update: how do we fire someone who refuses to talk to us?

It’s a special “where are you now?” season at Ask a Manager and I’m running updates from people who had their letters here answered in the past.

Remember the church that needed to fire someone who refused to talk to any members of their personnel committee and kept calling their attempts to meet “non-consensual” (#2 at the link)? Here’s the update.

We finally cornered our employee who was calling our meetings “non-consensual.” She showed up at the meeting absolutely furious and ready to fight. However, we were prepared, and kept the conversation to less than a minute– just “Here is your termination letter, please go collect your things.” We were all so worried she would attempt a nuisance lawsuit, or show up the next Sunday and cause a scene, or something, but she actually just disappeared.

We had a plan in place that if talking to her that day (Friday) didn’t work, we were going to overnight a termination letter to her, to arrive at her home Saturday. We were also going to post “guards” (i.e., church members) at the doors on Sunday morning to intercept her before she came into the building … but thankfully, it didn’t come to that.

As a final act of pettiness, though, she sent a text message to one of the church members, who shared it with me. It said, “I’ll miss you; I’ve really enjoyed working with the children! Especially–” and then she listed the names of every child in the church’s program, except my child. Classy.

{ 114 comments… read them below }

  1. Liz the Snackbrarian*

    A part of me aspires to the minister’s level of pettiness, but more importantly, good riddance.

    1. MsM*

      I dunno, involving someone’s young child in my grievances with them even tangentially is a level of petty I think I’m okay not achieving.

      1. ferrina*

        Yeah. While the parents just roll their eyes and move on, if the kid ever learns about it, they’re too young to realize it’s not about them. They’ll wonder what they did wrong (young kids entire psyche is built around self-centeredness and the world revolving around them; it’s not until adolescence that they begin internalizing that other people are living their own lives separate from them. Of course, adolescence comes with other complications)

        1. New Jack Karyn*

          This was a text message from someone the kid will never see again. There’s close to zero risk the kid will ever know about it–and if they do, it will be in the context of “Wow, that person was such a weirdo!” This is not a thing a kid will ever worry about.

  2. Jay (no, the other one)*

    I know nuisance lawsuits and unpleasant scenes really happen – and I also think they are not that common and it’s a bad idea to keep an incompetent employee out of fear of either one. If you have a process and you follow that process and can document the issues, then most of the time they just – leave.

    I was on the board of a non-profit and we had to expel a member due to wildly inappropriate behavior. The member had been a source of criticism and division for years and everyone was afraid to take action because Member was well-connected in the community and people thought they would storm off and take other members with them and there would be a rift and it would be Very Very Bad. When we had a report of the wildly inappropriate behavior we had to take action – and the attorney we consulted said our risk of liability was much higher if we didn’t act than if we did, because once we knew what was going on we were allowing it to continue. So we suspended Member pending an investigation – and Member resigned immediately and hasn’t been seen or heard from since.

    Bullies are often cowards.

    1. Observer*

      Bullies are often cowards.

      SOOOO true.

      But also, your lawyer gave you very sound advice. Even if you wind up with a lawsuit, this kind of lawsuit is a lot less dangerous to the organization than a lawsuit based on the organizational failure to do their job.

      1. Richard Hershberger*

        To put it another way, doing nothing is a decision, every bit a much as doing something. Both can have consequences. So do what needs to be done.

        1. TeaCoziesRUs*

          Concur. There’s a reason the Catholic church focuses both on sins of COmmission AND Omission. It can be pretty sobering to really think about the words of confession… rather than simply say the words without thinking. “I confess to almighty God, and to you, my brothers and sisters, that I have sinned in my thoughts and in my words, in what I have done, and in what I have failed to do…”

      2. Artemesia*

        Years ago we had a murderer IN prison at the time try to get into a doctoral program (for which he was not qualified) because he thought it would get him parole. I rejected the application and someone above me said ‘I am afraid we will have a lawsuit for discrimination if we don’t admit him.’ I just said ‘Would you rather have the headline be ‘XUniversity admits murdered to doctoral program’ or ‘XUniversity refuses to admit murderer to doctoral program.’ And FWIW, this was not a person who had in prison committed himself to good works, helped tutor people etc and now wanted to get the credential to let him pursue that more fully. It was a totally cynical move. And he didn’t have the minimal qualifications we expect of students much less be competitive with those we admitted in a fairly small program.

