Alison Green answers questions about workplace and management issues--everything from dealing with a micromanaging boss to talking to someone on your team about body odor. This week, a reader asks about a former employee badmouthing the company.

A reader writes:

How would you deal with a fired employee who keeps calling active employees here on the job to speak badly about the company and HR? It is sadly at the point where she is making things up and defaming the abilities of the HR team by spreading rumors. Any advice?

It can be frustrating when a fired employee is trash-talking your company, but your best bet here is probably to stay out of it and let it run its course.

If you try to prevent this person from reaching your employees, you'll look heavy-handed and like you have something to hide. It will actually add credence to her story, which is the opposite of what you want.

And keep in mind that many of your employees are going to be annoyed by what this former employee is doing, and she'll end up discrediting herself in the eyes of a lot of people. After all, who wants to be called at the job by a former co-worker who wants to complain about HR? Most people are going to wish that she would move on.

That said, make sure that you do think about whether there's any truth to what she's complaining about. Was her firing mishandled in any way? Was she given clear warnings before you let her go? You can't prevent every possibility of a disgruntled former employee, but your chances of having unhappy ex-employees out in the world become significantly lower when you make sure you're treating people with dignity and respect, even when they're low performers or bad fits for your team. In the case of firings, that generally means giving people clear warnings and a chance to improve before letting them go. Did that happen here? You don't want to discount her complaints just because of the way she's handling them--and if she does have a point, take this as flag that you need to improve your people practices.

Beyond that, if she's being disruptive enough that you feel you do need to respond in some way, you could make the managers on your team aware of enough of the circumstances that they're able to more effectively talk with their own staff about what happened. Sometimes with terminations, you'll get an employee who complains loudly about being treated unfairly, telling coworkers that the firing came out of nowhere and had no grounds, while you know that the person's performance was abysmal and that she was given numerous warnings and chances to improve. Very few people tell their co-workers, "Wow, I'm really doing a bad job" or "I did get three warnings before they let me go," which means that a fired person's co-workers often have no idea that the firing was handled fairly and was for good cause ... and because of privacy concerns, the manager usually isn't going to announce the details, so co-workers often hear just one, distorted side of the story. One way to combat this is to fill your managers in, so that they're better equipped to assure their teams that there's another side.

Most important, you should talk to your staff about how performance issues are handled generally, so that they know you have a fair process and that people are clearly warned before being let go. You probably shouldn't get into the details of any one firing, but it's smart to let people know about the steps you go through before deciding to let someone go. That way, your staff won't worry that they could be fired out of the blue one day, and they're more likely to know there's another side of the story if they do hear this kind of complaint.

And really, the key factor here will be what your employees know to be true from their own experiences. If they know the company to be fair and straightforward in its dealings with employees, that personal experience is going to carry more weight than anything else will.

Want to submit a question of your own? Send it to alison@askamanager.org.

Published on: Feb 18, 2015
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