update: our new admin crashed the company car and lied about it

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 letter-writer whose new admin, Pam, lied about crashing the company car? Here’s the update.

Thank you so much for responding to us about the admin situation! I was waiting to write an update until we were a bit further removed from it. Husband did not fire Pam, and I wanted to see how everything worked out in the longer run.

We read through your response and all the comments that day, and it really helped him in thinking through his response, so a big thank you to all! Once he got more clarity on the circumstances from talking to Pam and the others, it became apparent that some of the strongest assumptions/arguments “for firing” didn’t really fit the bill.

When husband confronted Pam, she confessed and explained that at her old (super corporate) job, any damage to vehicles was automatic grounds for firing, no discussion. So when she scraped the car trying to park, she panicked and assumed that she was going to lose her new job that day if she admitted to hitting the car herself. Honestly, while not ideal, reacting like that was totally understandable to him. He made it very clear to her that this wasn’t the case at his company, and scrapes on an already dinked working van were not a big deal, but lying about it was. By the way, thanks to the commenters who suggested putting this into an official employee handbook and orienting whomever is driving to the fact!

As for lying to other employees, turned out that two employees were by the loading dock, saw the van, and asked about the damage, so she definitely didn’t purposefully spread the story around. She apologized to them and told them the truth after the conversation with my husband (this was a requirement by my husband in order to stay on, but he said she seemed eager to do it).

Pam continues to do well. My husband definitely paused on offloading HR logistics onto her after all this happened, but she’s slowly taking things on and so far he’s had no issues. He also has the general manager still handling all personnel issues and planning on keeping it that way.

{ 58 comments… read them below }

  1. Laura*

    Toxic workplaces can really do a number on people. I appreciate the graciousness and patience of OP’s husband in this situation. It can really be psychologically damaging and seriously impact how you act in future jobs for a long time, depending on the toxicity of the environment and how long you’re in it… plus since Americans literally need jobs to have healthcare and continue to live in most states (no safety net), it’s doubly scary… I fully understand why Pam acted the way she did.

    1. Your Computer Guy*

      Yeah, I’m imagining hitting that pole and thinking “oh no, I’m going to lose my health insurance,” and that really triggers my empathy.

    2. ferrina*

      I’m really glad OP’s husband gave Pam the chance to fess up- her explanation makes a lot of sense and it sounds like she took immediate steps to rectify the situation. Hooray!

    3. Peanut Hamper*

      I’m almost two years away from my old toxic workplace and I still flinch inappropriately. It takes a long time to get over it.

      1. Kelly*

        Same here, except it’s been 5 years. I still have trouble saying no to insane client demands, like filming me while I work, because I would be REAMED for ever saying no to a client at my last job.

        I actually did run over an expensive package at a client’s house during my first week at a previous job. The delivery driver left it a few feet behind the massive, unwieldy pickup I was driving and I thoroughly smashed it. I called the office SOBBING because I was sure I would be fired. Thankfully everyone was cool with it and the item was replaced by the sender because the delivery driver had 100 other appropriate places to put it that weren’t in the middle of the driveway.

      2. zuzu*

        I’m 20 years out from a BigLaw associate job and I just trauma-dumped on my library director when I requested two weeks of vacation.

        He has promised to help me get over it, because we get to take our vacations, and he doesn’t take them away, threaten to take them away, or cut them short out of vindictiveness or leash-yanking.

    4. Paris Geller*

      I see this with my husband so much. He works in hotels. When we started dating, he worked for a hotel that was quick to give write-ups or fire people for any infraction, real or perceived (except for one of the managers who would hit on the college age women and vape in the bathroom, but I guess he knew where the skeletons are buried or something). My husband has been at his current workplace for a year and a half, and by all accounts, they seem to love him. They were quick to give him a raise and promotion and is clearly liked by both his managers and his coworkers. Yet, every time he comes home after something goes wrong he’s always afraid he’ll be fired and working out the worst case scenario in his head.