        1. Phryne*

          Couple of years ago we had a guy who was in a clinic for the criminally insane trying to get into our bachelor programme. Now, we cannot officially refuse people from signing up if they meet the entry requirements (government rules), and we are actually very willing to give people second chances. But this 26 year old wanted to sign up for a programme that is 80% girls with an average age of 18 in the first year after being convicted of loverboy practices… (the reason he had to have a chat with my boss was beacuse of course his treatment required that he be upfront about it. This conversation was video call as he was at that time not yet allowed to leave the institution…)

          Yeah, no. My boss politely told him that he was welcome in the part-time programme (where the average age is about 30, though still more female than male).
          He did not react well apparently. His caseworker, who was in on the call, later told boss that they had not been aware that this course was so female-heavy in the population and actually agreed that that would not be a good place for him to re-integrate in society… In the end he did not sign up with us, fortunately. (we had a standby plan to put him in an all-male tutoring group, which would have been annoying for all other students we would have had to involve)
          But my boss made the right call I think: if we had refused him and he had decided to sue, he very well might have won, refusing him is against the law. But we rather be in the news for trying to refuse him than for whatever could have gone wrong if we had admitted him.

    2. ferrina*

      So true. It’s also true that the best contingency plans can be the ones that are never used. It was smart that OP had a contingency plan, and I’m really glad they didn’t need to use it!

    3. Chairman of the Bored*

      At my previous employer there was a guy who was a volatile maniac, but management of the small company division kept him around because:
      1) He was competent enough at his job that they thought he was essential
      2) They were afraid of what he would do if he were fired

      Then one day he made the mistake of going off half-cocked in a Zoom call with corporate-level HR management on it.

      That same day they were asking “who is this bozo and why is he still working here?”

      The next week he was gone, and it was fine. His work was taken over by other people and he disappeared quietly with no lawsuits or drama.

      1. I must know*

        So, did management of the small company division provide an answer as to why “this bozo” was still working here? Or did they just fire him posthaste without having to explain anything.

        1. Chairman of the Bored*

          He got canned at the corporate level after local management could not make a reasonable case for his continued employment beyond “we’re cowards”.

      2. Artemesia*

        I have watched several people over my career overreach like this — assume they were untouchable because they succeeded in bullying weak management and then come up against strong managers who didn’t put up with it and overnight — off they went.

        My favorite was a guy in instructional tech who provided NO support to people teaching and spent his time fiddling around with personal tech projects and toys. And then one day he came under purview of new management who asks ‘what does this guy do? for whom is he providing support?’ And a week later he was gone after 17 years of goofing off.

        1. Distracted Librarian*

          I had the opposite problem. I was the new manager, acquired an employee with an attitude problem whose previous manager had ignored it. Got complaints, people didn’t want to work with her. I tried coaching and counseling, but in her mind, nothing was ever her fault. Started down the progressive discipline track–and got stopped cold by HR, who treated me like I was the problem. It was difficult to push back, since she had a track record of good performance reviews from the manager who refused to address the issue. Fortunately she ended up being transferred out of my unit, but that experience really soured me on HR in that organization.

    4. Richard Hershberger*

      Also, it costs money to pursue a nuisance lawsuit. There is a filing fee even if you do it pro se, an amateur hour lawsuit probably won’t get past the first round of summary judgment, and if it does, it will quickly become very time consuming. This is why they are so popular among jailhouse lawyers: those people have a lot of spare time to fill. But if you are trying to live your live and pay your bills, not so much. The real danger of the nuisance lawsuit is when a rich guy decides to make this is life’s work. That can get expensive to defend.

