Asked to secretly obtain coworker's knowledge before he gets fired

GrayCygnus 09/04/2017. 9 answers, 10.908 views
ethics coworker layoff knowledge-transfer

I was recently told by my manager that one of my coworkers (call him Steve) will be fired in a few weeks, as his last reviews were found unsatisfactory.

My manager also told me to "inquire and observe" more closely Steve's work and clients from now on, (he works on sales and marketing) so his knowledge is preserved in the company and so I can learn more about those things (as I will be assigned some of his tasks and clients after he leaves).

Now, I was also told to do this with "discretion", so he doesn't suspect anything unusual is happening. Also, it is of my knowledge that his firing will be immediate, so he won't be getting any previous notice whatsoever.

I can't help to feel that I should warn Steve somehow, as it seems unethical to fire him without any previous notice (thus affecting him greatly), not to mention asking me to "spy" on him and pretend nothing is going on.

Even though I feel like warning him, this seems to be a bad decision. I feel really uncomfortable with the idea of having to stalk on him so I can absorb any knowledge he has before leaving.

Are there any other options I might consider to prevent this knowledge situation from being handled that way? Could it be done in a more transparent way, something that would even help the knowledge transfer? I guess I could try convince my manager of this somehow.

3 Comments
72 Walfrat 09/01/2017
How a colleague will be fired is not your business, however your manager should never have tell you that and ask to spy your coworker. Moreover if your team discover that you spy for the boss, they won't ever trust you again. You should push back with that arguments, or search for a new job.
16 Kate Gregory 09/01/2017
Don't worry too much about the "no notice" - they probably intend to give him money in lieu of notice, so he will be paid while going about his job hunt. If I asked you not to tell someone about my decision and then you did, you would be out the door before that person.
2 Jane S♦ 09/02/2017
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9 Answers


motosubatsu 09/01/2017.

Damn, that's a really crappy situation for both you and "Steve"

As I think you've already concluded warning him is not a smart move, as ruthless as it sounds you need to look out for yourself. Sure him having some notice and being able to prepare would help him out a bit since he could get a jump on the job hunt but that's not really worth potentially putting your own standing at the company at risk. If this was someone you were a close friend with irrespective of the workplace then I'd think differently about it but otherwise it's basically taking on a shedload of risk for yourself for no real gain. Remember that the firing-without-notice may be unethical but it's not you being unethical it is the company so it's not your responsibility to fix it.

Being put into the position of having to covertly gather knowledge of his work and role isn't great and I know I'd feel uncomfortable too but it's what your employer is currently requiring of you and as potentially distasteful as it is it is not entirely uncommon. To be honest in your place I would look to pick up what bits and pieces of the knowledge you could within the bounds of your own comfort levels, for me this would be just paying attention to what he does and trying to get the knowledge more passively. You won't get anywhere near as much which will make taking on the departing Steve's duties harder for you but I know that would sit better with me. If your bosses are keen to push a more active situation of knowledge transfer then at point you can push back a bit and say something like:

I'm struggling to find a way to do that without it being obvious that something is going on. I know you don't want Steve to know but I think he'll know pretty quickly if I start explicitly shadowing him or asking about X/Y/Z. If you want me to do those things I think you'll need to have a talk with him first.

At that point they will need to decide what is more important to them - keeping it secret or extracting the most knowledge.

If they ask you to do them and lie about the reasons why then you can re-iterate that you aren't comfortable with doing that and that you feel it will be transparent and that if/when he works out he is going to be fired and they were hiding from them that they won't get anything out him and may even face him being actively resistant. That way you aren't saying "nah, don't want to" you're saying "this won't get you what you want" which is a subtle but important distinction that shows you are still on "Team Employer". To be honest if they can't see that then you probably want to start polishing the old CV since they probably aren't people you want to be working for and they may even do the same to you at some point so keeping your options prepared would be a wise move!

