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Wednesday, April 02, 2008

Firing After a Non-Resignation Resignation?

Dear Evil HR Lady (Oh - I do love that title):

I am the general counsel for a small engineering firm in NY, and as such, spend a great deal of my time working with the Human Resources department. Most of the time, it's a kick, but this problem's got even me confounded.

On Friday, one of the HR staffers left early, and from her home, sent an email to her supervisor, the HR manager, stating that something happened at work and that she could not stay in the office any longer.

Her desk is less than 10 feet from her manager's office, and it was likely that her manager (the head of HR) was in her office at the time. She made no effort to seek out either her supervisor, the Director of Operations or anyone else to (1) let them know that there was a problem and (2) that she was leaving early for lunch and would not be returning for the rest of the day. This violated company policy which requires all employees (regardless of status or title), to let their supervisor or a senior manager know in advance if they need to leave the office (advance meaning before actually leaving), unless there is a family emergency or sudden illness.

The HR staffer concluded her email with the following:

"With this, I would like to inform you that I will be officially seeking employment elsewhere. This is not a resignation letter, nor am I providing notice. I would just like to inform you of my decision and be honest with you so that you may plan, as I have always done. I am extremely disappointed and wish this did not have to transpire, as I had previously believed that I had a bright future with [this company]."

Generally speaking, my company does not have a history of summarily terminating individuals who have announce that the would be seeking other employment, but nor does it bargain with employees to get them stay.

The very simple question is, given that this employee has advised the company in writing that she intends to leave, can she be terminated?

My how I love to say this: You can fire anyone at any time for any reason or no reason as long as the reason isn't one protected by law (state or federal) and the employee isn't under a contract. Fire, fire, fire. It warms my little evil heart.

Now, the real question: Should you fire this employee?

First, I have a question for you. What was the "incident" at work? I'm completely in the dark, so I have to guess. Was it being told that she needs to work on her personal hygiene? Was it because she was threatened with some negative consequence because she said she was going to blow the whistle on an illegal activity? Was it because her boss had sexually harrassed her? See, you've got trouble brewing in River City.

If it's one of the above reasons, firing her now could be construed as a violation of law. (Retaliation is a big no-no, and the personal hygiene issue could fall under ADA, depending on cause.) If it was just, "Hey, you don't have what it takes to be promoted to the next level," then you can blissfully fire away. Not to say that she wouldn't initiate a law suit anyway. You can't control that.

What do you gain from terminating her immediately? Unless she's causing problems among other employees, I see the only thing you gain is smug satisfaction. Now, if you routinely terminate people for leaving with only an e-mail, then you're on secure ground. If you don't, I'm going to wonder why she's being singled out.

Duh, you say, it's the non-resignation resignation letter. Yes, yes, that is annoying, and fairly stupid on her part. But, you don't have a habit of terming people because they resign. If you start this now, word will get around. People will stop trusting you/the company, and you'll find people resigning without notice.

True story: I got a call from a sales manager. He was angry that an employee had come to him on a Friday and said, "Here's my laptop and all my company equipment. Today is my last day. I start a new job with a competitor on Monday. Thanks, bye." The manager was LIVID. How dare the employee have so little respect for him as to quit without notice. This was wrong. Could he do anything about it? (Like what, I wanted to ask--fire the guy?)

In the course of our conversation, he admitted that when an employee submitted a resignation letter and provided two weeks notice, if said employee was going to a competitor, he terminated the employee immediately. Hmmm, I said, "And if this person had submitted a two week's notice, wouldn't you have terminated him immediately?" Grudgingly, the manager said yes he would. Then he hung up, feeling kind of sheepish (I hope).

So, what do you gain from terminating this person immediately? A bunch of other employees that say, "Hey, Sally got terminated as soon as she said she was looking for another job. I'll keep everything to myself."

A good manager realizes that sometimes the company can't provide a good career path for everyone. Perhaps in order to truly progress, an employee needs to leave the company and some day might come back. Sure, you probably wouldn't want to take this person back, but you might want to take back another employee who hears about her termination, but doesn't hear about the "incident" (whatever that was), that started this whole mess.

If you decide you just can't stand having her around for a few more months, go ahead and terminate her with severance and have her sign a General Release in exchange for that severance. That may make all of you happy.