      1. Magenta Sky*

        And any competent lawyer will make it clear to the potential client there’s little chance of success, and the smart ones will hint that whatever comes up during the trial will end up being a part of the public record permanently, and do you really want everyone you know to hear all that?

        Many will just flat refuse to take BS cases.

      2. MigraineMonth*

        There are some employment lawyers who will take a case on commission, but they’re only going to do so if it’s a very strong case. “My manager fired me because I do no work” isn’t going to magically transform into a payday for any lawyer.

    5. Zweisatz*

      We have one of those at work (who is keeping the employment law as a prominent book in his teleconference background at all times as I learnt today wtf!!), and I wish people would pull through already. He has been performance-managed for years at this point.

    6. Cat's Paw for Cats*

      Well said. People fear lawsuits far more than they should. I have terminated people with the sure belief that they would sue me or at least I would have an EEOC investigation. I have sometimes had the EEOC investigations but was never sued in all the years I was a manager. And if we had been we would have simply dealt with it as we did all personnel actions.

      1. AnonToday*

        Oof, that was the person who was ruining my work life for the past several years until a couple months ago. I think they were scared of her but there was AMPLE documentation that she wasn’t actually doing her job (meaning I couldn’t do mine). She finally left “voluntarily” although that’s in quotes for a reason.

  3. CanadianNarwhal*

    Ah yes, I do remember when Jesus said “Let the little children come to me, unless the child’s parent is trying to have you fired, in which case keep them away”

        1. Jenna*

          Although just to be clear, they weren’t actually young boys. They were young men, probably in their twenties, according the original Hebrew word used to describe them. :)

      1. ferrina*

        rofl! Pretty sure Elisha was just embodying the little known 11th commandment: “F*** around and find out”

        1. Peanut Hamper*

          That must have been on the tablet that Moses dropped and broke. I wonder what the other four were.

          1. Texan In Exile*

            11. Thou shalt give women pockets in amount and size equal to those of men.
            12. Thou shalt set the work thermometer at a temperature warm enough for women.
            13. Thou shalt have three times as many toilet slots for women as for men in every work and public space.
            14. Thou shalt place sleeves on women’s clothing, especially women’s winter clothing.
            15. Thou shalt not enter the Express lane if thou has more than 15 items.

            1. happybat*

              Can we have the thermometer at a temp that works for everyone? I’m a woman who only feels truly comfy around 15 degrees Celsius indoors – people turning it up for me would be misery.

              1. Chairman of the Bored*

                “Can we have the thermometer at a temp that works for everyone?”

                Given the wide range of strongly-held preferences on this, probably not.

                1. AnonToday*

                  I think what we *could* do is have the thermometer relate to the temperature outside…. like turn it up a degree or two in the summer when people are wearing lighter clothing, then back down to frigid in winter when I probably have a scarf with me anyway.

                2. 2 Cents*

                  I think the room temp thing might be an extension of the punishment after the expulsion from the Garden of Eden, where it was, no doubt, the perfect temperature all the time LOL

                3. MigraineMonth*

                  @AnonToday: I really want there to be some correlation between the temperature outside and the temperature inside, because that way our bodies could acclimate to summer and winter weather (and I wouldn’t have to carry around sweaters in the blistering heat.)

                  I’m not saying we need to stop all A/C, but I think letting it get several degrees (F) warmer in summer and several degrees (F) cooler in winter would be reasonable in most offices.

                4. Lenora Rose*

                  MigraineMonth: I was told this was in fact much more typical in areas in Europe than in North America.

                  When we had a programmable thermostat, my husband had it at 19 for winter when the heat ran and 23 for summer in the AC. This is by no means close to the outside temperatures (-25 to +30), but I rebelled against having the summer temperature be high enough I start sweating at basic housecleaning, and I do prefer it to icy all the time.