5 comments
4 sleske 09/01/2017
Excellent points, especially the part about pointing out to the boss that the secretive approach can be counterproductive. That is a solution that is both practical and ethical.
15 Steve-O 09/01/2017
I agree, this is the best approach. Just wanted to point out that termination without notice in itself is not unethical. "Unethical" does not mean "unfair." The company is protecting itself from any potential damages the employee might cause in his last days, out of spite, if he knows he's being fired. Asking the OP to spy on said employee in advance is a shady move, but the idea of firing someone without notice is not.
4 motosubatsu 09/01/2017
@Steve-O I agree the ethics aren't exactly black and white - as with so many ethical questions context is everything. I didn't want to derail the answer with going off on a tangent hence my use of the phrase "may be unethical"
1 Todd Wilcox 09/03/2017
The part about "the company is doing something unethical, not you" doesn't totally work in most cases. If you are aware of an action taken by a group or members of a group that you are in that is illegal, immoral, and/or unethical, and you do absolutely nothing about it, you're not completely free of blame or guilt. The least that anyone can do in such a situation is start looking for an exit, such as another job. Just two days before posting this comment I refused an unethical request my boss made, and he thanked me for pointing out it was unethical. Doing nothing is rarely the best option.
1 vidstige 09/03/2017
what is wrong with you all. Just warn Steve and quit already. This company has no moral what-so-ever, don't be part of the evils of the world.

Richard U 09/01/2017.

Another lesson I learned in life is that a company that will do that to a fellow employee will do that to you. Update your resume and be ready to move. This is an awful position to be in.

Don't warn him "officially" as this will only bite you hard later, but if a few things start happening that are beyond your control like meetings being scheduled without him being invited. Plans for outings with coworkers where he's not invited.... that's different, {nudge nudge, wink wink} or you may "accidentally" be less covert than you intend to be.

If you want to avoid such "accidents" then it's a good idea to just keep your head down and do a little reverse delegation and ask your management for specifics on how to be covert, how much of his knowledge they are comfortable with you obtaining, and let them make the call. What they are doing is dirty and while you have to play their game, you can also make sure they spell out the rules.

If you really want to help the man, make a few phone calls, find out who's hiring in the area, and when he gets the news, console him but mention that you were talking to some old friends, and coincidentally they mentioned that they were hiring. Don't give any indication that you knew anything, also don't do this unless he's a good worker and recommending him would not tarnish your own reputation.

You are in a tight spot, but try to make the best of it by doing whatever good you can do.

4 comments
GrayCygnus 09/01/2017
I could "accidentally" leave my browser open to this question when he is nearby, but that is something I still have to ponder... Also agree on preparing in case this happens to me eventually
1 Mindwin 09/01/2017
@GrayCygnus don't do that. Also, is he being fired or laid off?
GrayCygnus 09/01/2017
It is not like he did something terrible (I think?) and he is being fired for that, it is more like management no longer seems him fit for his position. In my country those two words are basically the same, but you could say he is being laid off as it is not something bad.
3 closetnoc 09/01/2017
While I agree that companies need to CYA and one tool is to immediately fire someone and another is to glean knowledge from an individual before leaving, this smacks of bad management in that they should already know what the individual is doing and how they are doing it. Especially in light of the fact that the employee has had some bad reviews already. That is just plain common sense. Still this, from my experience, is a common enough business practice, especially in some fields, not to feel too bad about it. If the OPs performance is stellar, then there should not be any worries.

DanK 09/01/2017.

Setting aside the personal issues with knowing a coworker will soon be terminated (which may be troubling but really is none of your business), there is a bigger management problem here that needs to be addressed (and can coincidentally fix your dilemma as well).

The Root Problem

Based on the scenario you are describing, it seems clear there is inadequate cross-training on your team. Every manager should have plans to prepare for the "bus scenario" (as in "my associate got hit by a") as life situations will inevitably require personnel change that affects team dynamics.

People quit, get promoted/fired, get sick, go on vacation and even sometimes die. That's just a reality of life. There is no work task that your team performs that shouldn't be properly documented and have a backup person who can accomplish the work in a pinch.