Remember, that however you handle an "incident" with an employee needs to be consistent and fair with how you have handled similar incidents in the past and in the future. Whatever you do, make sure you are in compliance with state and federal law. (NY may have lots of protections that federal law does not. I used to do HR in NY, but it was a long time ago, and I have forgotten everything about it.)


HR Wench said...

My guess is the reason the employee wrote what she did about "not resigning" is because she thinks it will make her eligible for unemployment benefits. I don't know how stupid, er, I mean generous NY is about unemployment so who knows if she will get it or not.

I'm intensely curious as to what happened to send her over the edge.

Anonymous said...

I find it very curious that no mention was made of the incident that caused the employee to leave early. The one time I did this it was due to my direct manager screaming at me, in an open office, for 20 minutes, calling me incompetent, stupid etc. I collected my purse, left, sent an email to her boss and went home and called a lawyer.

Evil HR Lady said...

I've left without saying anything to anyone, but I thought I was going to throw up and I didn't know where my boss was. I did send her an e-mail, though.

Of course, we were very casual about that type of thing. For instance, in that department, you didn't ask for a day off, you just told people you were taking it.

Anonymous said...

This is the original submitter here. Just to clarify things for the intensely curious. No one yelled at her, called her stupid, sexually harassed her or in any way violated her rights. The reason why the person ran out of the office was probably one of the dumbest things you'll ever here, and may just make your day.

A few days before this incident, one of our overseas managers called the resigning/non-resigning HR employee (let's call her "Sherry" which is NOT her real name) regarding a benefits question, and during the conversation, the overseas manager shared, in detail, some extremely confidential details about his personal life.

On the day of the incident, the same overseas manager called Sherry again, and asked her if she had told anybody about what he shared with her, and when she said no, he said that he heard from a third party that HER manager (who was a close personal friend of both the third party and the overseas manager) said that Sherry told a bunch of people in the office all his dirty little secrets.

Of course, this didn't happen. Mr. Overseas Manager "forgot" that he shared the personal details of his life with "the guys" and then blamed Sherry when confronted with the evidence, making up her manager's involvement.

Rather than ask her manager about this, so they could both confront the overseas manager, she ran home, sent the non-resignation resignation and then showed up late on Monday (an alleged doctor's appointment).

At my direction, Sherry was written up for for going AWOL - this may seem harsh, but it's a consistently applied policy.

When her manager, who happens to be a thoroughly nice person who wouldn't raise her voice or insult a staff member if it meant her life (unlike yours truly) sat down with her (I was present) and asked her why she didn't address the problem on the day it happened - Sherry said that she just got angrier and angrier as her lunch hour progressed, and she couldn't bear to spend another minute in the office. Besides, given her manager's friendship with the overseas manager (man with very big mouth and small brain), Sherry believed that she was being set up - they were colluding against her.

Sherry then went off on how she's never given proper credit for all the good ideas she brings up and how the newly hired fellow generalist is out to steal her job. Since she's been in HR for 5.5 years now, it's just NOT FAIR that she's not a manager. She then demanded an audience with the President and CEO to address all of these issues.

I didn't participate in THAT meeting, but I did ask him what was discussed. He basically told Sherry that he was disappointed in her lack of professionalism and if she wanted to leave, he would hope that she had great success in her next job.

To make a long story short, Sherry abruptly turned in her resignation last Wednesday. Rather than face anyone, she slipped a typed and signed letter of resignation under her manager's door and an hour later, she left the building. No out processing, no nothing. Just left her badge and keys behind, and deleted her personnel file from the corporate server.

So, all's well that ends well. Unless Sherry files a claim of constructive termination.

HR Wench said...

The write up doesn't sound harsh to me at all. Sounds like "Sherry" had a lot stewing in her brain for quite some time prior to this incident. I'm thinking this is not a big loss to the team...

Anonymous said...

I'm reading between the lines here and I think Sherry just had another job. She's probably been unhappy for a long time and this was the perfect excuse for her to cut bait.

The Happy Employee said...

I love this kind of stories! They are not only entertaining in a Dilbertish kind of way, they also remind me why I love/hate working in HR so much (love is at least 90%, by the way).

