with people they are fairly close to.

    Also it’s possible she wound up pulling something that made an immediate firing a reasonable reaction, and again, this profile makes this a touch more likely. I recently went down a rabbit hole of “related posts” to one where someone got written up for telling someone that she’d messed up and “it’s a good thing she’s pretty.” That person had not the faintest recognition that they had majorly messed up since the “didn’t mean to be demeaning” and the person in question was “lower” than the poster. If something like that happened, would you think that a decision to fire the person summarily is out of line?

    Of course, we don’t know exactly what happened here, which is why Allison’s advice to look at Jim’s pattern of management is useful. But if he’s generally reasonable and communicates at a reasonable level, it’s probably safe to assume that she either did get warning or that she did something egregious enough to make a sudden firing appropriate.

  31. LizardOfOdds*

    I had to let someone go after a lengthy performance management process once, and he had not said a peep to his peers about his PIP. One of my other team members came to me right after the firing happened and said, “how do I know I’m not going to be fired just like he was?” He had worked himself up into a near panic over it. Honestly, I was relieved that my employee brought this up, because that gave me an “in” to explain what performance management looks like at the company and on my team. I was able to say, “I can’t tell you what happened with so-and-so, but I can say with confidence that if you are ever in danger of losing your job, I will say words like, ‘you need to address this or your job is at risk’ or ‘you will lose your job if you do not fix this.’ It will not be a surprise to you because I will be that direct. And the company goes through the following steps when someone is not performing in their role…” He was absolutely shocked to learn all of this, as his coworker had not said a peep about his performance the entire time he was PIP’d. But the transparency certainly helped alleviate his concerns.

    In sum… if OP has a good relationship with their manager, opening up the door to having a conversation could bring them relief.

    1. SusanIvanova*

      When Coworker Coffeecup was fired, the only person surprised was Coffeecup himself – despite being on a PIP that said “every day do at least one of these tasks that any of your coworkers could do on top of their existing work by drinking an extra coffee.” (Not that we knew about the PIP, but the task list was public – we *knew* he had the easiest tasks possible and they still weren’t getting done.)

      Even so, the first thing our manager did the next day was have one-on-one meetings to reassure us that this wasn’t a sign that any of the rest of us need fear for our jobs.

  32. The Meow*

    You can’t judge the whole situation when you only have access to, at most, half the facts. Alison’s advice is spot on. I am a manager and so many times I’ve heard garbled versions of alleged wrongs I’ve inflicted on my staff when really it comes to “I am embarassed and angry at being told I am bad at my job.”

  33. The Man, Becky Lynch*

    It’s always going to be this unsettling discomfort after someone is terminated. Even if you know more of the backstory in the end, you’ll never know the full amount of details.

    I’ve had people shocked and dismayed over terminations that they should have seen coming. With all the work prior to get them on track to keep their position.

    Then I’ve been blindsided by a random “Fix yourself or get out.” “write up” because I found myself on the wrong side of someone who was well, volatile. And they were dang good at hiding their loose cannon side until I found myself dodging cannon balls. We had a great relationship originally, I was planning on staying there forever until cannon balls started flying in this unseen attack!

    In the end you have to use your own sleuthing skills and watch for patterns as noted here. Remember that everyone is looking out for themselves and their self image first and foremost in most situations. So yeah, Tori may not be telling you everything. She isn’t even necessarily not telling you everything in a malicious way, she may very well have not seen it coming because she was blinded by her own dishonesty with herself. Lots of people really have trouble gauging what level their discussions are at with their managers. Even when managers are seemingly very clear about it on that management level. Even when the documentation and if you looked at transcripts as the person on the “outside” looking in, you’d say “Dude you were warned like 76 times!” that person is filtering all that through their own eyes, their own emotions and their own reactions to any given setup.

    In the end, we’re all going to worry about our job security at some time. It’s a good thing, it reminds us to be prepared for anything. It reminds you to have that plan for what happens if you’re terminated for whatever reason falls out of the sky. It’s not about how you can make sure it never happens because honestly, you never know. Know your state’s laws on unemployment and what your next step is if you wake up one day and they say “Sorry, business is closed, owners moved to Tahiti last night!”

  34. Princess Alpaca*

    I work at a camelid sanctuary where I managed two llama groomers with major performance issues who both thought they were STARS and were absolutely shocked to be in trouble. Their goal was to groom 100 llamas a month, both of them were averaging about 20-30.

    Jack was hired as a senior llama groomer. He used up all of his sick time AND vacation time for the year in the first six months, at least once a month was a no call/no show, left half a day early every week without telling anyone, and was constantly telling his colleagues that he was just there to collect a list of clients so he could open up his own llama salon.

    Jill was hired as a junior llama groomer; her life’s ambition was to be an alpaca groomer. She arrived at least an hour late every day but stayed 2+ hours after work, was always volunteering to help other teams (clean cages, milk the camels, etc), and even snuck into the alpaca barn to brush them, after being expressly forbidden to do so.

