updates: firing someone in a pandemic, hiring an ex, and more

It’s “where are you now?” month at Ask a Manager, and all December I’m running updates from people who had their letters here answered in the past. Here are four updates from past letter-writers.

1. Can you fire someone in the midst of a pandemic?

I wanted to give you an update about my situation with the employee who needed to go on a PIP right when the pandemic started. I was able to drop the topic of firing the employee for a while – our workload increased significantly in spring/summer, and the employee kept very busy and did a moderate job of at least keeping the lights on. There were still mistakes happening, but the volume was so high, I just gave feedback to slow down and check their work. Meanwhile, in May our company said there would be mass layoffs in July, and they pushed it back a few times. As a middle-manager, I had no say in who on my team would be impacted, and it was left to people above me to decide. My boss was part of those conversations, and she knew the situation with this employee.

When the layoffs finally happened in the fall, my team member was let go. I found out when they received a calendar invite with HR and they asked me if that’s what it was. (We had been told people who “got meetings” were either being let go or were being moved to a different team). My team has since absorbed their work, and I’ve found that it’s been less effort on my end to do that person’s work than it was to manage and correct their work.

Oh, and the callous HR person who said “there’s never a good time to be fired”? She had to spend her last day having back to back layoff conversations with people, and then was laid off herself. How horrible. I wouldn’t wish that on anyone, even if it is part of their job. I was interviewing somewhere else in early spring, but the role was put on hold due to the pandemic, so I’m still here.

2. Should I hire an ex?

So much has happened since I wrote to you (was that really only this year?).

I felt very pressured to get the role filled, and so did end up reaching out. He was cordial, and not available but sent a contact, who we did interview but eventually not hire. Then COVID struck and we were locked down for a couple months where nothing happened. When things started to open back up where we are, we found a hire who isn’t great but gets the job done.

The real story though is that while we were on lockdown, I started to examine why I felt so pressured to do this in the first place. I realised there were some seriously toxic elements to my entire job environment, and made a plan to leave. While COVID has extended my timeline, I will finally be leaving at the end of the year to build my own business in a related field, finish my PhD which my job made impossible for me to do, and pursue some personal projects I’ve been wanting to do for almost a decade. That sounds like a lot but is actually a big step down from the level of intensity I’ve been working at! This job has at least given me the financial ability to take at least a year without salary, and so I’ll never regret it, but I am so excited about getting my life back and being able to do things I love again. Basically, I’ve decided to opt out of the rat race for now at least, and focus on building a smaller life that works better for me. I cry less and sleep better now.

As for the ex, haven’t heard from him again.

3. My office asks people to work while they’re on vacation

While my letter was published in November, I wrote it back in April so I’d already started another job by the time it appeared. Unfortunately, nothing had really improved. The irony was always that my boss was never reachable when she was on vacation, but she expected her reports to respond to her requests. One of the reasons that my former boss always wanted to reach out to reports was twofold. One she procrastinated, and then she would often need information from her reports to complete her work. And then two the organization, in general, was understaffed, and so often the person out on PTO was the only person who could answer all elements of the question. This was less of an issue for people who were out only a day or two, but we had multiple people out for extended leaves due to medical conditions and maternity leave. Unfortunately, I did not anticipate the behavior changing and as the pandemic wore on it only seemed to get worse.

As a result, I started looking for a new position and I started that position recently. My new organization seems to have a much better grasp of work/life balance, and actively discourages people from being contacted while they are on PTO. And, ultimately, the new organization is better staffed. There was a significant amount of surprise when I resigned, however, I am hoping for my coworkers’ sake that it might sink in that despite the anemic job market, that everyone who works for the organization has options, and they can and will leave if the appropriate opportunities present themselves. I do tend to believe that part of the behavior, especially during the last six months, has occurred because my boss has felt that all her reports had no options.

4. I earn more than my peers, and they’re not happy

Here’s my update. At the time, we worked on a very hierarchical team. The team director was a older member who had a very 1970s mindset about compensation. So openly discussing the subject was not a politically acceptable option.

