Professionally Speaking

Personnel Problems

Job termination may seem like the end of the world, but it's not. To get you back on track, step back and assess what went wrong.

I was terminated recently from my job with a tri-campus university because of interoffice problems. I started working at one campus, where I had good job performance and strong team leadership. After three months, I was transferred to the second campus. From the beginning, I had problems with the supervisor.

It started when I suggested that we carefully plan and design the upgrade of 700 campus workstations to Windows 2000. I wrote a draft of the steps to take before and during the upgrade. In our meeting, my supervisor requested that we work together on the final document. A few weeks later, my boss (who is at the third campus) sent me an e-mail with a final document. My supervisor had modified the document I created and claimed credit. I wasn’t happy about it and spoke with my boss.

He told me that we were going to meet to discuss this issue, but we never did. Meanwhile, my supervisor made strong allegations against me—primarily about how I confronted him regarding the Win2K document. I was given a written and a verbal warning. I worked hard to improve and to accomplish goals set by my supervisor and my boss—and exceeded them; but when review time came, I was given a poor assessment.

Also, one of my co-workers didn’t like me because, according to him, I have an accent, along with other personal reasons. I knew he didn’t like me, yet I continued to help him whenever he was in need of technical aid. After three months, I decided to approach him. During our discussion, he used profane language. I replied that if we were outside of work or we didn’t work together and he talked to me that way, it would have been a different story and that he needed to learn how to talk to people. I then walked out of the room. He sent an e-mail to my supervisor stating that I had threatened him. My supervisor got the human resources department involved, and I ended up getting fired.

I've never been fired from a job and have been in this business for seven years. I know how to deal with co-workers, and I strongly believe in teamwork. However, I never felt that I fit in with this group.

I have to start looking for a job, but I don't know what to say when asked why I left my previous job. Do employers call previous supervisors or HR and ask questions regarding employee's interaction with others?
—Name withheld by request

Well, there are certainly many issues involved here. Steve has already answered your main questions. However, when I read through your letter, what really struck me was that, despite your protestations that you know how do deal with people, I’m not so sure that you do!

Clearly, having someone else claim your work as their own is a problem but, as Steve says, directly confronting people about it isn’t a great idea. These people get found out eventually, so I believe it would have been better to let these things play out naturally.

Enemies make action movies and soap operas more interesting, but they have no place in a work environment. We all need to make the effort to ensure we can work with everyone around us, no matter our private (or not so private, in this case) opinions.

What worries me most about this situation is that you were issued both a formal written and a verbal warning; although you don’t mention the substance of the warning, it’s clear that you didn’t understand the message.

Employers have a duty to look after the welfare of all their workers. This includes harassment of other staff, which may be how others saw your actions.

Sure, no one deserves to be sworn at, but those comments to your co-worker weren’t helpful, either. It would’ve been better to politely excuse yourself and walk away rather than escalate the situation. (Actually, it would have been better to not confront the guy in the first place, but that’s another story.) This was not a schoolyard or a bar, but a workplace—so whether or not someone “disrespects” you is irrelevant.

Now, I know you weren’t asking for all of this feedback, but my fear is that you haven’t learned all of the lessons from this episode and, thus, could one day repeat some of the same mistakes. I suggest that you look at some books about dealing with difficult people and see what strategies you can adopt.

I do want to expand on Steve’s point about ownership of work within an organization. It’s true that there seems to be a common view that anything that happens is because of the work of the leadership team—in this case, team leaders and managers. However, the door swings both ways. As a manager, I get some of the reflected glory for the good things my folks accomplish, but I also feel the pain when they mess up.

Obviously, as much as possible, I try to acknowledge the work of my direct reports, as this helps their career and their visibility, as well as boosts morale. One way I’ve found to correctly attribute the work for completed documentation is to list both the document author and the document owner on the cover page. This way, there’s no doubt about who actually completed the work. However, as the saying goes, “Success has many fathers, but failure is an orphan.” So it’s likely that when good things happen, many will attempt to claim their own piece of that success. But, of course, there’s no excuse for outright claiming someone else’s work as his or her own.

Good luck in getting that next job!

About the Author

Greg Neilson is a manager at a large IT services firm in Australia and has been a frequent contributor to and

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Reader Comments:

Wed, Sep 29, 2004 Anonymous Anonymous

High Tech companies will throw you under the bus if the chance is given to them. It is always good to do a little CYA just to make sure you don't get the shaft. Sometimes, even when you do CYA you still can get shafted. Maybe the best solution is to play a little game of kiss butt to the boss. Law won't get you anywhere, the best bet is to just get another job or change careers because this industry is tanking unless you are in Bangalore.