              2. MEH Squared*

                Same! I am AFAB and my happy place is 62F (17C). Anything much more than that, and I get really unhappy.

            2. Pockets and purses*

              Fun fact: in the middle ages women did in fact have gigantic pockets and men were the ones with purses.

              Of course back then the pocket was fully separate from your outer garments so it was more like a fanny pack you could access through slits in your dress but yanno, details.

              1. Quill*

                More of a saddlebag than a fanny pack, given that once corsetry became a big thing the pockets could get stupid large and hang from that.

            3. Peanut Hamper*

              I really like #15. I hope there is a special circle of hell for repeat offenders who just do…not…care.

  4. 2 Cents*

    I’m waiting for OP’s next letter, telling us that pastor put them down as a reference for her next job

    1. LookingGlass*

      I know, right? I get that we enjoy our juicy updates around here, but these are still people’s lives we’re talking about.

    1. zinzarin*

      Say what you want about the American South, but there’s a level of shade there that other cultures can only aspire to.

      1. Lexie*

        I saw a t-shirt online that said “Bless Your Heart” and it was categorized as “spiritual” or “inspirational” or something along those lines. My thought was “that doesn’t mean what you think it mean”

        1. Generic Username*

          As a Southern-adjacent non-Southerner, let me say the phrase “Bless Your Heart” isn’t always used in a deriding manner. It often is used sincerely (expect when it isn’t.)

          1. Selina Luna*

            I admit that I’m from the Southwest, not the actual South, but I’ve never heard “Bless your heart” used non-derisively.

            1. Hillia*

              Watch the Andy Griffith show. Someone mentions that Miz Lily’s rheumatism is acting up and the response will be “Aww, bless her heart”. I also heard it in Mississippi when I went to school there: “CindyLou isn’t coming back this semester; her mama died over the summer” “Well, bless her heart, that’s terrible”.

            2. Spero*

              I’m in the South, and it is sometimes used as a ‘oh she’s trying her best!’ way that is not necessarily derisive. Is it a little patronizing even then? Sure. But not strictly an insult. Like if a kid was trying to bring mom flowers and picked the prize roses, ‘oh he wanted to bring mama flowers, bless his heart.’ Or ‘Oh Jan didn’t realize we could do this with x form and has been trying to reconstruct it by hand for the last four days, bless her heart.’

          2. it's me*

            As a Southerner, this is correct. Someone saying that it’s always a secret burn or whatever is probably saying more about themselves than anything else… bless their heart.

            1. Generic Username*

              I think the “Bless your heart is a secret burn” trope is a just an internet trope that has exploded in recent years passed on on by terminally-online folks who get their Southern culture from BuzzFeed listicles rather than from actually interacting with actual Southerners. Bless their hearts… (How’s that for a non-secret burn?)

          3. Mallory Janis Ian*

            I hardly ever heard it used as a secret burn except in movies about the South. The only ways I ever heard it used was either sincerely to express compassion for someone’s misfortune, OR to absolve oneself of the “sin” of gossiping by converting it into concern (which I guess could be construed as being derisive if the nuance eludes the observer).

            Now that movies and the internet say that it’s always a secret burn, I do see many more people ironically using it that way.

            1. Mallory Janis Ian*

              But mostly it was something I heard the women in my family say when they suddenly became conscious that they might be judged a gossip (because they were in the middle of gossiping), so they would say, “Bless their heart” to show that they were aware that what they were saying could be construed as gossip and to shake off their self-consciousness about it.

              Of course I can’t answer for the whole entire South, but that’s the main way I ever saw it used.

              1. Generic Username*

                I am told the classy way to gossip in the South isn’t to share some juicy news and slap a “bless their heart” on it, but instead to ask that we add someone to the prayer list and explain why they need to be on the prayer list.

    2. Cheshire Cat*

      I’ve lived my entire adult life in the South, and in the small towns I’ve lived in the phrase is only used derisively or in the “getting out of gossip” way. In both cases it’s usually followed by a laugh, so there is no question how it’s meant.

