update: my former employer wants “my side of the story” about a process I didn’t document when I left

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.

There will be more posts than usual this week, so keep checking back throughout the day.

Remember the letter-writer whose former employer wanted “their side of the story” about a process they didn’t document when they left (#2 at the link)? Here’s the update.

I so appreciated your advice on my previous post.

After I forwarded my grandboss some relevant emails, they emailed the employee with a copy of the relevant paragraph from my handover notes, with a comment that “this should explain everything.” In that paragraph, I’d left out one step of a process, which was the step that had led to the employee escalating the situation. However, the step was such an obvious one that I guess it hadn’t even occurred to me that it would need to be spelled out! While I can’t get into specifics, it’s along the lines of me writing up a process for buying something – let’s say, books – via the employee’s professional account with a publishing company, and not including the step, ‘reimburse employee for the amount charged to their account.’ And then when the employee said, ‘hey, you haven’t reimbursed me for the amount charged to my account,’ my grandboss said, ‘well, so-and-so didn’t include that step in their handover notes.’ Well, no, I didn’t, because I thought paying for what you’ve purchased was a given – but in addition, I’d noted where the money was coming from in the budget spreadsheet, but I guess putting the pieces together was a step too far. Also hilariously, I’m looking back over the emails with my grandboss to remind myself of what they said, and they noted that I hadn’t left any instructions for counting how many books we charged to the account. Well, no – because that’s just… counting?

Separately, I called to talk to the employee, and had a really productive conversation – we both agreed that the step that hadn’t been documented was such an obvious thing, and that it was wild (but not surprising) that my former grandboss was trying to shift this onto me. I was pleased to have had the conversation directly with the employee in the end, because I felt relieved that I had cleared up the situation – both for me (knowing that there weren’t going to be any repercussions from this ethics complaint) and for her (so that she could get reimbursed). So although I know that I didn’t have to have that conversation, ultimately it was beneficial.

My reaction also really helped me think about the number that the job had done on my mental wellbeing – although the role I’m in now isn’t a forever role, I can definitely appreciate the difference in my health. A lot of people’s comments on the blog post really bolstered my self-confidence – that I’d done more than enough already, and that this wasn’t on me. Turns out, that kind of validation was something that I hadn’t got a lot of in my previous role, except from other coworkers who were similarly put upon. What’s really telling is that people are flooding out of that corner of the organization, and very little is being done to change the culture or stem the flood. (Seriously. So many people.) So, I’d like to send a huge thank you to all of the terrific commenters you have on the blog. Their responses were thoughtful and a really valuable pep talk.

Hilariously, I’m still being asked to do parts of my old job – for a fee, at least! – ten months after leaving. (I said no.) Even today, I had a phone call from someone in another area of the organization, trying to put pieces together to find out what on earth is happening with something I used to run. (I didn’t mind taking that call, because it was good to catch up with them.) At least now I can just laugh at it all. So thank you, Alison and commenters, for providing a completely objective perspective on what I now see (well, I knew at the time, but didn’t have validation) was a totally toxic work environment.

{ 56 comments… read them below }

  1. Seriously*

    OP needs to stop entertaining these free consulting requests. OP, you and the company need to move on and if you don’t just stop responding and taking calls they never will.

    1. Econobiker*

      The poster did write that the organization has reached out to her/him about doing the Jon.
      “Hilariously, I’m still being asked to do parts of my old job – for a fee, at least! – ten months after leaving. (I said no.)”

      That’s when the price quoted should be “FY,PM!” levels being “Fxxx You, Pay Me!” So you make bank on it. But unsurprisingly I’m sure that organization wouldn’t pay those levels of fees and the OP’s mental health is worth more than the pittance they’d pay for a side gig…

      1. Evan Þ.*

        I momentarily misread your “Fxxx You” as “Fix You” – which would be another satisfying thing to say to them!

  2. Critical Rolls*

    No amount of documentation can overcome an unwillingness to think for yourself. The demand for instructions on how to count things absolutely slew me.

    1. Where’s the Orchrstra?*

      Yes. This. So Much This. No guidelines or training document can cover every outcome. The ability to think is still necessary.