Addressing your Immediate Dilemma

Under the auspices of closing this clear gap on your team, I would request that your manager make an announcement to his employees begin documenting their routine tasks that they perform and identify a "cross-training buddy" who can be responsible for being each other's backup. This will allow you to:

  • Meet directly with this associate for hands on cross-training
  • Put together an inventory of his work items that you will need to know
  • Possibly even give you cause for introduction to certain external parties
  • Address the root issue without resorting to subterfuge
  • Allow you to separate yourself from the personal aspects of the issue and address this need without being unfair. Keep in mind that to properly cross-train, that means you need document your own work and hold yourself to the same standards you will be demanding from this coworker. Yes, it may be a partial waste as your backup is probably not going to be around in the future but it's frankly good practice and that documentation can be passed on to this person's eventual replacement.

This solution removes you personally from any management decisions around your coworkers hiring status. It allows you to address a serious issue on your team by performing due diligence around your team's tasks. And perhaps most importantly it allows you to keep your conscience clear because, really, this is something your team should have been doing all along.

Yes, unfortunately, you may still be aware of information you really didn't want to know but unless you work for a very unfair company (in which case you probably should be looking for a new job) chances are that this individual has been digging his own grave for awhile now. Who knows... maybe if your manager sees them aggressively picking up your own tasks as backup they may change their mind about letting them go. Probably not but, really, it's not your concern. Do the right thing (for you and the company) and leave other coworker's performance concerns between them and the manager.

3 comments
GrayCygnus 09/01/2017
Good answer, it seems that this question indeed may be originated from a root problem of lack of cross training, plus the "special" way management decided to handle this.
7 FreeMan 09/01/2017
Absolutely this! +10 if I could. Have the boss make it a high priority so everyone is working on it now, not just Steve. That gives the added benefit of having everyone's processes documented for the next firing, and you'll feel better as you follow the advice in other answers and prepare for your own exit before they do this to you.
l0b0 09/02/2017
I've worked on a small (3-5 devs) team for a few years which did almost everything in pairs. We all agreed that we produced much better results this way than alone, and we didn't feel the need for a handover when anyone left - we had ended up with a bus factor of N!

MonkeyZeus 09/01/2017.

Boss,

I am very sorry to hear about Steve's performance and the impending company action in regards to his employment but I really feel that this information should not have been disclosed to me.

However, I would be willing to moonlight Steve during this transitional period but I ask that you assign me onto tasks which would put me in direct collaboration with Steve and I will do my best to gain any knowledge about his work and clients.

I do not wish to be seen as a threat during this transitional period so I would highly prefer it if you could coordinate the task assignments instead of simply having me barge into his work. I wish to maintain complete ignorance of his employment situation.

Thank you


Additionally, notifying Steve of his impending separation from the company is a sure-fire way to get you fired later.

If this person is not a close friend of yours then, trust me, it is not worth the headache of warning that person.

Steve will not respect your decision to secretly notify him and will throw you under 10 buses before he is let go.


HLGEM 09/01/2017.

First, letting him know in advance is a very poor idea. In the first place, the reason why employees are not told of firing in advance is because they have the ability to create harm in the company once they know. Suppose you told him and then he called your most profitable client and bad mouthed the company and the client left. (This is the reason why people being fired have no access to their computers or phones and are escorted out of the buildings in most companies.) Then you (as well as him) would be at fault for losing the company millions of dollars. This would likely get you fired if it was found out that you had done such a thing and if they didn't fire you, it would certainly mean they would never consider you for management because managers have to be able to keep company secrets until it is time for the official notice.

As to learning what he does, just observe as much as you can. Pay attention to where he keeps any written records like client files. Take advantage of natural ways to ask him questions. For instance, suppose something got really heated or really loud and funny. You could then casually ask what the deal was because the contact was so loud, you couldn't help but hear his side. Ask you boss for some guidance as to how far to go to learn about his job.