    5. Elsewise*

      God, I almost started crying at work today because a manager was talking about the rules she has in place to protect her team from the (metaphorical) toxic fumes that are an occupational hazard in that role. I used to do that job at an old workplace, and I never had anyone sticking up for me.

  2. Richard Hershberger*

    The former toxic environment is really the only excusable reason for this, and that so long as the employee is open to making this a learning experience.

  3. I edit everything*

    This is a great update. Clear communication, a little bit of understanding, and a second chance worked out well for everyone. The previous toxic workplace makes the whole thing so much clearer–why she seemed so shaken for a little scrape, why she lied, etc.

    I hope Pam continues to be a good hire. I love updates like this.

  4. OrigCassandra*

    Very compassionate and reasonable response from the OP’s husband. Glad it’s all working out.

  5. Iridescent Periwinkle*

    It’s so nice that places offer opportunities for redemption. Thanks to the OP’s husband’s employer for that.

  6. learnedthehardway*

    That was very gracious of your husband, and I think says a lot of good things about him and his company’s culture.

    I’m not surprised that Pam panicked and tried to avoid responsibility, based on her expectation that she would be automatically and immediately fired for a minor accident. When a toxic environment causes someone to lose sight of normal behaviour, it takes a long time to recover from it.

    1. Quill*

      Yeah, in a place like that, lying about it isn’t digging the hole any deeper, you’re already at rock bottom. At a reasonable place, of course, the lie makes it worse.

  7. Roo*

    What a positive update. It’s nice to hear about a decent manager who is prepared to listen and be empathetic. Poor Pam didn’t display the best of judgements at the beginning, but given her experience at her recently-former job, it was no wonder that she was in a bit of a state and not thinking straight in the heat of the moment. I’m glad she had the opportunity to explain and make amends.

    Everyone makes mistakes; it’s how it’s dealt with that counts.
    Best wishes to all concerned.

    1. Gigi*

      “Everyone makes mistakes; it’s how it’s dealt with that counts.”

      This. A thousand times this.

  8. ariel*

    A lovely update and I’m so glad the documentation has been updated so that future Pams know what is and isn’t fireable when it comes to using company cars.

  9. NewManager*

    I’m going to have my first shot at managing soon, so I’m really trying to wrap my head around this. Allison’s response indicated that the employee should be fired because she had proven herself untrustworthy (and didn’t have the benefit of tenure for them to know this was a one-off lapse in judgement. Obviously, the company didn’t do that, and has found that she is a good employee who just made a mistake. If I am presented with a situation like this – how should a manager determine if you fire someone right away or give them a chance?

    1. laser99*

      I would have pulled her aside and said something to the effect of, “Before I submit the report on this, is there anything else I should know?” Then wait. If she breaks down and confesses, let it go, but make it clear she cannot lie about anything else, ever. If she doubles down, it warrants firing. (As an aside, I was unpleasantly surprised at the harshness of some commentators before. Firing someone is a grave affair, especially in a nation like ours with little to no safety net.)

      1. Point of order*

        Firing someone is a grave affair, especially in a nation like ours with little to no safety net

        Since this is the second time I’ve read this “no safety net” line in this thread, I want to say this Very Online assertion is ridiculous. What are Medicaid, Medicare, CHIP, ACA, social security, unemployment, and workers’ comp, for starters? The first four alone represent about 25% of federal
        expenditures. Overall entitlements we’re just over 50% of federal expenditures in FY22. (In FY21, the figure was about 2/3 due to one-time Covid relief.)

        1. Legalien*

          The amount of red tape and bureaucracy a person has to get through just to access the smallest amount of any of these safety nets is ridiculous. I’ve been in a situation where I had to choose between eating or rent because these so-called safety nets failed. Only through a series of miracles and a good lawyer (and over five years of fighting to get through all that red tape and bureaucracy) have I been able to get some stability from them. The system is broken, and anyone who says otherwise or says it’s enough has obviously never been in the desperate position of needing the help they’re supposed to give and being denied.