      In the cities where I’ve lived, it’s mainly used as an expression of sympathy, especially in areas that have a lot of transplants from other parts of the country.

      Like any other part of the US, the South is not monolithic.

  5. ACM*

    “Bullies are often cowards”.

    Incorrect. Bullying is almost always a behavior done to establish and demonstrate power and dominance. Pushing back against bullying will often make them slap back harder to maintain their.

    Regardless of any emotional insecurity that might be going on, that doesn’t mean they don’t wield power, be it authority, social acumen, or physical or that they won’t use it on you just as hard as they can when their position is confronted.

    So when you go after a bully, don’t miss.

    1. ferrina*

      Most bullies I’ve met are cowards, but what they are most afraid of is public opinion. If the target of their bullying pushes back in a way to make the bully look bad, the bully retaliates harder to avoid the mockery they are sure will come (because the bully would make someone that fell from a position of perceived dominance, so they assume others would as well).

      If there isn’t a way to end up on top, they may well walk away and claim it was their idea to leave.

      1. Unkempt Flatware*

        I agree with this. In middle school, a new kid shut a bully down forever and for always when he said, “I can’t imagine anyone cares what a POS like you thinks of them”. He said it loud, clearly, and confidently. Everyone heard. Everyone gasped or laughed. I’ll never forget it.

        1. tangerineRose*

          I’m surprised that worked. I was physically afraid of the bullies in my school, and I don’t think I was the only one.

          1. allathian*

            It worked because the new kid *wasn’t* afraid. The bullies hadn’t had time to intimidate him yet.

    2. Properlike*

      I think there is nuance to this, thus the inclusion of the word “often.”

      Depends on the bully. Depends on the context. The idea that you as their target have no power because the bully will *always* retaliate harder is the very myth that keeps people from taking action, perpetuating the situation and making it even harder to solve later on.

      I do know that drawing a firm boundary and sticking to it *often* takes care of bullying behavior once they realize their standard M.O. won’t work on you. But you have to be able to enforce your boundary.

      1. Irish Teacher*

        Definitely depends on the bully and on the context. People try way too hard to make rules about bullies in general as if they are a hivemind. Not saying ACM is doing this, but I do think there is a general attempt to “find a way” to deal with bullies and…bullying is a huge category.

        I think a lot of the very poor advice given about bullying from “just ignore them and they’ll leave you alone” to “stand up to them. Bullies are always cowards and if you stand up to them, they’ll back down” come from thinking of one specific situation and assuming it will work in every situation. All these things may work with some bullies, but they can make other situations worse.

        I think drawing a firm boundary really depends, among other things, on the relative power of you and your bully. If it is a boss who is doing the bullying, this could lead to the person drawing the boundary simply being fired because the boss doesn’t want to have to deal with somebody he can’t push around. On the other hand, when the bully doesn’t actually have any power and is just working on the assumption that nobody will challenge them, it could be very effective.

    3. AthenaC*

      Yup – that was my experience. Ex-husband was definitely a bully and was very. very. good. at getting everyone on his side. So his bark was pretty unpleasant but not nearly as unpleasant as his bite, should you make that mistake.

      Fortunately, by the time I divorced him I had learned this lesson and just played the part of the meek, scared, simple-minded woman until he got bored and moved on with his next wife. So my life got pretty peaceful pretty quickly.

      On the other hand, when it came time for his next wife to divorce him, she tried to defend herself and he made things very, very ugly both for her and their son.

      So my experience with bullies tends to be “don’t poke the bear.”

    4. AnonToday*

      Yeah, no, do not make sweeping declarations like this, you have in fact made yourself incorrect. Many bullies only pick on people they think will never stand up for themselves and are shocked and appalled when you do. They’ll shove you down and then beg you not to tell on them.

    5. Observer*

      Bullying is almost always a behavior done to establish and demonstrate power and dominance.

      And that’s often done by cowards.