    2. Grumpy Elder Millennial*

      And what would the instruction be? Like, based on what OP has said, I’m assuming they provided references to where the information was kept. So the instruction would be… “count the things”?

    3. Antilles*

      I think the amount of documentation is probably part of the *cause* of the unwillingness/inability to think it through.
      Like, let’s imagine the handover “documentation” was instead like a half page bulleted list. Nobody would look at that half-empty single sheet of paper and think it’s comprehensive – you’d see that it’s like 10 items and automatically assume (correctly) that whoever wrote it was just listing the hot-button items or hitting the high points or etc. But if someone hands you a 50-page tome, then it’s a lot easier to just “shut your brain down” so to speak and blindly follow every step.
      Not OP’s fault of course; it’s still on the reader to think things through critically – no documentation is ever going to cover 100% of everything, nor is there any guarantee that the documentation is 100% accurate either.

      1. Sleepless KJ*

        Ah but this is an expected thing at many organizations. I had to create SOPs (standard operating procedure) manuals for Every. Single. Task. I did at old job. To the point of
        1. At 2 pm each day retrieve mail from distribution center.
        2. Distribution center is located in room 212.
        3. Our mailbox is #123 on the west wall, second row.
        4. Use appropriate key to unlock mailbox.
        5. Remove mail.
        6. Close and lock mailbox.
        7. Bring mail back to our department and distribute to the appropriate parties.
        8. If mail is not addressed to a specific person, give it to the department manager.

        The whole idea is that “anyone” can pick it up and do the task. Of course that never happens because there’s always something left out (usually something that should be obvious to even a toddler.)

        1. Agile Phalanges*

          Yeesh. When I write procedures, I at least assume the person has a basic knowledge of things like Word and Excel and of our ERP system. Even if they’re a temp fresh off the street, those are things that literally anyone at the company could show them, so I don’t feel like I need to write “Highlight all the cells, click onto the “Home” tab (just below the save button), click “Sort and Filter….” etc and so on, and instead can just write “Sort the spreadsheet by the “Name” column.”

        2. Alternative Person*

          I recently had to write something like this for some seasonal department admin and I hear you. It feels ridiculous to be writing instructions like that to adults, but if there wasn’t that level of detail, there would be so many more problems (and there were problems anyway!). You just can’t win sometimes.

      2. Observer*

        I think the amount of documentation is probably part of the *cause* of the unwillingness/inability to think it through.

        I don’t think so. I’ve been in the position of having to write documentation and the only time anyone is expected to give instructions like how to count stuff, is when writing for two specific groups of people. One is the type of people who need extra hand-holding on tasks that they see as not truly part of their job, but which needs to be done for them to actually be able to do their job. (eg I recently had to explain to people how to change their 2FA, and we have some people who just don’t see that understanding technology is actually PART of their job rather than something “It makes us do” to get our job done. It’s easier to do the baby steps than fight this battle.) The other group is when we get someone to do a SINGLE task that’s really part of another job which they are totally unqualified for. (eg Office management always enters new items into inventory before they send it to the correct person, but we have a backlog of items that need to be entered. So, I’ll put in things like HOW to log in, not just “log in to system x”.

        Neither applies here.

    4. VaguelySpecific*

      I’m a doc admin and I am absolutely saving this for use in the future….because I know I will have use for it.

    5. Sola Lingua Bona Lingua Mortua Est*

      No amount of documentation can overcome an unwillingness to think for yourself. The demand for instructions on how to count things absolutely slew me.

      Did OP remember to include instructions for the boss to keep breathing during the process?

  3. Butterfly Counter*

    Oh, goodness, this sounds familiar. I’m at the end of my semester and my students are doing similar “rules lawyering” maneuvers when it is coming to their assignments and grading. “You didn’t write out…” very obvious rule that I actually did address many times in class that they were absent for.

    However, for me, I’m still employed there so I just address their problem in the moment add yet another line to my instructions for the next time I teach that class.

    1. Dr. Rebecca*

      mmmHMM. A friend of mine said it this way: fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, it’s going in the syllabus.