    We had a process to document the schedule and which llamas had been groomed and neither of them could find the time to fill it out, or clean their tools/the grooming area despite only working at 25% of expected capacity. Both of them would trim & brush their favorite llamas repeatedly even though other llamas hadn’t been groomed for months. Both were given coaching/feedback multiple times and reminded what their job targets/duties were.

    Jack responded to the coaching by sending threatening messages to his boss, was terminated, and had to be escorted out by security after causing a scene.

    When Jill was given her first formal warning, she cried and said, “but I thought I was doing a good job!” She improved steadily to about 50% of capacity for a few months and then backslid again. When she was given a second warning, she began job-searching openly at work and secured a new job as a senior groomer with a different sanctuary. Apparently, she told them that she was grooming llamas & alpacas at 150% of her target rate, which was nearly quadruple her actual numbers. She was also counting the times she snuck into the alpaca barn towards this number.

    1. Princess Alpaca*

      Oh, and Jack claimed that he was fired because of his gender (well over half the people that worked at the sanctuary were male, as was the Chief Grooming Officer who made the termination decision) and then tried to bribe other employees to testify on his behalf. His termination was a complete surprise to him even though he had been told to get his numbers up multiple times and personally made a direct threat to the CGO shortly before being let go.

    2. The Man, Becky Lynch*

      Oh you found out about her lies to the new place?! Do you know if she stayed there or if they eventually got rid of her for being awful?

      I have had so many stories about people lying their way into positions like that, so nothing shocks me. But as someone who’s been lied to or seemingly so lied to [because they were so inept…so bad], it was quickly fixed by you know, firing the person as soon as they showed they were awful. So yay, you snowed me? But then I just fired you, soooooo.

      1. Princess Alpaca*

        Jill is still at the new place as far as I know, it hasn’t been very long, however. While she worked for us, she spent a lot of her time networking with other groomers, attending conferences about llama grooming, joining professional llama-lovers associations, and not a lot of time… actually grooming llamas. But it does mean that for a little bit she can keep of the facade of being a competent young professional and real go-getter (which is why I hired her in the first place; it’s hard to find someone who is passionate about llama grooming rather than just falling into it). I have the feeling that Jill will have a lot of <1 year stints on her resume.

        When Jill was given the second warning to stop sneaking into the alpaca barn and focus on llamas, her response was "but alpaca grooming is important to my professional development!"

  35. vlookup*

    I worked somewhere that followed approach #4. It sucked! After I saw a few people get fired out of the blue after receiving only vague feedback or, in at least one case, after their manager woke up that morning and decided “Jane’s gotta go,” I could never quite let go of the low-key dread that someday it would happen to me. We didn’t have HR and my boss talked pretty openly about these firings.

    Alison’s advice feels spot-on. You can learn a lot from how managers give feedback, and from looking for patterns of behavior. If Joe/your manager usually gives direct, honest feedback, and if it’s usually communicated clearly to you how well you’re performing, and if you haven’t seen something like the Tori situation play out before, those are good signs that you don’t have the full picture of how this was handled behind the scenes.

    I’d also take solace from the fact that it sounds like Tori wasn’t a great fit for keeping her job.

  36. Bagpuss*

    Yes, I think that it is incredibly likely that you don’t know the full story – Tori may not have told you everything, either from embarrassment, or because she didn’t take in what she was told, and because even if she has told you everything as she understood it, if she wasn’t taking on board feedback then she won’t have told you about it.

    And managers wouldn’t normally share details of another staff member’s disciplinary or performance issues

    I know of a number of incidents where people have been given lots of feedback, warnings etc but still have not taken in that that their performance is not up to scratch .Not firings, but people who were shocked and outraged that their demands for a pay rise wasn’t met, despite them having been given very clear KPIs and targets, and warned that they were falling far short of what was required. One person was still asking for a raise even after they were put on a PIP and warned that they were not meeting the requirements of it (they then resigned after we turned down their offer /threat to withdraw their resignation if we matched the offer they had from a new job. 2 months later they contacted us asking for their old job back, and were shocked when we declined)

    Also very recently an interesting conversation with a member of staff who we are looking at promoting and so have started to share more information with. Staff member shared that they felt a junior co-worker in their department had not been given as much support as they should have had, and that they (junior person) felt unhappy that they were not paid as well as [different junior staff member in another department]. Staff member was surprised,and then extremely thoughtful, when they were told about the various support and coaching etc that Junior Person has been given, the fact that junior person has explicitly refused extra training which would enable them to advance, and that [without disclosing actual figures] the assumption they are paid less is incorrect, but based on performance against KPI ‘s, wouldn’t necessarily be unreasonable if it were true. They are fairly friendly with thejunior person and had taken their comments more or less at face value. (in fairness, they don’t work in the same building so haven’t had a lot of opportunity to see junior person in action)

    All that said, if your observations of your bosses management syle is that he avoids difficult conversations, I would suggest that you start the conversation about your own performance, and ask for feedback about any areas where you are doing well, and any where they would like to see any changes or improvement.