I gently offered to be a resource for discussing the subject off-site if my coworkers wanted to, but before they took me up on that we were reorganized. The outgoing director retired, we all moved teams, and I was promoted to a different department. Naturally, their compensation situation is very different now because of these changes.

Because it came up in your response and the comments, I am male, and two of my impacted coworkers are female.

{ 35 comments… read them below }

  1. CH*

    OP #1 your workplace sounds exactly like mine and how they handled layoffs this year — HR meetings and everything. I’m dying to know if it’s the same place!

  2. New Jack Karyn*

    I don’t have anything insightful to say, but thanks to everyone writing in with updates. It’s good to hear from y’all, even if the problems never resolved.

    1. Observer*

      It’s cold. But this person had it coming.

      You know, I can understand saying “This is hard, but it’s what we need to do.” But the cavalier way in which it was expressed leaves me little sympathy for them being treated with as little consideration. I hope it becomes a lesson learned.

      1. RebelwithMouseyHair*

        Thing is, even if next time the person shows plenty of empathy, they could still be chucked out at the end, it’s not like they were chosen to be laid off because of the lack of empathy after all, even if it feels like poetic justice.

    2. NotAnotherManager!*

      This happened to one of my coworkers the week before his daughter was born. He had to let go nearly a dozen people and then they showed up to lay him off after he’d done all of them, despite explicit assurances that his role was not included in downsizing.

    3. So they all rolled over and one fell out*

      I saw this with the IT department once. The two person IT team spent all day removing people’s access as they were laid off. Then the last layoff of the day was one of the IT guys, meanwhile the other one (who was not laid off) disable his accounts.

  3. Baker's dozen*

    Ooh, I almost feel sorry for the HR person. That’s a hell of a last day. I wonder at what point she knew she was going to be laid off?

    1. RC Rascal*

      I don’t. There is a certain type of HR person who has it coming, and this person is one of them.

      In my experience I have seen both the best and the worst types of people in HR. Not much in between.

    2. HRBee*

      I’m sure she already knew. I did the same thing in April. I knew I was being laid off for weeks. I created my own packet, designed the lay off plan, communication for the company, communication for the people who weren’t laid off (HA!) etc. etc… I held meetings all day on the day of the lay off, then let IT know when I was finished so they could turn off my access.

      I’ve always seen this as just a part of my job. It sucks, but I’m a professional. Knowing at least gave me heads up that no one else got. I was able to job search and only ended up being unemployed for a week.

      1. linger*

        With hindsight, could HR’s apparent callousness have been a reaction to already knowing she was included?

        1. Clorinda*

          Possibly, and I guess it depends on tone, but–is what she said so terrible? Is there ever really a good time to be laid off, for most people?

          1. Ursula*

            Yeah, this is like how medical professionals joke amongst themselves about things the rest of us would find horrifying. Firing people is a routine thing as an HR person, and that level of bluntness is exactly how we all talk about it. She probably shouldn’t have said it that way to a non-HR person, and we do really try to make it as easy on people as possible whenever we can, but it’s something that will always suck, pretty much no matter the circumstances. That can’t be avoided.

            We also have conversations all the time about how we can help people or avoid layoffs or firings or whatever, and we sometimes have to remind each other that sometimes there isn’t anything we can do that can make it better. I’m pretty sure I’ve said that exact sentence myself.

  4. Ryn*

    Gotta say, pretty darn disappointed in #4. This is the kind of thing that’s worth spending political capital on, especially when you realize there’s gender discrimination happening and when you’re in a position of social privilege, which LW clearly sees and clearly has. Feels like a very easy way out to say “not my department, not my problem,” but I guess I’m not especially surprised.

    1. Not A Girl Boss*

      I felt that way about the initial letter too. It was more being upset that they were mad at him than upset about the inequality. Which, I get that it can feel like he ‘deserved’ to make more because he ‘did his research’ and negotiated, but the knowledge that you should negotiate, let alone how to, is a privilege.