When he is fired, ask your company to give you access to his email so that you can see what client contacts he has had and know the history of the interactions. Get everything sent to that address forwarded to the people taking over his tasks (which is it sounds like will be you). You will likely learn more form his email than any other source. I have done this a couple of times and it was far more helpful than any other thing to get up-to-speed especially on things the person only did occasionally. If you can also get access to his computer and search through it for files that will help. Remember, these are actions taken after he is gone, but you can set it up with your boss to do that beforehand (too late after they delete everything.)

4 comments
4 Kik 09/01/2017
Getting access to a fellow employees email seems extremely unethical. What if there were private communications with HR having to do with medical accommodations or similar privileged topics?
3 HLGEM 09/01/2017
The company owns the email. This is done all the time. when people are fired. If you have a valid reason to look through those emails, then you have a valid reason. The Boss could go through and delete anything to/from HR first I suppose. Now in Europe where the privacy laws are more stringent than the US, It is possible that HR would need to be consulted.
marcelm 09/01/2017
"... and then he called your most profitable client and bad mouthed the company and the client left. (This is the reason why people being fired have no access to their computers or phones and are escorted out of the buildings in most companies.)" - I'm always baffled by this apparently hostile attitude. Where I live, people are required to get at least one month's notice, and normally they work during the notice period. Nobody is escorted out of the buildings US-style, except in very rare cases. Do those bad things US employers are afraid of actually happen?
Booga Roo 09/03/2017
@marcelm Many companies in the US are so afraid they'll have one bad employee that they often treat all their employees as if they were going to be "that one." Sure those things happen, but I've not seen any indication they happen more frequently in the US than anywhere else.

Walfrat 09/03/2017.

To complete the others' answers:

How a colleague will be fired is not your business.

However, the manager put you in a difficult position twice:

  • He told you he will
  • He ask you to spy on him

Telling someone that one of the colleagues will be fired is already quite a bad move since it doesn't concern you. Asking you to spy on him is utterly non-sense. If your teammates learn you spied on one of them, you can be sure they won't trust you and you won't be able to work with them.

You should push back with those arguments, or search for a new job, because as said @RichardU, if he did that to him, he may do that to you too, and he will definitively do that to some others, and ask again to spy for him.


This is a pretty bad situation. But as unpleasent as it sounds, you are responsible for your actions.

Now, I'm not telling you to warn (or not) Steve, I'm merely suggesting that now that you have knowledge, you have some power. And the way things will unfold will partly be the consequences of your actions.

Telling him would put you in a tricky situation, and not telling him would make you a lier.

That could make you a compassionate, sadistic, cowardly or responsible human being, depending on your motivations.

The whole point of what is happening is your work environment cruelly lacks communications skill, and that is where most of things start to go wrong. So the best advice I can give is talk to your manager about the emotional conflict.


peufeu 09/01/2017.

I've seen similar scenarios occur at work.

From your boss' perspective, firing Steve without notice or warning...

  • carries risk of litigation
  • disrupts workflow, as you will have to replace him without a managed transition
  • gives off a bad PR vibe about the company, especially if Steve rants on social media
  • will put Steve in a Very Bad Mood, and might cause him to make some impulsive choices like leaking company info to the competition out of spite
  • also carries the risk of Steve running off to the competition with all his clients

Thus, it is not something you do lightly. In fact, it is preferable not to do it at all, even though firing people is not a "nice" thing to do, there is no reason to also be extra-rude with a kick in the butt on top.

Unless there's a very good (or not so good) reason, for example:

  • Your Boss kinda "surprised" Steve and his/her spouse "doing things together" and thus your boss holds a bit of a personal grudge. PROTIP: stay out of the line of fire, maybe you will be in your boss' seat in 6 months, or at least get some entertainment.
  • Steve stole company property. When one of our sales guy got all the computer equipment "stolen" from the boot of his car three weeks in a row, we began to grow a liiiiitle bit suspicious. When it turned out he had used the company's UPS account to ship the stolen goods to his accomplices' personal address, weeeelll, you get the idea. PROTIP: it is preferable to be "interviewed as a witness" by THE LAW, instead of "interrogated as a suspect." If Steve did indeed put himself on the wrong side of the law, warning him can make you an accomplice, or at least a suspect.
  • Your boss has a gut feeling that if he's warned, Steve will retaliate and do undesirable things like wipe out the production servers. In this case, you can always ask your boss about it, maybe there is a legit reason after all. Or maybe you'll wish you didn't ask.

