Editor's note: Inc.com columnist Alison Green answers questions about workplace and management issues--everything from how to deal with a micromanaging boss to how to talk to someone on your team about body odor.
A reader writes:
I've been in a fairly toxic workplace for two years, and in one week I'm finally done with my contract and am moving on to greener, and saner, pastures. This is all well and good, except I'm leaving behind a small team of people whom I've grown very close to while I've managed them.
And I know things are about to get much, much worse for them at work. The company is in trouble financially, which we all know: It was used as an excuse to downsize; move us to tiny offices; increase unpaid overtime; not give raises, bonuses, or paid leave; etc. We've all pulled together to make that work because we love what we do. We used to have a really incredibly bad owner, who recently sold the company to her partner and fled: We're still uncovering the mess she made of things.
Our direct manager as well is feeling the pressure, and with the prospect of me leaving, has started to make some changes to the workplace that I feel will be detrimental to the work, the culture, and the team I'm leaving behind. Add to that that I found and hired my replacement, who I'm now worried is going to get burned by all this, and I'm feeling incredibly guilty and confused.
Do I have a responsibility to stick my nose in all this mess that is going to come raining down or does my leaving mean I can't have anything to do with it? Is there some trick to just washing your hands and moving on?
First, it's normal in a situation like this to feel guilty that you're jumping off a (possibly) sinking ship and leaving people behind. But these are adults who are getting plenty of signals themselves about what's going on. The downsizing, the smaller offices, the halting of paid leave, the fleeing owner--your co-workers may not have all the same information you do, but they have enough to understand that the situation isn't secure or stable. Anyone who is shocked by further downsizing in that context and didn't see it coming was almost willfully not paying attention. So you don't need to struggle with whether you need to sound an alarm for them--the situation is already warning them. They may not know the specifics that you know, but they know the situation isn't good, and they're making their own calculations accordingly.
And that's good, because you really can't share confidential information that your job makes you privy to. This is the nature of some jobs; you signed up for a role that would expose you to internal decision making, and you agreed to keep it confidential. That stuff is not always easy, especially when you're learning about things that will affect your co-workers, but there's no exception in the confidentiality provision for "when it becomes hard."
What you can do is talk to people in ways that don't violate your confidentiality obligations, particularly since your own departure provides an obvious context. So if a co-worker expresses uncertainty to you about whether he or she should be job-searching, you can point out that in an unstable situation like your company is currently in, it's always smart to line up options. And particularly for the people you manage, I could even argue that part of the job means having a final talk with them about their career plans before you head out. Ask questions, listen, and give advice. Just don't violate your confidentiality obligations.
You can also strongly advise your manager to be as transparent as possible with the staff about what's going on. You can direct her to information about managing downsizing well--there's a lot out there that argues that being open and transparent is the key to recovering from periods like this. She should read it, and you should push her to. (Whether she does or not is ultimately up to her, but you can strongly advise it.)
Similarly, regarding your manager making changes that you see as detrimental, all you can do is give the best counsel you can. Make your case for why these changes would be harmful and offer alternatives. But from there, it's up to her. You've done all you can do, and you shouldn't beat yourself up for not being able to somehow stop her.
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