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How to Deal

Is it okay to go public about a secret layoff?

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By Lily Garcia
Special to The Washington Post
Wednesday, November 25, 2009; 5:00 PM

I recently left a position with a company after which my employer lied to other employees about the circumstances of my departure. Their story: I left to find a job with a better fit for the company after completing the last major project for the year. The actual story: We reached a mutual decision that I would no longer work there. They essentially told me to resign or I would be fired. Here is the problem: I am getting e-mails and phone calls from former coworkers who are slightly angry that I didn't tell them I was leaving. I was forced to surrender my Blackberry immediately and was not given the option of letting coworkers know that I was leaving. The rate of turnover at this company has reached in excess of 50 percent in the past two years: In an office of 20, 11 people have left. I think they are secretly firing people and then saying they are leaving on their own.

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Should I warn my former coworkers?

When more than half of the employees in an office of 20 leave within two years, the impact on the morale of those who remain is devastating. Your former employer has apparently decided that this impact will be lessened if the departures appear to be voluntary, but I think that they are misguided. If the remaining employees think that all of these people are leaving of their own volition, they will start to wonder why and they will inevitably settle upon the most nefarious of imaginable reasons. If, on the other hand, your former employer is honest about the business reasons why a staff reduction is necessary and transparent about their future plans, they could strengthen the loyalty of the employees who remain and make significant strides toward rebuilding their operations. (For more on lessening the impact of a layoff, read one of my previous columns.)

Let's assume for the moment that your former employer really is systematically firing his workers in secret. By letting people know, you will clear up the mystery of your abrupt departure while at the same time help your friends to make better informed decisions about their careers.

And, let's face it, you will also derive some satisfaction from potentially thwarting the plans of the managers who wronged you. Yet, you run a real risk that what you say will get back to your former managers, in which case you can forget about obtaining any sort of helpful employment reference.

If you already have another job, maybe you don't need their help. If you are still looking, I would think twice about burning that bridge.

Now let's suppose that your theory regarding the mass exodus from your former workplace is incorrect. Maybe it is pure coincidence that this many people have recently left. Maybe your employer fired you based upon legitimate concerns about your performance. Maybe their false assertion that you left voluntarily was not part of the cover-up for a staff reduction, but just a way of showing you respect. Would it then be fair for you to unsettle your former coworkers by suggesting to them that their jobs could be at risk? Before you openly speculate about the larger context of your dismissal, you should make sure that your story is unassailable.

In the end, you might decide that it is best just to let your former colleagues know that you were fired without notice and that this is the reason why you were unable to leave on your own terms. They have surely taken note of the fact that you are but one of many people to have departed the organization in recent memory, and they can draw their own conclusions about what this means for them.

Lily Garcia has offered employment law and human resources advice to companies of all sizes for more than 10 years. To submit a question, e-mail HRadvice@washingtonpost.com. We reserve the right to edit submitted questions for length and clarity and cannot guarantee that all questions will be answered.


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