        2. Ultra Anon*

          Medicaid can review assets over the past 6 months when determining eligibility. There are quite a few states where you need to be practically destitute before you qualify for MA health care. The best you can hope for sometimes is buying insurance through the exchange that’s only slightly less expensive than COBRA or costs an entire unemployment check. Food support amounts vary wildly from state to state, and qualifying for SSI based on disability is notoriously difficult to qualify for without the help of a lawyer (and depending on how long you’ve worked, the support isn’t that great).

        3. Starbuck*

          You’re rarely eligible for unemployment if you’re fired for cause, which would be the case here. Worker’s comp is also irrelevant here. Which of those options left could be used to pay rent? My bet is, none.

        4. Rear mech*

          Most adults who have been consistently employed and lose a job are disqualified from these programs based on age, the income they’ve already earned in the current year, or on the basis of having an emergency fund (liquid assets of 2-5k depending on the state). In my state, unemployment is 25% of your wage (capped to be within a range of $72 and $563 per week)

        5. Peanut Hamper*

          It is not ridiculous.

          What is ridiculous is assuming that someone can just walk into any of these offices, put their name on a piece of paper, and walk out with a bundle of benefits. This is not how the system works.

          But hey, thanks for showing us your privilege, your ignorance of how these programs actually work, and your prejudice toward the people who need to (not want to) use them. Have a great day!

        6. Joron Twiner*

          Which of these would be available to Pam if she was fired for accidentally crashing the car? Any of them?

        7. Ask a Manager* Post author

          But literally not a single one of the programs you listed could go toward food or housing in her situation. (The only one that theoretically could would be unemployment, but she wouldn’t be eligible for it if fired in this situation.)

          To be clear, businesses can’t keep someone just because our social safety net is so weak. Sometimes you do need to fire someone. But it definitely is a very serious thing and something you shouldn’t do lightly. (And I say that as someone who, from the original letter, thought the LW would probably end up needing to fire Jane! But I’m so glad to hear what happened when they talked, and that’s always step 1.)

        8. Ex-Teacher*

          it can be very challenging to get those benefits.

          I left teaching, and it took me almost 10 weeks before seeing a dime of UI benefits. I was fortunate to be married (with a spouse that had a stable job and health insurance), to have saved a bit, and because of my situation I received a balloon check at the end of that school year, so I survived without much trouble.

          I had a lot of warning about my employment ending. And I had substantial documentation from the school year that proved my eligibility, something that most people don’t have. And I’m in a very liberal state that is generous with benefits and eligibility requirements. I had literally the best possible situation anyone could ask for when finding themselves suddenly unemployed, and it was still an absolute nightmare. I can’t imagine how hard it is for someone who didn’t have all the prep that I had, and was going through the same things. Imagine someone going 2+ months with no income and having to feed and house themselves without the external support I had- it would be incredibly scary and hard to succeed.

          Pretending like there’s a wealth of money and benefits available immediately to someone fired is *incredibly* tone-deaf and out of touch with reality.

        9. Parakeet*

          Having had a job where I was helping homeless folks, among other things, apply for benefits, I assure you that (even in my state that has one of the best safety nets in the country) it’s pretty difficult to access a lot of benefits. And can take a long time (and as others have pointed out, adults within commonly-understood “working age” who aren’t considered disabled enough to qualify for SSDI or for early Medicare, aren’t eligible for some of these). I’ve worked with people who were applying for benefits in less-progressive states and it’s even harder. And as Alison points out, none of these are things this person would be able to use for food or housing unless they qualified for unemployment insurance.

          “No” safety net is hyperbolic, but people in a bunch of other countries demonstrably get more safety net than we do in the US. The US not being especially efficient in how it pays for said safety net doesn’t change that.

          This is not an Overly Online take, it’s a take that comes from having actually watched the system in action and tried to help people through it.

        10. Corey*

          Much funnier than thinking that those benefits are at arm’s reach is thinking that the assertion is Very Online. You are parroting Extremely Online Conservative talking points and projecting what you read in that bubble onto others. This should be the awakening you need to do some deep timeline hygiene or to take a break from twitter entirely.