All these are examples of Steve being the bad guy (except maybe the first one!). However, Steve could also be the good guy:

  • Steve did nothing wrong, he's just "not good enough" at doing his job, which is a valid reason to fire him... But the boss is a sadist and wants to make it personal.
  • Steve deeply offended your boss by going over his head and making an Excellent Suggestion to the higher-ups. He should have told his boss, who would then have marketed it as his own idea... After having "a talk" with his boss, Steve is now a bit disillusioned, that's why his performance suffers.
  • Steve has cancer, diabetes, or any expensive disease, and the company doesn't feel like paying for his medical insurance anymore (depends on local regulations).
  • The company screwed him on overtime or bonuses, or maybe his stock options, and they don't want him to be able to gather evidence to be used in litigation if he suspects his imminent demise. In this case, start polishing your curriculum, and of course gather evidence to sue them when they will pull the same trick on you.
  • Some higher-up wants to shoehorn in a friend or relative, and someone has to go to make some room...
  • Steve commited capital thoughtcrime and will thus get steamrolled. Pick a side.

So, unless you discover the real reason... If Steve is your best buddy from high school and you value his well-being more than the risk involved in tell him, then tell him.

Otherwise, don't.

2 comments
3 sgroves 09/01/2017
What? Firing is typically done without notice or warning. That's practically what "fired" means—the employee didn't know it was coming. Otherwise it's a layoff. This answer doesn't make much sense to me.
1 peufeu 09/01/2017
Hmmm, OK, I have just learned a new nuance in English vocabulary, so thanks for that!

FoundingFather 09/01/2017.

"Steve," doesn't seem to care that his performance is sub-par. In his position, he's helping your company lose business. It sounds to me that he already knows he's going to be dismissed and he wants to be.

You can help yourself and, "Steve," and meet your boss's expectations by helping to mentor, "Steve," and improve his performance. If he steps up and retains his job, great! If he steps up, but still loses his job, you've done what was expected of you, and more. If he fails to perform, then it is obvious that he has no interest in improving the company's performance and he should go.

At this point, you should view, "Steve," as you would a competitor. He is not on your side.

As for this nonsense about the risk of firing him and lawsuits, etc., you must remember that having a job is a privilege, not a right. In many states, you can be fired at any time, for no reason. Employers aren't obligated to keep people on staff who work to bring the company to failure. They sure aren't obligated to keep people on staff who don't do what they are asked and paid to do.

It isn't YOUR job to determine whether or not his dismissal is right and just. That has already been done. But, you can correct "Steve's" behavior and help him, whether it is for this job and this company, or the next.

One additional note: if "Steve" is a malingerer and he has done things that you've observed are illegal but didn't say anything, then you are guilty of willful blindness (that is a crime). Depending on your company and the industry you're in, you could be held responsible for not exposing his activities. This training period is your chance to learn if anything like that is going on.

Don't like it? Start your own company and run it according to your own standards. You hire people and you pay them to not perform.

2 comments
GrayCygnus 09/01/2017
Mentoring hims seems to be a good suggestion, although the rest of your post reads a bit strong
5 marcelm 09/02/2017
"Steve," doesn't seem to care that his performance is sub-par. In his position, he's helping your company lose business. It sounds to me that he already knows he's going to be dismissed and he wants to be." - What the hell? You don't know any of that. You're making all sorts of assumptions about Steve that you have no way of knowing and are likely wrong. There are many reasons his performance may be lower than expected, and "he wants to be fired" is the very last one I can think of. You have no right to make such assumptions and present them as fact.

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