an employee I fired is spreading lies to the rest of my team — Ask a Manager
A reader writes:
I’m a relatively seasoned public sector (local government) manager going through a difficult situation. Long story short, I fired my assistant director, Malcolm, because he wasn’t performing at the necessary level. Our agency has a year-long probationary period and once it passes, it is very difficult to release someone. As the time of Malcolm’s annual review approached, I prepared a detailed written evaluation that outlined both positive and negative aspects of his performance. I also provided regular feedback during our time together including weekly check-ins.
Prior to providing the written evaluation during an in-person meeting, I had asked him to prepare a self evaluation in which he shared his assessment that he was performing at an awesome level in all areas. When I shared that I was concerned that he wasn’t performing acceptably and I wasn’t sure if he could correct sufficiently to meet the requirements of the position, he then switched his position and explained that he knew he was struggling but he really wanted to keep his job and would do what is necessary to correct.
So, I extended his probation by three months and we agreed on the areas in which he would focus his efforts to improve. Sadly, he did not improve and instead turned in half completed assignments. When we had the difficult conversation that it wasn’t working out for me or my agency, he cried and expressed in a vulnerable way that he felt terrible about letting me down. He asked me to extend his probation further so he could find a new job. I was vulnerable too (I felt sad and expressed how much I like him as a person and see his talent in many areas, just not the ones required for the role) and declined to extend the probation. We met before business hours early the following week so I could give him his final paycheck and he could leave without others observing his departure. (He was worried I would walk him out in front of everyone — not my style).
Since he left, I have learned that he deleted all of the files saved on the part of the server dedicated exclusively to him. He sent emails to my colleagues in which he expressed that I can’t be trusted and that I’m too demanding. He has stayed in contact with my junior staff (he is their age peer) and he has been sharing confidential information from when he was a trusted manager, causing bad feelings with individuals and between individuals. His behavior makes me feel both betrayed and furious about his conduct.
We’ve been able to restore the deleted files (hello, IT!) and I am being proactive in my efforts to encourage my staff and demonstrate that I am a competent, caring leader through my actions. That said, I fired another staff member in a different department due to documented performance issues and another team member just left to pursue a dream job at a different agency. So my staff is feeling understandably uneasy— local government employment tends to be stable, sometimes to its detriment, and there has been a lot of unexpected change this month.
It’s been more than a month since Malcolm left and he is still in regular contact with my staff. Part of me wants to caution him (as a mentor would) that our industry is very small and that his behavior reflects badly on him as a professional and a person— particularly where he is betraying the confidentiality of management information with which he was entrusted as part of my small management team. The other part of me doesn’t want to be seen as a crazy boss/control freak chasing departed staff around admonishing them about their conduct.
He had asked me earlier if I would be a reference for him in his job search and I said yes, that I would highlight the good work that he did while he was with me and the obvious talent he displayed in areas that are great for lower-level roles. Clearly I won’t be providing any kind of reference at this point, and probably won’t be asked, but I am concerned about how his behavior is further eroding my team’s morale and I wish I could ask him to stop. Do you have any advice for me?
I’m sorry, it really sucks when this kind of thing happens.
I’ve been in that situation too — bent over backwards to help a struggling employee in ways I didn’t need to, invested a lot of energy in trying to help them, prioritized dealing with them with empathy and compassion, thought we were on the same page — and then found out after they left that they were complaining about me to others. It doesn’t feel great!
Some people do this when they’re failing in a role. It helps them save face to their coworkers, and in some cases it helps them save face with themselves too. “I was fired because my boss was an overly demanding jerk” can be easier to swallow, and to say to others, than “I was fired because I wasn’t able to do the job well.” So be it — people deal with things in all sorts of ways. As the person being painted as the villain, you’ve just got to decide not to take it personally, and recognize that it’s really not about you. (Of course, you shouldn’t just default to that conclusion; first make sure you’ve taken an honest look at how you managed your end of the situation, reflected on where you could have been a better manager, and gathered and listened to feedback with an open mind if you haven’t done that recently.)
You definitely should not try to caution Malcolm about his behavior. You’re not in a mentor role with him anymore, and it’s highly likely to come across as self-serving or overstepping. And he wouldn’t even need to spin it very heavily for it to appear that way to anyone he tells about it. As tempting as it might be, you just can’t.
But it’s understandable to worry that Malcolm stirring up problems at a time when people already feel uncertain. One thing to consider, though, is that the employees he’s talking to might see through him pretty easily. People often (although not always) know when a coworker isn’t great at their job, and it’s possible the people he’s complaining to are taking everything he says with a large grain of salt because they saw some of the problems with his work for themselves. (Hell, a lot of people are secretly relieved when a low-performing coworker is fired, although they usually don’t say that to the person.) More than anything, though, they’re likely to measure what he says about you against the experiences they’ve had firsthand with you.
If you haven’t already, it will help to make a point of being transparent and open about how you handle performance problems — not talking about Malcolm specifically, but about how you handle problems generally. Make sure people know that when someone is struggling, your process is XYZ (a series of clear warnings, chances to improve, etc. — whatever your process is) so that they know you don’t act hastily and that they would be warned and given opportunities to improve if they were in danger of being let go. Also explain that you would respect their privacy and not talk to their coworkers about that process while it was ongoing. Ideally, this will (a) convey that you don’t make arbitrary or out-of-the-blue personnel decisions and (b) prompt them to realize that just because they didn’t know about the conversations you were having with Malcolm behind the scenes, that doesn’t mean they weren’t happening.
Beyond that, the thing that will matter most is what people experience from you themselves. If they see you consistently operating in a fair, reasonable, and transparent manner, that’s likely to carry more weight than what they’re hearing from Malcolm. If you don’t currently spend a lot of time with some of them, this might be a good moment to find ways to do that — to ensure they’re getting those opportunities for them to see for themselves how you operate. That’s the best antidote to whatever Malcolm is saying.