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When a Co-Worker Vanishes

By Liz Ryan There's something disconcerting, a little Twilight-Zoneish, about stopping by a colleague's workstation to leave a message, or check on a meeting time, or just say hi and hear, "Uh, Charlie doesn't work here anymore."

What the heck? I talked to him yesterday, you think, as though you just heard that Charlie had expired during the night. In fact, the shock is often akin to getting the news that someone you know has died of a heart attack or in a traffic accident. What could have happened to Charlie? He looked fine the last time I saw him.

If your company is like most, you won't get a detailed explanation from your manager (or Charlie's, if you work for different people) for his disappearance. That's because the company's hands are tied.

"OTHER OPPORTUNITIES." Confidentiality rules (and the lawsuit that might otherwise result) prevent a manager from telling you all about why Charlie doesn't work here anymore. So even if Charlie had his hand in the till, was selling to fictitious customers, or was competing with your employer from home, at night, via fax, the official party line is likely to be: "Charlie has left to pursue other opportunities."

Such terminology is so common a euphemism for "fired" that if it's used to describe someone who really did quit, there must be some ill will involved. Beyond that bit of payback, though, the company can't say diddly about the situation.

The irony is that it might be worthwhile for an employer to share some of its reasoning, if only it could. Charlie's story might benefit everyone if it illustrated hitherto unrevealed operational difficulties or a little-understood rule that Charlie broke, even inadvertently. But the company has to stay mum -- that's just the way it works.

CARRYING ON. That said, it's both appropriate and professional for you to ask whether Charlie left a phone number or an e-mail address -- and for you to write or call to wish him well. Once you do, it's Charlie's cue to give you the straight story (from his perspective, anyway) if he's so inclined. If he's not, so be it. You'll survive without the gory details.

Apart from the normal gossip, what do you need to know? Chiefly, how you're supposed to carry on. Who will answer Charlie's calls, who will handle his projects, and how can you help that person? It's normal for Charlie's duties to be parceled out to someone, at least temporarily, within a day or two. You're justified in worrying about the quality of your unit's leadership if a week goes by with no answers to the question: "What happens to Charlie's work now?"

It's also normal, in the wake of an abrupt disappearance, to start worrying about your own status. Was Charlie not making his numbers? Did he have any idea this was coming? Could the same thing happen to me? These are reasonable questions, unless the company routinely has dictatorship-style summary executions.

ETHICS-RELATED? Most organizations try to work with employees who have performance problems, because it's expensive to hire and train people. So, one explanation could be that Charlie had been on the bubble for a long time. In fact, it's my feeling that most companies tend to take too long to fire people, rather than act too hastily -- except in the case of ethics violations.

I don't want to spread bad thoughts about poor Charlie. But if last week he was talking excitedly about his upcoming performance review and a shot at a promotion, and this week he's history (and not part of a layoff), ethics may be part of the equation.

A layoff isn't always what it seems, by the way. If a company can label a performance-related termination a downsizing, it often will. Managers aren't evil -- most of them, anyway -- and if they can obscure the reason an employee is departing by saying, "We had to reduce staff," they can make the event less awkward for everyone.

That will also let them avoid a possible wrongful-termination claim, assuming they're prepared to eliminate Charlie's slot, and avoid replacing it with the same position for at least a year.

GET THE SKINNY. So, what's the upshot? If a co-worker, seemingly at ease in his or her job, disappears one random day, don't expect an explanation from your employer. If the departure was shocking in its suddenness, ethical violations may be a factor (but not necessarily). And unless the company makes a habit of unanticipated head-choppings, your job is probably in no more danger than on any other day.

Still, if you're curious to learn more, here's a safe way to ask your manager: "A lot of us who worked closely with Charlie are disappointed to see him go and are wondering what, if anything, we can learn from his departure. I assume you can't say much, but we would like to know anything that could help the rest of us in the future."

Most managers will simply say, "Sorry." But some canny ones will say: "There's nothing whatsoever for us to learn from Charlie's departure. He has left us to pursue other opportunities. Y'all keep up the good work. Now -- apropos of nothing -- I also want to let you know about a half-day workshop on insider trading, next Monday at noon."

Bingo! Somehow, you knew Charlie wasn't offed for running a football pool. Do you have any great business leadership tips to share with BusinessWeek Online's readers? Send them to Liz Ryan, an at-work expert, speaker, and writer, and CEO of online networking organization WorldWIT

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