Q I'm one of the most senior technical people at a very small company -- about a dozen people. The chief technology officer and chief executive officer approached me recently, because they planned to fire a co-worker of mine and wanted to understand if I would be able to cover in her absence. They also wanted to make sure that when she is fired, I am able to lock her out of everything and prevent any possible retaliation (she is the network administrator and has access to everything).
I was sworn to secrecy. When the ax falls, I know she will be hurt and angry and upset that I was "in on it." The fact is I have tried to help her for over a year because she has the misfortune of working for an incompetent boss, but her personality is so confrontational that she never gave an inch and in the end, the boss gets to keep his job, not vice versa.
My plan is just to pretend I don't know anything and try not to act differently. If she's mad at me, well, she has to understand that if the roles were reversed, no matter what you might like to think, she would probably have to do the same thing. Is there anything else I should be doing?
A I am sorry that you have been put in a really crummy position. However, the fact is that regarding your role in the company, the CTO and CEO had little recourse. Above all else, they have to ensure the security of the network.
I am hoping that when your co-worker came to you throughout the year, you gave her feedback about her confrontational style. If not, you have a last chance when she is informed of the loss of her job. Call her and let her know how sorry you are that she lost her job. Let her know that you will be listening for other job opportunities that she may be interested in. Offer to serve as a reference for her. (Some of the best references are from colleagues and customers, not just bosses.)
If she says she feels betrayed by you, explain that you had no other option. She is obviously a bright woman and will understand that you could not reveal to her what was happening.
Then ask her if you could give her some feedback that might be hard for her to hear. If she agrees, I would then bring up her confrontational style. Give her two to three examples of when she was very confrontational with her boss. Suggest that you feel this is the real reason she lost her job. Help her understand that that type of demeanor will not be tolerated by either colleagues or managers. It is disrespectful and there is no place for it in the workplace today. Suggest that she might want to discuss this with a job coach who could give her other tools for getting her point across without being overbearing. I know this is tough feedback to give a colleague, but it would be some of the most valuable advice you could possibly give her.
Volunteer work can let you try a job out
Q I have a speech impediment and I'm working, but I'm not very happy and would like to do something better with my life and change my job. I would like to take a beauty course but you have to talk to people and my impediment holds me back. What should I do?
A I would go to three beauty schools and talk to them about your situation. Ask whether they think you can be successful with the impediment. Listen to what they say. I might also visit some care facilities for seniors and volunteer your services to comb and set their hair or paint their fingernails. See how you do. Can you be understood? Give it several tries for the seniors to get used to you and for you to get used to them.
Tell the home office about work conditions
Q I recently went to work for a United States Postal Service contractor. This company continually threatens workers with suspension and termination, and everyone with any authority swears profusely at the employees. There is no human resources person and we are all afraid to call the home office in Texas for fear of retaliation. Any suggestions?
A I would say you have nothing to lose and everything to gain from making the call to Texas. If you do not want to call, write a letter. Provide at least three concrete examples of what you are talking about. Explain that this is an intolerable situation and all of you are expecting to see some immediate changes in behavior or you will all walk. Explain that you are all concerned about retaliation as well.
If there are no improvements or visible changes within a reasonable amount of time, I believe you have two other options. First, you could call the appropriate union and ask if a representative could come out and speak to the workers. It seems this organization is ripe for union organization. Your second option is to leave this job. No one, in 2007, should have to work in a hostile work environment such as what you have described.
An ill colleague is a chance to serve
Q I'm feeling really awful about a situation at work and feel there must have been a better way to handle this. A colleague came up to me and said she felt horrible and thought she might be having a stroke. She explained that she was going to take herself to the hospital nearby but realized she did not have any money in her purse for a cab. She asked me for $20 and swore me to secrecy. She said she would be mortified if people made a fuss. She slipped out without telling anyone. I was upset for the rest of the day, wondering how she was. She called me the next day to say that she was all right, that the pain finally subsided, and to apologize for putting me in a really awkward situation. I thanked her for calling but I was shaken. I realized that if something serious had happened to her, I would never forgive myself. Should I have told the boss? Gone with her to the hospital? What would you suggest?
A Yes to both options. I would have insisted on going with her to the hospital, either by cab or by ambulance. (I would have tried my hardest to have her wait for an ambulance if she thought she was having a stroke.) It would have been helpful if you flagged down the cab for her and negotiated the ride with the taxi driver. However, I would have asked her if there was someone you could call for her. When you arrived at the hospital, it would have been helpful for you to do the negotiating again. Explain to the emergency room staff what symptoms your colleague is suffering from and ask when she might be seen. Provide the necessary insurance cards and complete as much of the paperwork as you could. Try to make her as comfortable until she is seen by a professional .
While waiting outside the examining room, call and apprise your boss of the situation. After all, you both walked off the work site. Tell the boss you will call back with new information as soon as you have some. If the staff tells you that they are going to have her stay at the hospital, at least for several hours, I think this would be a good time for you to go back to work. If family or a friend has been called, your obligation is over. If there is no one coming to the hospital, I might try to figure how out to assist her in getting her home later on. Include the boss in this decision. Together you will figure out the best plan to support your colleague. In this impersonal world we live in, you had a chance to show concern for another human being. Don't miss those opportunities .
Just move on, but try to get feedback first
Q I jumped at the chance to work as a contract employee at a company I long admired. In the beginning, all went well; I met with my manager weekly, received feedback on my performance. About six weeks ago, the manager started canceling our one-on-ones. Two weeks ago, I was told she had complained I was "too social." Today, I learned that my contract was not renewed, after I was told six weeks ago that I would be here for a year. I was told not only that I was too social, but there was a "mismatch on skill set." I am so dismayed at this turn of events. I do not agree with these reasons at all. I know there is no use in trying to change the manager's mind, but I am nervous about the career implications as well. What can I do?
A You may have to do nothing. It sounds like it was a very short assignment and so I would probably leave it off my resume. However, for information, it would have been helpful to have some additional feedback about your performance . For example, when you were told two weeks ago that you were too social, did you ask the manager to give you some examples ? Again, today, did you ask for some examples of how your skills were a mismatch ? There may be some legitimate things that you are doing or missing that if you knew about, you could correct.
I know you are disappointed that this assignment didn't work out, but try to move on. This may have been a political decision or a financial one that you had no power to change. However, I would be alert on your next job for feedback and fit. Really listen to what is being said to you. Adjust accordingly. If you receive no feedback from the manager after several weeks on the job, ask for it. If you don't understand or don't agree, ask for examples. If we don't know we are doing something wrong, we can't correct behavior.
Joan Cirillo is the executive director of Operation A.B.L.E., a nonprofit that provides employment and training opportunities to adults age 40 and older. E-mail questions to firstname.lastname@example.org or mail to Job Doc, Boston Globe, Box 55819, Boston, 02205-5819.