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The Very Curious Case of the Disappearing Secretary [HorroR Stories]

Dear Madame HR,

I’ve worked part-time for the past 8 years for a non-profit organization. During that time, Cindy (not her real name), the secretary in the main office, was a great help to me in expediting a number of projects. Six weeks ago, I went into the office and found that Cindy was gone. The desk, shelves, and filing cabinets that Cindy had used were being cleaned out and the office had been re-arranged since my previous visit the week before. I asked about Cindy and was told that she had resigned when asked to adjust her work schedule (possibly in connection with the hiring of a new secretary in another department of the organization.) I wasn’t able to find out any additional information.

Last week, I received a brief letter from Cindy, sent to my home address. Cindy wrote that she hadn’t resigned, but had actually been fired after 15 years of working for the organization.  The reason for her firing – “because they needed someone with greater computer skills.” Cindy stated that she’d received no severance pay, because the organization considered her leaving a “resignation.”  She wished me well and said she’d enjoyed working with me.

I intend to continue working for the organization. How should I answer Cindy’s letter? I don’t want to insult her by ignoring it as she and I had a cordial working relationship. I’m puzzled by the issue of Cindy’s computer skills. The organization is rather low-tech and Cindy seemed to be able to provide the data and communications which the organization needed. Fired? Resigned? Which is true?

Also, the organization never released any type of “official” explanation for Cindy’s sudden absence – rather strange for a long-time employee who played a very visible role in the daily functioning of the organization. Does a business have any obligation to explain the departure of an employee? I find the silence disconcerting – certainly not a positive for employee morale. Still, I need this job and don’t want to make waves.

What shall I do?

Caught-in-the middle

Dear Caught,

I feel compelled to comment on your reaction to your co-worker’s departure. Most folks, I’ve noticed over the years, tend to react to these things with a (as I like to call it) “dance on their grave” type mentality. They whisper about her in the bathroom, they pillage her desk for the best stapler and multi-colored post-it notes. But your concern for your fallen comrade as well as the feeling that you can maybe help her in some way which has caused you to write this letter in the first place are rare qualities indeed. Most of us tend to revel in the downfall of others, or at least participate in the ensuing drama and gossiping that ripples in the wake of such an action.

Most companies, when making this sort of personnel decision, especially with someone who has been at the company so long, will make some sort of formal announcement, if for no other reason than to control the script of what has happened. As is illustrated by your confusion and bewilderment with what transpired, companies need to provide at least an “official” narrative to these sorts of things. And usually this narrative is agreed upon with the person who is leaving. A kind of “let’s create a story that makes us both look good so you won’t be embarrassed for getting fired” kind of thing. Saying nothing at all is like leaving a fertile plot of land unattended for everyone to plant their theories into. Not that releasing an “official” statement prevents gossip and conspiracy theories and the like, but it helps. As far as if companies “have” to do this, the answer is no, it’s just one of those things on a long list of things that companies should do but don’t , or care, to do.

Anyway, poor Cindy, fired for what seems to you to be (via information provided by her) specious reasons. Better computer skills, indeed! I suspect they’ve probably been wanting to part ways with Cindy for a while, for probably a thousand different reasons. They probably drew the whole thing out for years while suffering in silence. Just because your experience with her, which as you describe seems fairly intermittent and limited, was good, that doesn’t mean she was fulfilling the requirements of the job to the satisfaction of her overlords.

And maybe I’m being too generous to your managers. I’m giving them the benefit of the doubt, thinking that maybe Cindy wasn’t really that great at her job. Maybe it was all just politics. The new secretary didn’t like her; she ate Irene’s Lean Cuisine in the communal refrigerator even though it clearly said “Irene” on it. I don’t know, the real reasons here are between Cindy, your bosses, and the state unemployment agency if she applies for benefits. If it doesn’t affect your day to day, you shouldn’t worry and should stop asking.

By the way, I don’t know what state you live in, but most states are what we like to call “At-Will,” which means that you can be terminated at any time and for any reason (assuming it’s legal, i.e. not discriminatory, etc.) and you can quit at any time and for any reason. If my managers could read me now they’d all be crying foul because usually I call them lazy when they use At-Will as a reason for letting someone go, but I’m just saying that the reason doesn’t really matter. (In this situation—don’t listen to me managers who work at my company! Your reasons matter! Document! Document everything!)

You mention severance in your letter. I think a lot of employees think this is some sort of entitlement or an automatic. Most companies don’t have a formal policy which allows them to deal with severance pay on a case-by-case basis. Here’s an insider tip for ‘ya: if your company is giving you a severance agreement to sign along with your final paycheck, unless this is part of a reduction in force or other lay off, it’s probably because they think they don’t have the best reasons for letting you go. They are being lazy again and are hoping that having you sign a release in return for some multiple of your salary will save their souls. Consult counsel if you think there is something worth pursuing. Oh, and remember that there are certain things you can’t sign away your right to, like, for example, you can’t sign away your right not to be discriminated against, so even if you sign this agreement, and you were the victim of discrimination, this agreement does not protect your employer from further action.

You sign your letter “Caught in the middle,” but I challenge that you aren’t really caught in the middle, unless you engage in whatever folly Cindy is performing, and stick yourself in the middle. My advice to you: stay out of the middle. You like your job, great! Fantastic! Stay out of this. Cindy shouldn’t be trying to drag you into her little drama. I question her motives, and I advise you to speculate in silence all you want. You want to respond? Great: “Dear Cindy, so sorry to hear of your recent troubles. Thank you for everything you did for me. I wish you all the best in your future endeavors. Sincerely, Caught in the middle.” The end. Finito. No More. Move on.

Wait! Before you move on, I have one more item I want to bring up here: She wrote you a letter at home? At your home address?? Is there a reason she should have your home address? I advise you to make a copy of the letter and give it to your HR Department or whatever or whoever you have that acts as such. You can make a copy of your response as well. If Cindy is planning something, i.e. some sort of legal action or perhaps going to some sort of state or federal agency to file a complaint against your company, I think that this letter should be on her record with the company. It is beyond the boundaries of professionalism for her to have written to you and to have told you the things that she has. I believe that your company needs to know about it. This protects you as well in case things go south. What if Cindy goes way off the reservation and starts accusing you of things? Don’t freak out, I’m playing worst case scenario here, but I strongly advise you to at the very least tell your manager. You have nothing to hide here, you haven’t done anything that could potentially get you in trouble with the brass, so I wouldn’t be afraid to do so. Maybe you aren’t the only one who got a letter. Maybe someone needs to call Cindy and tell her to cut it out and have some self-respect. Who knows, it’s out of your hands and better that way. So now you can truly move on, enjoy your job, enjoy your new stapler that you stole from Cindy’s desk before the new person starts. Enjoy Irene’s Lean Cuisine, by the way, she never buys the Salisbury steak though, that’s the best one.

Good luck out there,

Mme HR

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