      Sure, it’s true that some bullies push harder when you push back, but some don’t. I’d venture to say that bullies tend to fold more often than not.

      So when you go after a bully, don’t miss.


    6. laser99*

      I agree with you. I very much wish it weren’t true, but experience taught me otherwise. Standing up for yourself enrages the bully, and they hit back HARD.

    7. Jessica*

      Bullying is a behavior done to establish dominance *because the person doing it is insecure.* So they’re still cowards. Having power doesn’t make you not a coward.

      When I was working at a law firm, saving up money for law school, the senior partners either ignored me, or were very supportive and helpful and happy to give me advice and help me network.

      The bullies were the junior associates. The partners weren’t threatened by me.

      People who aren’t afraid might be dismissive, but they don’t take time out of their day to bully people.

      One might note that exerting dominance over other people isn’t the only way to wield power–I’ve had plenty of people who could have exerted power over me and instead chose to share it, or to use it to protect me. There are a lot of things you can do with power.

      The choice to use it to dominate another is cowardice.

  6. Teapot, Groomer of Llamas*

    The church member should have responded to the text that the text was nonconsensual.

  7. Portia*

    Some bullies are cowardly in the limited sense that if one can plausibly demonstrate — or very strongly imply — that one is stronger, meaner, crazier, or more willing to violate social norms than the bully, they may back off, that being a message bullies understand. (Though indeed, this would be useful only in very unusual workplaces.)

    1. Frost*

      Yes, demonstrating that one is stronger, meaner, crazier, or more willing to violate social norms than the bully in a workplace will solve the bully problem–and will also solve the workplace problem bc you probably won’t be employed there much longer!

      1. ferrina*

        Not necessarily- see the OP who bit the workplace bully.
        I mean, nothing about that work environment or that situation was normal or okay, but she didn’t lose her job.

        I guess the lesson there is….when bullies are allowed to persist, there’s other issues. Individual results will vary.

    2. Pam*

      I hate that this is true. I’ve had a couple really nasty bullies in my life (including a parent) that only stopped when I had a full breakdown and turned slightly psychotic. That was a message that they understood. They immediately left me alone. But if they had ever had a sense that I felt guilt or shame, they would have been right back to blame and bully again.

  8. Lapsed Lutheran*

    I don’t think the ministry is the right calling for anyone that childish and petty.

  9. Hills to Die on*

    This one was so funny and horrible. I am so glad she’s gone. I had to fire someone who wanted to argue and we just said ‘ go pack your stuff; we will let your attorney and ours sort it out.” Never heard from her again of course.
    Best part:
    “This meeting is non-consensual”
    If that were a thing, I’d use it every day of my life lol

  10. Veryanon*

    I was wondering what would be the organization’s recourse if the minister lived in housing provided by the church and if that was the case here. Hopefully that would be covered by some kind of employment contract, but if not, would the church have to continue housing the minister while it pursued an eviction process? What a nightmare.

    1. Magenta Sky*

      I suspect it varies by state. But in California, no notice is required if housing is provided without additional rent as part of the wages. (If there’s rent being payed, normal notice periods apply.)

  11. Chainsaw Bear*

    For anyone who had been waiting for this specific update/into church and community dynamics, I can’t recommend Search by Michelle Huneven enough! It’s an extremely funny novel written in the style of a memoir by a woman asked to serve on her Universality Unitarian church’s search committee for a new pastor.

  12. JelloStapler*

    She needs to read her Old Testament. As Denial is apparently not just a river in Egypt.

  13. Yes And*

    Clicking on the link from the original letter reminded me that I very much also want an update on the “Diversity Day” where the staff voted on which minority holiday to have off.

  14. Kaye*

    Fun fact: in the Church of England the churchwardens have responsibility for keeping out people like the subject of this letter. Sometimes they get special (symbolic!) sticks for the purpose!

    1. Generic Username*

      Vergers armed with their virges, ready to shoo-off animals or discipline rowdy choristers…

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