@Anonymous Lawyer
In case you know the movie Office Space and since you mentioned a letter being slipped under the door, just be happy the building didn't burn down. And you might want to check if a red stapler is missing ;-)

Helen said...

Erm, I don't know -- it sounds like a potential sexual harassment case to me.

Male employee calls up female employee and regales her with intimate details of private life. Male employee calls her up again and throws a lying temper tantrum accusing her of things that never happened regarding said details. How is this not a hostile work environment?

It sounds like there may be other problems, but the incident in question sounds neither silly nor trivial to me.

Anonymous said...


The original submitter here, again. Trust me, there aren't any sexual harassment issues here. I know just what the guy told her (I knew of the situation beforehand). When I said "dirty little secrets" I didn't mean anything sexual. Probably should have framed the statement better.

This little chickadee has had a chip on her shoulder for months. She had a "star" self-perception, but neither the skills nor the drive to be one. She wanted lots of credit for ideas and programs she barely participated in, responsibility for of the "major" projects (leave the dregs to her fellow generalist), and no peers in her department. She routinely refused to participate in company events - pot luck lunches, birthday cakes, not to mention holiday parties. Instead of participating, she'd sit at her desk and talk on her cell phone.

She was also the biggest timesink in the office - every employee loved to talk to Sherry - Miss Tea and Sympathy (which is how she got into this trouble in the first place). She had no barriers when it came to employee issues, often siding with the employee against the best interests of her employer.

I personally liked Sherry - she had a good way with people, but she was, at the heart of things, extremely immature.

sailorman said...

I once worked for a company who i really, really trusted.

You know how much notice I gave them when I knew way, in advance that i planned to leave?


I fully trained my replacement, happily. they loved me. I loved them.

Trust is a good thing.

The Engineer said...

"and deleted her personnel file from the corporate server."

And the corporate IT Guru promptly restored the file since the smart ones don't actually let users delete anything without allowing for second thoughts.

Helen said...

Ok, so there were problems with Sherry, and she handled this situation badly. Luckily, she left.

But what are you doing about the rest of the mess? This was far from a Sherry-only problem. There's the loony who throws lying paranoid snits at coworkers, and then there's the guy who thinks it's ok to call his female colleagues things like "little chickadee". It sounds like the whol place is a right mess.

Helen said...

LOL, whole, not whol. Never type on painkillers kids. Put the computer down.

Anonymous said...


Original submitter here again and jeez louise, cut me a break.

Firstly, I am NOT a guy.

Secondly, there is nothing remotely offensive about the word chickadee - a small, annoying bird that makes a lot of noise. I can't seem to figure out why you persist in assuming evil intentions. I have never called Sherry a little chickadee anywhere but in my prior post on this forum. Which I thought was populated by professionals who could kick their shoes off and talk shop.

I initially provided minimal information because I didn't feel the details were relevant to the issue at hand. I still don't, but I felt it only fair to present the entire story.

I appreciate the relevant feedback I've been given.

Anonymous said...

Hmmm...sounds like Sherry might be Helen!!! Ha. No. But seriously, it seems like it's best she's gone, and luckily, SHE is responsible for her leaving. I do find it a little funny that because the submitter didn't side with Sherry in this situation and had a law background, it was assumed they were an evil male. I digress. I can't imagine NOT communicating with my boss if something like this happened. I've had employees annoy the bejesus out of me before with threats and pointing fingers. The first thing I do, is go to my boss to make sure they're aware of what's going on and to GET THEIR ADVICE since they have more experience than I do. Sheesh. That's what a manager is there for: to manage and inform. Sherry appears to not be a great HR person if she can't keep a steady mindset when there's drama...probably an issue just waiting to happen.

HR Wench said...

Pop some popcorn, we've got ourselves a cat fight!

Just kidding.

Original submitter - Many people don't routinely participate in company events, including HR folks like me. I'm not snotty about it, I just don't want to eat food prepared by certain co-workers who I KNOW don't wash their hands after using the restroom (ewwwwwww). Also, I have worked with many people who do not celebrate certain or ANY holidays/birthdays/etc due to religious or sincerely held philosophical beliefs. There was an entire group of folks at one of my companies that never showed up for pizza in the break room because the dumb dumb that did the ordering didn't get even one vegitarian pizza. Some Hindus and vegitarians thus were not ever interested.