Thu, Jul 31, 2003 Anonymous Anonymous

What kind of rediculous advice was this? The letter writer specifically laid out how he tried to be nice, obseqious and magnanimous and that didn't work. So the advice was what in those circumstances? To find some hidden fault with his methods of obseqiousness?

Lame advice, the answer is that the guy got shafted and that he should call a lawyer. How's that for some pragmattic advice?

Tue, Feb 11, 2003 Anonymous Anonymous

I work for a large IT outsourcing firm in Florida, and have seen this kind of thing in my travels. This guy needs to get a life! Move on and stop whining! Sounds like the letter writer was the instigator here.

Thu, Feb 6, 2003 Anonymous Anonymous

It would be nice to know the other side of the story on this one. Seems a bit too cut and dry. In my experience, and I have been in the IT industry for 15+ years, this person needs some assistance with his attitude.

Wed, Jan 29, 2003 Gary Portland

I was fired for lack of interpersonal skills in 93. He realized it wasn't a good fit there and stayed. He with the biggest stick wins but what goes around comes around.

Tue, Jan 21, 2003 nevein egypt

i want some studies about role_playing in the class room

Sun, Jan 19, 2003 Hardcore Australia

Life is not fair. As a helpdesk operator getting plenty of screaming users on the other end you have to learn not to take it personally.

It is a lesson if you learn from it and a mistake if you don't. You are only responsible for your own actions. The threat to the workmate is understandable but not a career enhancing move nor does it help resolve the problem. Just like on a helpdesk let the user blow off the steam and get to the problem. If that does not work you do not threaten you ask either your supervisor or HR to help you dialogue with the workmate (or you could do that initially) HR is not just Hiring and Firing (well 80% maybe).
As for your supervisor taking the credit there was a few more options. You could have learned from it and next time;
1/ Ask for co-authorship of the article.
2/ email it to both your supervisor and boss. At the same time make it certain to your boss that it was your supervisor who directed you to do it while you take the technical glory for yourself. The boss now knows you have technical ability and the supervisor gets some of the glory without having to rewrite your work.

Yes a lot of non-technical people cannot do what we can. I cannot do what a lot of technical people in other fields can do. And I also have seen the difficulties that some of the best managers operate under. They want someone who will be reliable and cover their backs as well. But until I am certain that I can do a better job as a supervisor or manager I will not devalue their job just because they cannot do my own.

As for unpaid late hours did you volunteer? Too many techs don't put up their hands and say that they have a social life. A lot of them also enjoy the challenge though. But the lesson to learn is for your next job make sure that OT is compensated for, and in this one to note down all these jobs for your next job revue. Sometimes even your direct boss will get a surprise when in your revue you list all the overtime that you have done. If they do not then react in a nice manner. Don't get angry. Smile and start looking for a job that suits your lifestyle.

Tue, Jan 14, 2003 Anonymous TX

I see no personnel problems here. I see idiotic, vindictive co-workers and insanely
stupid managers and supervisors (an oxymoron maybe?) Mr. Neilson, by your one sided comments about this poor young man, you would also be someone I would not want to work for.

Cheers to this guy for actually sticking up for himself and having the
guts to confront his pinhead supervisor. Yes, it is unfortunate that
he lost his job, but he will survive. The problem with the corporate
world today is that it is filled with idiots in positions of responsibility
who know *nothing* about how to implement anything, let alone troubleshoot
and repair it when things go wrong at 3 a.m.

I will never forget the countless nights and weekends I spent hunched over
a server rack rebuilding that oh-so-critical Exchange cluster so that the corporate
suits could send their *critical* e-mails to their counterparts in Australia (even
though they were still in bed and would not be reading them until the next morning),
or fixing a corrupted IIS site at 2 a.m. (so they wouldn’t miss all that revenue from
middle of the night shoppers…of radio towers?!?!). All of this without so much as
a “Thank You” or “Good Job”, let alone actually getting paid for it.

The corporate world had better wake up and realize that IT workers are *people*
with feelings and social lives, and we DO have more important things to do than
to fix major problems in the middle of the night because the yippen-yammers in
charge wanted to do things *their* way instead of the *right way.*

To the guy who lost his job….don’t worry! You will find work again. It may not
be in IT, but who cares. Don’t judge your self worth on your career. Just imagine the
pinheads in management implementing their own Windows 2000 Enterprise, watching
it collapse, and having to have the remaining “team players” and politically-correct employees have to fix it…because they sure can’t.

Now is the best time to start thinking about working for yourself and forget the
corporate lunacy. At least when you have to work at 2. a.m., *you* are the one profiting!
Let them eat cake.

