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


comments powered by Disqus

Subscribe on YouTube