    2. office drone*

      The first paragraph in the original reply says: “He should talk with her first and hear what she says, but unless there’s something truly revelatory in that conversation (like, I don’t know, she was on a new medication that made her lose time and memory), he probably does need to fire her.”

      That was something revelatory! She thought she’s be fired either way because her old, toxic workplace taught her that that was the expectation, and talking with her made it clear that that was out of character for her (eager to apologize, clear it up, and get on board with better workplace norms). In this case, her newness probably even made her more credible- she was fresh off a bad job, and didn’t have time yet to adjust to a more normal work environment. It doesn’t excuse the dishonesty, but it explains it in a way that makes it seem unlikely to be an ongoing issue.

      As to your last question, after some point you just have to trust your gut. This one could really go either way, and OP chose compassion and grace. It might backfire on them, it might not. There’s no one right answer.

      1. kiki*

        I think it also helped to find out that the employee hadn’t spread her lie around intentionally to try to cover her actions. She did lie to a couple people, but it was in a panic right after her accident. That comes across differently than intentionally putting out, like, a campaign to try to make sure everyone buys your story.

      2. Bunny Lake Is Found*

        It is really telling because, as Alison pointed out, Pam backed into a pole…she didn’t hit a pedestrian or total the car. She lied to cover up something so very minor, so the only options are a) she has a truth problem, b) she backed into the pole for fireable reasons (drinking and driving, etc.) or c) something made her think this totally not fireable incident was somehow WORSE than lying, a pretty much universally fireable offense. And when you are in the realm of (c), it’s worth figuring out what exactly the situation is.

    3. Bee*

      I think the key part is this bit of Allison’s advice: “talk with her first and hear what she says, but unless there’s something truly revelatory in that conversation…he probably does need to fire her.” From the boss’s POV, the knowledge that she thought she’d be immediately fired apparently was sufficiently revelatory! That line might be different for different people, and I don’t think it would’ve been wrong to decide it wasn’t enough of a reason for you – but I’m really glad to hear that the boss’s grace has paid off.

    4. SereneScientist*

      I’ll second the other folks responding to you that the first point of Allison’s advice is key, listen to what your employee has to say first.

      Beyond that, I think it’s very situation- and person-dependent. As Allison has alluded to in past letters, there are working issues that are coachable and working issues that are not coachable, or cross some line (like lying repeatedly or assaulting another employee) that make it prohibitive for you to keep an employee on. Distinguishing these two are, in my personal opinion, one of the hallmarks of a good manager but also may be one of the harder things to learn because you’ll need to learn and adjust as you go. Still, that you’re asking these questions at all bodes well I think. Best of luck to you!

  10. 2 Cents*

    My reactions to totally normal situations at my current nontoxic work environment is still affected by toxic atmospheres I left a literal decade ago. I’m glad OP’s husband gave Pam the grace to explain herself. Sounds like she panicked in the moment.

    1. ScruffyInternHerder*

      Same here.

      I’ve worked places where:

      * Someone was performing a very work specific task, was in an accident in their personal vehicle, and repair bills for their vehicle refused. Suing would have meant termination. I don’t know that she was ever made whole.
      * Owning up to mistakes early on so that they could be managed meant having said mistakes thrown back in your face til you’re eventually let go as a “cost cutting measure”. Meanwhile, the owner’s family member has made a multitude of more expensive mistakes, never owned up to them, and to this day works there.
      * Raises being meant to own the employee and ::shocked Pikachu face:: when that doesn’t fly
      * Vacation being used as to why an employee isn’t “loyal”

      I could go on…but I’m either not going to work for a small family owned firm again, or I will at least ask for enough money for the aggravation if I’m considering it!!! (Don’t get me wrong, large firms have their issues too – but the toxicity isn’t typically right in my face on the daily either at the large firms that I’ve worked at!)

      1. GreyjoyGardens*

        Small family owned businesses are, in my experience, by far the most toxic places to work. Especially because many of them seem to exist partly to employ otherwise unemployable family members.