    2. Hanani*

      Oof, solidarity. Amazing how much time and energy is put into rules-lawyering, cheating, and/or trying to clean up a mess. 30 sec of stopping to think would save us all so much trouble

    3. Unkempt Flatware*

      This reminds me of a prof who was so irritated by poor writing (this was a Mexican American studies course which was required of freshman in my state) so she created a very strict rubric that outlined every single thing you were to do to get all the points possible. I mean, it spelled out spacing in the in-text and reference page citations and you’d lose points for using two spaces instead of one. A bunch of us realized that this rubric basically showed that this paper could be written about under water basket weaving and get full points.

      Maybe she should teach the rules lawyers! Or maybe they should teach her!

  4. Single Parent Barbie*

    This reminds me of OLD JOB 15 years ago. I was assigned to manage a project that was “not my division.” The person who should manage it was not capable (part of why I left). In a nut shell, I had to chase down information, and documentation each week, and update the status on a spreadsheet every Friday afternoon. This was in a shared drive and accessed by the corporate guys.

    This was a huge time suck and I get little done otherwise. In the meantime, I also applied for, interviewed and was offered a great job. I gave my two weeks, and on my last day, a Friday, I updated that spreadsheet, and sent an email to the two people I was told to notify (on site) and gave them the exact status on everything and what needed to be done. I did everything but put a bow on it.

    Two months later, one of my former coworkers called me in the middle of the day. He was laughing so hard that he cold barely speak. Evidently they were in the morning meeting, and corporate called and wanted to know why that project had not been updated in 2 months!

    Someone asked the last day it was updated, and it was my last day of work.
    It was dead silent and then someone said “well I guess we know what Single Parent Barbie was working on before she left.”

    1. New Jack Karyn*

      LOL. Were either of the two notified former coworkers in that meeting–and if so, did they have anything to say on the topic?

      Of course, you may not have gotten that level of detail from that (delightful) phone call.

  5. learnedthehardway*

    Documenting process can become a whole job in and of itself. When the process document becomes so detailed that nobody reads it anymore, then you know your process is over-engineered.

    Dealing with that right now, where the clients processes are documented exhaustively, but nobody can find the specific detail they needs, so the whole team works around the system the process steps. The only thing anyone follows are the specific templates created for data input.

  6. Noodles*

    Amount of free work I would do for a previous company if it got me authorship on a document important to my industry: a fair bit.

    Amount of free work I would do for my first 2 jobs if the person asking was someone I majorly respect: some.

    Amount of free work I would do for my previous job to now: absolutely none at all, and screw the horse they rode in on too.

  7. Caramel & Cheddar*

    I know the “purchase books through professional account” thing is an example and not literally what happened, but I think it’s a good example of why you *do* need to put in things that might be obvious to you as the person who has done it dozens of times vs someone who might be taking over. Grandboss clearly didn’t know the process, and probably didn’t actually need to know the finer details of what LW was doing when LW still worked there. When someone leaves, everyone else’s knowledge gap becomes much more prominent and that’s where documentation is supposed to help out.

    This is not a criticism of LW; I’m guessing that in the real life situation, the documentation was probably fine. It’s just something for the rest of us documentation writers to remember: the person consulting it probably knows way less than you and what’s obvious probably isn’t. It’s not always about an unwillingness to think critically about things.

    1. Where’s the Orchrstra?*

      True – but I think most people by at least middle school understand the concept for “paying for what was purchased.”

      If this was actually the step left out and not just a random example. Sadly at least part of my job is directing people to the forms they now need to fill out for appeals because they didn’t submit their request for payment completely, properly, or timely the first time around. This is to end as soon as HR finishes processing the batch of promotions…….

    2. Observer*

      but I think it’s a good example of why you *do* need to put in things that might be obvious to you as the person who has done it dozens of times vs someone who might be taking over. Grandboss clearly didn’t know the process, and probably didn’t actually need to know the finer details of what LW was doing when LW still worked there. When someone leaves, everyone else’s knowledge gap becomes much more prominent and that’s where documentation is supposed to help out.

      Eh, by the time you are in the position of being a manager, you should NOT need to be told that you need to reimburse people for the stuff they buy. It’s like assuming that someone in an admin support position needs to be told how to send an email. Outside of some really niche cases, that’s not how it works.