    1. Observer*

      Not firings, but people who were shocked and outraged that their demands for a pay rise wasn’t met, despite them having been given very clear KPIs and targets, and warned that they were falling far short of what was required. One person was still asking for a raise even after they were put on a PIP and warned that they were not meeting the requirements of it

      This reminds me of a letter here a while ago from someone who wanted to know how to ask for a raise now that they’ve come off their PIP.

    2. Princess Alpaca*

      I managed someone like the person in your third paragraph for an entry-level position. They asked me on their first day on the job how long it would take them to get a promotion/raise. If they uncovered a task that a senior colleague hadn’t prioritized (because they were working on other, more important things), they would spend all day working on a plan to complete it (neglecting their own duties), and present it along with a scolding attitude, “do I have to do everything around here??” They were told in no uncertain terms to knock it off and get back to their own job, which they were performing to a 33%-50% standard, and then they were completely gobsmacked when they were put on a PIP. All the while talking about, “I’m the only one who gets things done,” “I’m going to be running this place someday!” “When I am in charge here…” etc.

  37. NaoNao*

    Oh man, I’m on the other side of this. I just got let go very unexpectedly on Monday. I was in the job less than 6 months. The team is two people and we were drowning in work and barely able to keep up. It really stung that they would rather have no one (unless they had someone in the wings they didn’t tell me about!) than me! I was shocked.

    I had one sit down “coaching session” with my manager and his boss about 3 months ago and it felt weird. I couldn’t get a handle on how serious it was and I very foolishly didn’t ask at the time. I had just come back from 10 days of travel and my boss’ boss asked someone on the site I came from for “feedback” and that person gave her a handful of very minor notes. Things like “I heard she said she wasn’t the expert when she introduced herself.” and “she left early on Day 1” (I did NOT. Class ended early, and I actually stayed after and that time happened to be before the typical “out for the day” at the home office. I was salaried and I didn’t answer to / roll up to the person who attempted to rat me out. And also no one was in the office at that hour that I could have told!).

    I was shaken and confused and told my immediate manager that it was really demoralizing and made me feel I am not doing a good job and he reassured me it was no big deal, I was doing great, etc.

    I pulled a plan into action to address all the concerns I heard in the meeting and wrote it down. My boss told me his boss was impressed by my quick action.

    I set up a 3 month check in. I was told everything was great, I’m valuable, etc.

    The Friday before firing me, he told me he knew a coworker I was on a remote assignment was “really grateful I was there.”

    During the firing he said “You know we’ve had some coaching conversations…” (which were extremely vague and documented like “hey, here’s a written record because I know that helps you keep track”) and I was dumbfounded and completely sideswiped. He had NEVER said anything about a job being on the line, this is urgent, expressed concerns I couldn’t do the job, said I needed to urgently do X, or anything like that. I couldn’t get a straight answer about why I was being let go. All he would say is “it’s not working out” and “I need someone to lead X program”. O….kay then.

    …and I was performing above and beyond, but they wanted a different role/description overall that I’m not qualified to do. It just SUCKS when managers aren’t clear and direct.

    1. Close Bracket*

      That sounds painful and demoralizing. Based on my own experience and reading about other people’s experience, it seems like anytime you are given feedback toward improvement, there is an implied “or else.” Be compassionate toward yourself, and resolve to stay more on top of outcomes of coaching and addressing concerns at the next job.

    2. Luna*

      Same. Worked in a place I really liked for two months, and then I come into the hotel for my afternoon shift and, as I am taking my coat off in the small meeting room, my boss comes in and closes the door, and I am being informed I am being let go.

      Reasons I was given were I made many tiny mistakes in terms of the super fine details of hotel service, which I find unfair. Taken merely five minutes to tell me these things would have been better — I recall one colleague taking one minute to inform me of one mistake I made, I immediately went on to not make that mistake again. Another was that I was supposedly not happy working there. I was! I really liked the job! I wasn’t loving my job, but I was a butt-load happier there than I’ve been in other jobs. The only problem I had was that I was getting nightshifts frequently, when I had been told they were gonna be very rare.

      I have now become extremely timid when it comes to work. I will perform my duties. I will ask questions to learn things. …and I will have absolutely *no* opinion on anything, until the probation period has passed. I am scared that anything I do that might show any type of personality beyond ’employee’ will reflect badly on me, and I will be jobless again.

  38. Luna*

    I’d just like to say this has happened to me a few times, too. Have been let go from a job after a few months out of left field, with my never being informed that I was on thin ice in terms of employment. I may have been told once that I needed to improve something at work, which I ended up doing — and since I got no further comments, figured I must have improved enough to it not being a problem anymore. And then, boom, being confronted as I walk in for my shift and taken to the office, where I am let go. It’s infuriating, humiliating, and it doesn’t do a single thing to improve the now-ex-employee’s working abilities. I have become terrified of doing anything out of line at any job now, in fear of that somehow reflecting badly on me and making me lose my job again.

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