        I know the saying is “HR is there for the company, not you” but at least in most companies large enough to have HR, and are also not an owner’s personal “baby” like so many small family businesses, there is awareness of what is legal and what is not and nobody wants to be sued or have a bad reputation. Small family businesses are bound by no such scruples.

  11. AppleStan*

    I echo everything said above.

    * OP’s husband was compassionate, gracious, yet still was firm about accountability. I was especially impressed with the requirement that Pam needed to clear up her story with everyone she had spoken with.

    * “Toxic-environment” Pam did what she could to save herself…”Slowly coming out of toxic-environment” Pam is learning to communicate and to understand the importance of truthfulness in the workplace. To be clear … I understand why “Toxic-Environment” Pam behaved that way (I think we all do). Toxic work environments can lead to work PTSD. My sincere hope is that Pam takes heart from OP’s husband response and works hard to come out of that shell. My fear is that, depending upon how bad her previous work environment was, something else may trigger a bad reaction (although I don’t think it will be lying), and Pam may not try to talk it out with OP’s husband.

    * I also hope that OP’s husband takes the time to consistently communicate to Pam about his office’s culture, work-environment, and expectations. Owners/managers can assume that OF COURSE we aren’t going to fire you for a fender-bender (or having to take 3 weeks off unexpectedly because a parent fell severely ill — and yes, I did have to tell a direct report this when he came to me very hesitantly to ask if he still had a job and I was EXTREMELY shocked that this was even a thought in his head), but we have to presume that we don’t know what our direct reports are truly thinking, so we have to overcommunicate and reinforce the work expectations and office culture that we say we want to have.

    OP’s husband (and OP) sound like really thoughtful and professional people who want to hold people accountable, but don’t want to be jerks. Kudos to them. And having strong best wishes for Future Pam!!!!!

  12. MI Dawn*

    I’m glad OP and husband took the time to think things out, discuss, and work out the solution. I’ve had toxic bosses, and even now I still get very anxious when my current boss (whom I adore) wants to talk to me unexpectedly – because that’s when toxic boss would take you into their office and start screaming at you. So my heart goes out to Pam, and many rounds of applause to OP and husband!

  13. Jessica*

    Thanks for a thought-provoking update. I did see this as a concerning character issue, but on the other hand (assuming LW & co. are American), we live in a pretty broken society, and it’s easy to sit back and read a blog and make judgments on someone’s character, but what would I do if the stakes were higher than I thought? If I was going to lose my job? My access to healthcare (and maybe to Rx that keep me/family members alive)? My home (if I can’t pay the rent/mortgage, remember that research not long ago that found a huge % of American households couldn’t cope with a sudden $400 catastrophe)?

    1. Frost*

      For single events, I attribute something like this to the situation. I have to see a pattern before I start making judgements about someone’s character.

    2. HigherEdAdminista*

      I think this comment is something people should really reflect on.

      I get that dishonesty from an employee is bad, but when a person who is good in every way makes a mistake… the idea that they should be immediately fired (for something that it didn’t seem had much of a negative effect) is part of what leads to dishonesty in the first place. We do not have a lot of safety nets in the United States, and even in countries with more safety nets they aren’t always the smoothest to access. Employers often have an inordinate amount of power, and many people have experienced toxic and damaging work environments, as it seems Pam did. It makes total sense when faced with, in her mind, a potential loss of income, and all that entails, and loss of health insurance, that she panicked and tried to save herself. Even if she was just worried about being screamed at or having this accident forever thrown in her face, it makes sense.

      Sometimes life is just so much more complicated than we want to think about. I’m glad there was a good outcome for Pam!

      1. GreyjoyGardens*

        If honesty has bad results, of course people are going to lie! You have to make honesty pay off – I don’t mean in dollars so much as in good treatment.

        And you are right about the US and having a poor safety net (though we’re improving) and even in more generous countries the safety nets might be getting cut back or are still not the easiest to access. When you are dependent on a paycheck and have no assurance you’ll be able to get another job, that’s a scary feeling.

