Sunday, July 23, 2017

When employees leave, silence is not golden

Almost 20 years ago, in one of the first "The Right Thing" ethics columns I wrote, I tackled the issue of how employers often fail to inform their employees when someone has been dismissed.

"You walk into the office, and as the day goes on you realize that the guy who sat in the cubicle next to you for years isn't there," I wrote. "It's not just that he hasn't come to work. There's no trace of him. The family pictures, the plants, the cartoons he liked to clip and post are simply gone. Office scuttlebutt has it that he has been dismissed. But there is no official word: no memo, no department email."

At the time I observed that while there might be reasons for employers not disclosing why an employee has been let go (an employee's privacy, fear of wrong termination suits), not saying anything his disappearance can create a "climate of fear" in a setting where the bosses don't level with the staff.

A few weeks ago, a reader, H.D., wrote to report that a similar situation occurred in her office.

After returning from a week's vacation, H.D. noticed that a long-time colleague wasn't at the weekly staff meeting. As the week went on, she noticed that the colleague wasn't in her office or anywhere around the office.

Figuring that the colleague might be on vacation, H.D. let it pass. But as two more weeks went by and there was no sign of her, H.D. asked another colleague if she knew if the missing colleague was OK.

"I think she's on some sort of leave," the colleague told H.D. But she didn't know anything else. Neither did any of the other colleagues.

Finally, at a subsequent weekly staff meeting, H.D. asked their supervisor whether the colleague was indeed on leave and if she'd be returning.

"She won't be coming back," was the supervisor's response. The discussion was redirected to other issues.

"No one knows if she's been fired or quit or has health issues or something else," writes H.D. "Because there have been layoffs in the recent past, we're all kind of on edge not having been told what's going on. Shouldn't the supervisor have said something?"

When layoffs occur, typically employees are notified. So H.D. knows it's unlikely the colleague did no leave due to a layoff. Still, the practice of not telling employees when a colleague leaves the company seems a poor choice.

While maintaining a current or former employee's privacy is important, letting employees know that a colleague is no longer with the company seems hardly to violate any privacy. The employees ultimately gather as much when the colleague no longer shows up to work. But leaving the departure unsaid leaves employees to worry, gossip, perhaps think the worst, and wonder if they might be next.

The right thing for an employer to do is to let employees know when someone has left the company. Partly, doing so helps to quash any fear or gossip making the rounds. But more importantly, it can serve to reassure the remaining employees that they are still valued and that their employer thinks enough of them not to leave them in the dark. 

Jeffrey L. Seglin, author of The Simple Art of Business Etiquette: How to Rise to the Top by Playing Nice, is a senior lecturer in public policy and director of the communications program at Harvard's Kennedy School. He is also the administrator of, a blog focused on ethical issues. 

Do you have ethical questions that you need answered? Send them to 

Follow him on Twitter: @jseglin 


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