A Fired Employee Showed Up at Our Office Party

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.

Here’s a roundup of answers to four questions from readers.

1. A fired employee showed up at our office party

I had to fire someone two weeks ago for serious time and attendance issues. (It’s shift work, so punctuality is really necessary, and this person was routinely 30-plus minutes late, even after multiple warnings and chances to improve.) In a fit of generosity, I agreed that we wouldn’t contest illness, and I even coached the employee as to how to discuss their firing in future interviews. I gave them my personal contact info and told them that I would be willing to give a neutral reference, as my goal is definitely not to prevent them from getting work.

Cut to our recent office party, and our HR manager pulls me aside to tell me this former employee is here! Just grabbed a drink, sat down with their former co-workers, and decided to join the fun. Ultimately, we realized that it could be more of an ordeal if we asked them to leave, so we didn’t say anything but kept an eye on them. At one point (which I only found out after the fact), they pulled the COO aside and asked them to reconsider the firing decision, which wasn’t the COO’s decision in the least. Other than that, the fired employee didn’t cause a big scene, but did go around to others on staff “to say goodbye,” which of course came with a mention that they had been fired.

I feel like we handled it fairly well, but I’d like to know what you would have done in the same situation. It had the potential to be fraught, and I’m mostly just glad it wasn’t worse. I’m not really comfortable giving even a neutral reference anymore, as it just seems so far outside professional norms. Is that petty? Should I reach out to them and ask what they were thinking, or just let it go?

You were right to figure that it would cause more drama if you asked the person to leave, and right to just keep an eye on them to make sure they didn’t do anything disruptive. If they had started making any kind of scene, at that point you would have had to intervene, but it sounds like it was awkward but not horribly disruptive.

Also, though, is it possible this employee misunderstood the terms of their firing? You’re feeling like they were out of line in showing up at the party because you’d terminated them for serious attendance issues, and they should know that’s a big deal. But when you agreed to let them file for illness benefits and said you’d give a reference, it’s possible that soft-pedaled the situation to the point that they didn’t recognize that they had killed a bridge with the company. It’s not that you were wrong to offer those things, but it might explain why they didn’t think it was odd to show up at the party.

In any case, I can understand why you feel uncomfortable giving a reference now — you’ve just seen them do something that displayed pretty bad judgment. That said, this isn’t a situation where you were prepared to give a positive reference and now don’t feel that you can — you were already planning to give a neutral reference, and I don’t think this needs to change that .

2. My co-worker keeps whispering to me

I work with a chronic whisperer. I work in a medium-size office that is partially open-plan with partitions to separate departments. My colleague, whom I share a section with, almost exclusively communicates with me by whispering. Originally she was whispering when discussing work-related matters that she didn’t want anyone else to overhear, but now almost everything she says to me is whispered.

For private, work-related conversations there would be no problem stepping into a meeting room, so the whispering really is unnecessary, and I often have difficulty hearing her. I’ve even caught myself responding to her in a whisper.

How do I approach this and ask her to speak in a normal-volume voice? And, ironically, I am concerned about others in the office overhearing this conversation!

Ugh, whispering! I hate it. And it actually draws more attention from people around you than if you were just talking normally. People are used to the hum of conversation in an office and can usually tune it out, but whispering tends to make ears perk up.

Since you have trouble hearing her when she whispers, you could run with that. The next time she starts whispering, say, “Sorry, I’ve been having trouble hearing you when you whisper. Do you want to go in a meeting room?” Then stick to that; henceforth, you can’t hear her clearly enough when she whispers.

The other option is to just be candid: “I feel weird about whispering — it can actually be more distracting for people than if we were talking normally, and I worry that people will think we’re trying to hide something. Can we just speak in normal tones or duck into a meeting room?” (You could say this the next time you happen to be in a meeting room together so that you have some privacy while saying it.) But this approach requires her to agree with you, whereas the first approach forces her to change what she’s doing and thus has an advantage.

3. Can I use quizzes to train people?

I manage a small part-time staff. We’re constantly updating the services we provide the public and adding new resources that my staff need to be able to talk about with at least a beginner’s level of proficiency. I feel confident in my knowledge of what we have to offer, but I also recognize that I’m on the clock far more often than my staff is. I’m trying to come up with ways to encourage them to stay up to date on our policies and services.

Is it condescending to use quizzes? My goal isn’t to use these as formal evaluations; Rather, I need them to be more confident in their knowledge of the policies and services, or at least get in the habit of looking up the policy in the handbook. I’ve never managed a staff before, and I don’t want to treat my staff as if they were children, but I find myself answering a lot of simple questions for them.

I don’t think quizzes are inherently condescending, although they can definitely be done in a condescending way, so you need to be careful about the implementation. But if you make them fun — and possibly do them out loud as a group — it could be fine. Plus, if you do them as a group, it can be interactive and you can talk as a group about the answers and people can learn from one another. But frame it as “this is an experiment and I want to see how it goes” and get feedback from people afterward (and be open to hearing that it didn’t work for them).

4. Talking to candidates at career fairs

I recently took part in a career fair at a university representing my company. It was a mostly fun experience, but I found out there were two distinct groups of people at the career fair.

The first group was great. They knew what our company was about and introduced themselves and told us about their experiences and education. The other group was … not so good. They would come up to our booth and say something like “So … what can you do for me?” We would tell them about our company and the different departments and roles we have, and then it turns out that they are in a completely unrelated field! After a few times, we would start by asking them what they were taking and try to tailor what we told them on that basis. How would you deal with the second group of people?

It’s useful to have a short spiel (like two to four sentences) that you can give about your company and what types of jobs you’re hiring for. It sounds like you were doing a much longer version of that, but it’s OK to trim it down. After your short explanation, you can say, “What field are you in and what type of work are you looking for?” And then it’s their turn. That way neither of you are investing too much time if you’re each looking for something completely different.

And if someone takes a “what can you do for me?” approach, don’t feel like you have to jump to figure out what the answer to that might be. They’re not exactly putting their best foot forward there, and you’re not obligated to cater to that.

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

The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.

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