      2. Retired Vulcan Raises 1 Grey Eyebrow*

        Depends if you are entitled to long notice/substantial redundancy money, but losing your job in European countries can still lead to e.g. losing your home and going into very basic quality, cramped accommodation that is part of the safety net.
        Maybe losing your car too, if it’s not fully paid for.

        So although we don’t lose healthcare, sudden job loss can still be devastating.

        Unions and labour laws protect workers more here, but employers are still Top Dog. Like everywhere.

      3. Bunny Lake Is Found*

        I think the concern originally was that it seemed like Pam was deliberately spreading the lie to others and “selling” her story. Calling attention to such a strange lie makes you wonder if she has some lying compulsion or if she is trying to cover up something really bad (like she hit the pole while serving as a getaway driver in a bank heist). It’s basically doubling down when no one challenged the lie in the first place. Given the context that she only re-told the lie because 2 coworkers happened to see the car and ask what happened, then we are back to the “is there more to the story here?” question and there turned out to be be more.

  14. Retired Vulcan Raises 1 Grey Eyebrow*

    Poor Pam. Her old workplace sounds so cruel.
    Hopefully she now feels she no longer needs the defensive habits formed at her toxic job.

    Dishonesty is normally a deal-breaker, but I’m glad this kind employer was able to see through the fear that there was a potentially decent employee underneath.

  15. Dances with Sunlight*

    Re: Pam’s old job. I would bet my next paycheck that Pam’s former boss had a LOT of employees lying to them when they got a scratch on the company car. They’re literally teaching their employees to do just that! If you punish people for telling you an unwelcome truth then you are inadvertently rewarding them for lying.

    I’d suggest that Pam’s former boss read and ponder the story of the emperor and the seeds…and that he pay special attention to what happened to the one child brave enough to simply tell the truth. That boss could learn from that emperor!

  16. Madame Arcati*

    This is a nice outcome. And contrast it to Annie and boss-not-mom in the letter below.
    In this case, employee makes mistake (lying about the prang), based on previous experience at bad company. Good company clears up misunderstanding, employee is rational, so apologises/sets the record straight. Everyone is happy – Pam is working in a better place and knows it, good company retains good employee, doing the right thing in future. They have both learnt from it (Pam is clear on admitting to mistakes, and good company improves handbook to prevent future misunderstanding).

    In the other, employee makes mistakes (missing deadlines) and repeats them despite being taken up on the matter. It comes to a head and employee would rather watch the world burn than entertain one iota of a notion of apologising, making amends and committing to improvement. Refusing to accept they have done anything wrong and that all that has been asked of them is reasonable, has simply left them angry and without a job. And, considering what brought it to a head (declaring use of email at work to be an unreasonable workplace expectation) employee has learnt nothing and will be doomed to similar mistakes in future with similar consequences. Company left with dilemma about whether to state what I would call “the bleedin’ obvious” in handbook/onboarding (I’m sure most people would find “employees must use/check their work email” to be as unnecessary as, “employees must not embezzle the petty cash or appear naked on MS teams”).

  17. DeafNerd*

    A company that would fire me if I screw up their company car in any manner is a company I will not be driving for in any official manner.

  18. The Rural Juror*

    I was in a situation once where the owner of the company was quick to fire folks with no benefit of the doubt. It was an office with an attached warehouse. Someone managed to hit my car with the forklift and my boss was ready to fire the guy without even talking through what happened.

    I had to get my boss to rewatch the security footage several times and calm down enough to realize the forklift operator didn’t even know they’d done it. They were reversing with a pallet on the forks and scraped my car with the pallet. They obviously didn’t even feel it happen because it jolted the pallet and not the forks/forklift. The operator was looking over shoulder while he was backing up and turned the wheel too soon.

    We ended having a stern discussion with the operator about why you shouldn’t put pallets anywhere near parked vehicles and then sent him to redo some training on safe forklift operation, but he wasn’t fired. He was so embarrassed and apologetic to me afterwards. Then the company insurance paid for repairs.

    I was glad my coworker wasn’t fired. But also, I was already job searching because I didn’t like having a hothead for a boss! Glad the boss in this situation didn’t overreact.

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