      What makes it worse is that when the employee asked for reimbursement, the reasonable response would have been “Oops. I was following the check list and this was missing. I’ll get it taken care of. Sorry.” Not “No, you don’t get reimbursed because the checklist doesn’t say to reimburse you.”

      Furthermore, the OP *did* actually tell the boss about the need for reimbursement – they actually discussed the reimbursement process, at least to the point of pinpointing what budget line it is.

      I suspect that former boss is no longer at that position because someone realized that this guy is a risk to the organization.

      1. Julia*

        I could see someone not knowing what budget line the reimbursement should come out of and putting off dealing with it. At my current workplace we had an invoice not get paid because what budget area it was coming out of was a little unclear. Three people thought it was coming out of not their budget so didn’t really deal with it. However OP told the boss what budget line it was in.

      2. Mongrel*

        Yeah, you assume some form of basic knowledge of the processes from your boss, not ‘Card says Moops’

    3. zinzarin*

      The difficulty is that the process owner is often the least equipped to notice such gaps. It takes an outsider who doesn’t know the process to point the gaps out.

  8. sundae funday*

    I can actually see myself skipping the “reimburse employee” step, because I’ve worked jobs that are so “by the book, don’t think for yourself, just follow instructions” that I can get really caught up in making sure to do each step perfectly and in order.

    But… I would definitely figure it out once the employee said “hey can I be reimbursed?” lol.

    1. Lcsa99*

      Right! This should have been “oops! I’ll do it right away.” Not, “OP didn’t tell me to! OP, why didn’t you tell me to?” Adults shouldn’t be pointing fingers, just do the job and make a note for next time.

  9. TimeTravlR*

    Not commenting on LW’s SOP writing skills but as they have learned, you have to write down every single step, even the obvious ones. It amazes me the number of people that can’t use just the tiniest bit of critical thinking.
    When I used to write these, I would then find someone who knew nothing about our processes and have them try to do the action/task using just my notes. We can’t assume people know what we mean… unfortunately.

    1. zinzarin*

      The second paragraph here is a literal “best practice” for SOP writing. If an outsider can follow the SOP, it’s been written well.

    2. SarahKay*

      Years ago I had to prepare training instructions and made them as detailed as I could, to the point of including the phrase ‘Ensure you input the number appearing on the screen, not the number from the example image below’.
      One of the people I was training asked, incredulously, “Did you really need to tell us that?!?”
      “Yes,” I replied, “Yes I did, because when I was being trained one of the group I was in made exactly that mistake”.
      On the plus side, my trainees made it all the way through the instructions with almost no other questions for me, so I’m counting that a win.

  10. Skytext*

    A 50-page turnover document that took a month to complete? That’s fantastic, above-and-beyond documentation. What would they have done if OP had been hit by a bus? Hired a psychic medium to hold a seance to contact her in the afterlife?

    I feel like the step she left out is equivalent to leaving instructions for using a computer program, but leaving out the first step of “turn on/power up computer” and there is Grandboss sitting in front of a dead black screen complaining about OP’s instructions not being good enough lol!

    1. DisneyChannelThis*

      The “hit by a bus” plan is so essential! We use that reference all the time when organizing stuff….

      1. Unkempt Flatware*

        I work in a job adjacent to public transit and I successfully got everyone to stop saying “hit by a bus” and exchange for winning the lottery as being hit by a bus was a real risk.

        1. JanetM*

          I can truthfully say, “I am living proof that anyone can be hit by a truck and that’s why I try to document everything.”

          1. 3co*

            I hope you’re fully recovered from any injuries!

            At my old job, we once had an entire development team get hit by a car while crossing the street.

        2. Haven't Won the Lottery Yet*

          I use “win the lottery and not coming back” as my go to phrase for this concept. It’s a more positive spin and usually makes people smile.

        3. VaguelySpecific*

          I have also been told using the “hit by a bus” analogy to depict someone being unexpectedly out of touch or on LOA for an extended period of time, but some people commented that it is violent/inappropriate/whatever.

          so I try to use “win the lottery” instead….which usually ends with people saying “well if I win the lottery I’m never coming back.” To which I reply “OK well let’s assume Mike is hit by a bus and out of work for the next 6 months.”