      I was a member of Society of Women Engineers and was incredibly privileged to be able to go to the annual conference my senior year of college. There was a talk explaining how failing to negotiate for your first job can compound into hundreds of thousands in lost income over a lifetime, and a super basic primer on how to negotiate.
      Until that speech, it never in a million years would have occurred to me to negotiate on my first job.
      I took this exciting revelation back to my college friends, and none of them believed me and were all too afraid to negotiate, because likeability is something so ingrained in women from a young age. I still remember how sick to my stomach with fear I was when I negotiated that first job, and its never really gotten better, although the look of shock / not-understanding my husband gives me when I say I don’t plan to negotiate is motivational.

      1. Loosey Goosey*

        Completely agreed with you and Ryn. But also, not being penalized *for* negotiating is a privilege. There’s often no winning in these situations for women (and POC); white men need to put their privilege to work as vocal allies. The LW’s discomfort in the original letter seemed misdirected and the update is really disappointing.

        1. Penny Parker*

          It went beyond “disappointing” for me; I feel furious about this male shrugging off his privilege.

    2. AngryOwl*

      Agreed. Makes me think about that line from Enola Holmes that goes something like “and why would you want to change a world that suits you so well?”

    3. DreamGhost*

      Totally agree. And the way he added the genders at the end “because it came up” makes it seem like he doesn’t think that their genders are relevant, when it’s a really important part of the story! It just added another level of annoyance for me.

  5. surprisedcanuk*

    LW was the HR person that callous? It’s true there’s never a good time to fire someone. I get that now is a worse time than normal. It sounds like you are better of with them gone. Bad employees can really negatively effect moral.

  6. Observer*

    #4 – I think it’s very, very hard to believe that the discrepancy was solely about your superior negotiating skills.

    This is not your fault. But please use your position to be a real advocate for your female coworkers going forward. If nothing else, your company will be in a much better position if it equalizes salary on its own rather than under the hammer of a law suit.

    1. Sandman*

      +1. You have the ability to effect change that your coworkers who are women may well not be able to. Acknowledge that an do what you an to move the needle.

    2. LGC*

      Yeah, I agree with this. I get feeling that it’s not his fault that he’s better paid than his coworkers, but also…part of the reason people are so loud about allyship is that unfortunately, that’s how things often get done. It takes the comfortable standing up and agreeing that there’s an injustice.

  7. Manana*

    LW4, please spend some time considering what is “politically acceptable” to you and how your discomfort directly enables gender-based wage discrimination. You directly benefit from this company’s sexism and were the only person with enough clout, both because of the obvious value your employer has for you compared to your coworkers and your gender under a “1970s” male boss, in this scenario to initiate a conversation. You let those women down.

  8. Katrinka*

    Regarding Update #3, I think it’s against sate-level labor laws and I know it’s illegal at the federal level for employers to contact employees who are out on FEMA or Worker’s Comp (it’s making them work while not being compensated for it). I think any kind of leave is the same – just because they’re being paid doesn’t mean they’re working. There’s meant to be a distinction between pay for work and pay for any kind of leave. If an employee wished to, they could file a complaint against that employer and there would be some serious fines involved. Especially if an investigation found that it was a frequent occurrence.

    1. LW #3*

      Unfortunately, the organization was too small to fall under FLMA guidelines. Although, I suspect that the insurance company that paid out the short-term disability policy wouldn’t have been happy.

  9. AngryOwl*

    I hope the company in #4 is sued for discrimination. OP, I know it’s hard to stand up against this kind of thing, but you are in a place to be a real ally, and it feels like you’re just shrugging it off because you’re in different departments now.

  10. Bostonian*

    I do tend to believe that part of the behavior, especially during the last six months, has occurred because my boss has felt that all her reports had no options.

    Yikes! How monstrous. I can totally relate to that- my last job was one that paid relatively well/decent benefits for not a lot of education/training required, so a lot of people stayed there and put up with dysfunction believing they didn’t have better options. I know what that looks like when people feel that way. For a manager to think that their direct reports don’t have options AND that gives them carte blanche do be awful is really horrendous.

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