Helen- One conversation of a sexual nature (had that been the case) would not constitute a hostile work environment. Could it break a workplace policy? Heck yes. Could it become a hostile work environment should it persist? Heck yes. But not after one conversation.

Other HR pros may disagree with me...

Anonymous said...

HR Wench -

Original Submitter here (again). I do agree with you about not eating the food, but not with deliberately not participating. Believe me - I don't eat anything the engineers have prepared - but I still show up, chat with the guys for a bit and leave only when the event's over (or I've got a legit excuse to go back to the office). Executive management is expected to work (and play) cheek-by-jowl with the rest of staff.

If Sherry was in finance, engineering or even someone's admin, I'd have no issue with her absenting herself from company morale events, but when a member of HR refuses to even show up, that just sends a bad message - especially since she's sitting at her desk ignoring everyone.

Annie said...

I'm an HR Director in technology companies in SF Bay Area. Great feedback and comments!

Sounds like Sherry was working for a government agency, e.g., by the book. All good HR folks know that NOTHING is by the book when it comes to dealing with human beings.

Sherry obviously wasn't comfortable telling her manager about what transpired. Better she left that day than raise a ruckus. On the other hand, an HR member should have acted more maturely. After all, we seem to be the example setters.

And I seldom get involved with company "mandatory fun." First off, there's no way I would eat anything prepared by someone whose kitchen I have not thoroughly inspected.

It's important to be neutral, nice to everyone, cards close to the vest in an HR role. Trust is the most important attribute. Too many people get into the profession because "I like people." A wise man once told me, "That's very nice, but it does not a topnotch HR person make."

sailorman said...

"She routinely refused to participate in company events - pot luck lunches, birthday cakes, not to mention holiday parties. Instead of participating, she'd sit at her desk and talk on her cell phone."
I have to say that these sort of things are charming when optional and frightening when not. It's a PARTY, folks! It's a POT LUCK! It's FUN!
...At least in theory. If you have to attend then put it in the freakin' manual: "All employees shall bring a well cooked main dish to monthly meetings, that serves 6.3 people; all employees shall attend all holiday parties, and must smile for a minimum of 71% of the time they are present."

Sound stupid? Good.

Anonymous said...

It sounds to me as though "Sherry" had not been receiving effective performance and evaluation feedback! If her "activities" were inappropriate, it should be her manager's responsibility to address these "problems" with her early on. Maybe management/counseling training is in order here, for the future!

Helen said...

ROFL. No, I'm not Sherry.

I stand by my two main points:

1. The loony who threw a lying tantrum that set all this off displayed grossly inappropriate workplace behavior and this needs to be dealt with, especially if any notion of even-handedness is to be maintained.

2. No matter who you are, referring to one of your colleagues as "little chickadee" is inappropriate.

I think other commenters raised a valid point that if one's performance is to be evaluated in any way on participation in "company fun" events, that should be spelled out in the employee handbook and given out well ahead of time.

The Engineer said...

"I don't eat anything the engineers have prepared . . ."

Ouch. Think I'll go re-tape my glasses. (this has been a fun one.)

Mariaelena said...

Regardless of Sherry's behavior, and her leaving, you still have a problem with the manager:

Of course, this didn't happen. Mr. Overseas Manager "forgot" that he shared the personal details of his life with "the guys" and then blamed Sherry when confronted with the evidence, making up her manager's involvement.

Even if this was a possible sink the career issue, and not sexual in anyway. The behavior of the manger:
-sharing the information with both "the guys" and Sherry
-blaming Sherry without investigation
-making up the manger's involvement

raises serious flags about the guys professionalism and ability to be discreet.

It also sounds like Sherry's manager needs to evaluate her sytle. Sherry sounds like a nightmare who should have been progressively disciplined (re timesink issues) and held accountable for her behavior. While Sherry wasn't a good worker, it sounds like her manager wasn't being a good manager either and reigning her in and/or disciplining her consistently.

Maybe the managers could use a refresher course in management styles, setting expectations, problem employees, and professional behavior so that further Sherrys don't happen.