          Hey, I tried to be more “PC”. *shrug*

      2. Lady_Lessa*

        One of my former supervisors used the expression “Hit by a beer truck” and I have used that version myself.

  11. SparkleJuice*

    This is why we need to stop requiring references from former supervisors.

    I’ve had so many emotionally immature bosses reach out to me expecting free labor and you do feel a pressure to help them – because if you don’t, they may not be willing to give you a reference.

    I honestly started to use more boundaries at work and after leaving jobs in recent years and the tantrums they throw can be wild (I’m in the nonprofit world, so emotionally immature leadership is sadly the norm.)

    I am 99% sure that the next job that asks for references from a supervisor is going to have to include fake references. Faced with a broken system don’t even care about integrity anymore.

      1. Sola Lingua Bona Lingua Mortua Est*

        Faked references are definitely a scenario where two wrongs don’t add up to a right. It’s rare you can prove your integrity through dishonesty.

        You’re better off telling the hiring manager “Thanks, but no thanks. I’m looking for a position based on my own merits, not a position based on unverifiable statements from people you don’t know.”

  12. speel it out*

    “And then when the employee said, ‘hey, you haven’t reimbursed me for the amount charged to my account,’ my grandboss said, ‘well, so-and-so didn’t include that step in their handover notes.’ Well, no, I didn’t, because I thought paying for what you’ve purchased was a given”

    That’s why military manuals are so full of “no siht Sherlock” moments. I remember reading in the manual for med techs not to administer mouth-to-mouth to decapitated people. They wouldn’t put it in there if someone hadn’t tried it.

  13. I might be the grandboss*

    I missed this original letter, but I have a strong suspicion that I am the grand boss in this scenario. If so, a few additions/clarifications: the ethics complaint was being made against the new employee for not processing the reimbursement. Because that step was left out of the documentation, there was no way the new employee could have known to do this. However, it was also an innocent omission by the LW and the situation was easily correctable. The person filing the ethics complaint really just wanted to pursue a case against the original boss and new employee instead of just accepting that people were new, mistakes happened and it was fixed. The LW was never the subject of an ethics/complaint or investigation.

    And almost a year after LW left it is an even more under-resourced and toxic work environment for those of us who are still here. I wish them well at their new position.

    1. I might be the grandboss*

      PS: in this scenario, the person who needed to be reimbursed used their professional credentials to create the account. Only those originally involved (LW and maybe boss) were aware that it was a personal account and being charged to them personally rather than to the company. IMO that is the person who should have been the subject of the ethics complaint, but in our industry they hold privilege.

  14. Mark*

    I guess we must be one of the rare companies where it IS expected that every single step of written procedures be included. Using the author’s example, I would think reimbursing the purchaser would be a key step to have included. How we test procedures is to have someone who has never done the task before follow step-by-step. If they have to ask any questions, the procedures failed and are adjusted. It might sound like over-kill to some, but this attention to detail helps so incredibly much if we are short-staffed and a task has to be done by someone who doesn’t normally do it.

  15. AcademiaNut*

    You really do need to specify that they’re to count in base 10, and that the counting starts at one. Total chaos could result otherwise.

  16. BookCocoon*

    This post and the comments are so validating for me. At my last job I put together an entire binder of how to do my job — something I’d had to figure out from scratch when the previous person left me nothing! — and my supervisor just kept complaining that it wasn’t thorough enough. Because I said things like “Step 10: Save the file to your computer and then open it.” And didn’t explain HOW to do that. Since she was going to be training my replacement, I tried walking through a few of the procedures with her so she could follow them step by step, and she would just repeatedly try to point out stuff that I had failed to include in the instructions, which was 60% stuff that I HAD included in the instructions and she just missed and 40% things that were encompassed in “using a computer.” It was so stressful. She was a terrible supervisor anyway and the main reason I left. Thankfully I knew the guy who ended up taking my job (he got promoted from another area) and I got to hear how immensely grateful he was to have such detailed documentation, which was gratifying after just hearing it criticized for weeks.

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