Tue, Dec 24, 2002 Stormy De

I can understand how he feels. In April of 2002 I was terminated by a jealous boss. He used the excuse that I was ill and could not perform my job. The Hospital I worked for later called me back and admitted wrongdoing and offered me a much lower position. They were afraid I would try to get them back because of the mistake. I declined the offer and have been trying to sue for almost a year. I am unable to get a job because they were my most recent technical reference, and they won’t give me any. The two companies I worked for before them have both closed. So now I am very well trained and educated with lots of experience, but unemployed and it’s about to run out! What can a person do? I guess the little guy looses again.

Mon, Dec 23, 2002 Corster Virginia

Reply to Anonymous above: At no time, ever, did this gentleman threaten to hit or any other action against the profane speaker. You're reading of the situation is incorrect. He simply stated that the language the profane speaker (whom, I noticed, you did NOT recommend be fired. Interesting.) should not use that language IN THE WORKPLACE. Also, you can copy whoever you want but will be viewed with disdain for trying to usurp said management's "work" (regardless of whether it was their idea or work or not). Steve also did not offer any solution other than suck it up.

Mon, Dec 23, 2002 Anonymous Anonymous

I think that some people may be missing the point of the article (maybe it's me). The person in the article confronted their manager, went over the managers head to the supervisor, confronted a co-worker and then lost their job. Since this plan of action didn't work, Steve and Greg are offering alternatives.
We need to stop worrying about who is right and who is wrong. Would you you rather be right and unemployed? We need to realize that we can't change other people, only how we react to them.
I would suggest that this person should have looked for another job. Why would anyone want to work for a company like that anyway? I've found that when I'm being unfairly treated, the best thing I can do is go along with the program until I can find another job. At least this way I leave with a good recommendation.
Lastly, if anyone thinks that what he said to his co-worker was not a threat, they are fooling themselves.

Mon, Dec 23, 2002 Anonymous Anonymous

To those who did not like the advice given I suggest looking up the word pragmatic in the dictionary. You can run around crying about how unfair this person's treatment was or you can determine a course of action to prevent a repeat of this situation.
Also, this gentleman was not without responsibility for his situation. If you tell a co-worker "if we were outside of work or we didn’t work together and he talked to me that way, it would have been a different story and that he needed to learn how to talk to people", that is a threat. It's not acceptable in the workplace. Frankly, he should have been terminated. If he wasn't and he then actually hit someone, the company (and his manager) could get sued for not providing a safe work environment.
I think Steve did an excellent job by focusing on how this person could avoid having the same thing happen again.
The only thing I would add is this: If you think that there is a chance your idea could be stolen, make sure that you copy other people when sending it to your boss or coworker.

Sun, Dec 22, 2002 Fred New Zealand

Unfortunately for the Chap in the article (I’m guessing it’s a male) he should have kept his mouth shut if wanted to keep his job. The problem is that management have got used to Tech’s not answering back. You probably all know the things I mean, like being on call for 24 hours 7 days a week, with none or little extra money, being prepared to stay and fix a problem late into the night when all others have gone home despite the fact we may have had family commitments, letting some user too stupid to work a light switch shout at you because they haven’t the brains to use the computer.

So what does the chap do? He is economical with the truth when asked why he left his last job.
What do we do Tech’s? We need to find a way of getting our status back, how we do that with getting the sack is hard question. Or maybe we all get the sack and let the management fix the problems!

Fri, Dec 20, 2002 Anonymous Anonymous

I have felt the writer's pain in earlier consulting and work environments, and I think that he's getting some fairly stiff slaps from Steve. Of course we don't know the whole situation, but the recommendation does seem to be to side with management and to blame the victim.

Fri, Dec 20, 2002 Anonymous Anonymous

I think Greg went a bit far in "blaming the victim" in his response here. Truly, there can be situations that are difficult to resolve in the idealized ways that he suggests. In the end, it's probably better that this individual is no longer worker for this employer, but I don't think it was justice in any sense of the word.

Fri, Dec 20, 2002 Cortster VA

And this is different from Crandall's answer how? Might as well save the kid some money on self-help books and have him go get a prescription for Valium. Leaving ego-maniacs in their positions and firing the productive help is what is causing our work to be sent overseas, kiddies. Clients are tired of paying big bucks for alleged managers who can't even intelligently discuss the products they are presenting as their own. Maybe it's time to fire such bonehead management and start giving credit to the people who do the jobs and firing those who can't keep a civil tongue in their mouths, no matter who they are.

Fri, Dec 20, 2002 Cortster VA

The usual kow-tow to management, let them have their way because they got the dough answer. Thanks for keeping to the party line.

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