Friday, March 22, 2013

Answering Reader Mail: Being Terminated (Social Etiquette Part 2)

Hello Readers - 8 months ago, a reader asked me a question about fraternization and social etiquette at work. The link is that original post. The reader then wrote back recently with an update and a new question below.

“Last year, I wrote to you regarding my social issues at my work and you gave some very sound advice and things for me to consider.

The situation began to worsen as I continued to fraternize with employees. The lady that disapproved used to work for a very corporate company and happened to be my boss because she was the CEO's assistant. There were no rules against fraternization in our employee handbook and because the SVPs I supported often took their subordinates out for carousing and merriment, I went against her wishes. I believed it would be fine as the SVPs superseded her command, and I felt that I was in safe as long as I was in company of the executives and was in their good graces. In any case, I remained polite to her but I made the conscious decision to distance myself from her instead of our staff as I felt her attitude to be too negative/toxic. She was as new to the company as I was and it didn't take long for me to get to know her; she was always disapproving of someone in some way and had no qualms in voicing her criticisms privately (i.e., the COO won't go out of her way for anyone, doesn't attend company events, and is really just plain selfish, the SVP of Product goes out too much to the level where it's inappropriate, the SVP of HR is disrespectful as he's been late to a couple of all-hands meetings, the Director of Facilities thinks she's the queen, etc.). The funny thing is that she presents herself so sweetly to everyone; at one administrative assistant meeting (she supervises all admins), she proudly announced that there were some people she just did not like at the company but that no one would ever know it. She emphasized the importance of being nice to everyone so that if anyone were to ever say otherwise, no one will believe them.

In any case, she noticed the shift in my behavior as I no longer joked with her nor chatted with her as much as I used to initially. What broke the camel's back was when a well-loved director of the company was terminated by the SVP of Product and I threw her a happy hour after work. Now, the happy hour started out innocently enough; the SVP of Product encouraged everyone to reach out to the terminated director as it was an amicable separation and he understood a lot of people from the company were very good friends with her. The terminated director and I were very good friends and had asked me to organize a happy hour in which she could see some colleagues and bid adieu appropriately. I invited half a dozen people but the word spread like wildfire and almost the entire product and engineering team showed up a little after 5:30pm. A bit of background regarding our company: we have flexible hours and can come and go as we please as long as we finish our work but most of the time people stay after 6p because people usually come in late.

When the lady found out about the happy hour and that I organized the event for the terminated employee, she was not happy. She said that my actions showed that my loyalty was not to the company nor the SVP of Product, and as his executive assistant, it was announcing to his staff that I did not respect him or his decision in terminating the employee. Furthermore, she could not believe that I had the audacity to take almost the entire product and engineering staff to happy hour during regular business hours. I originally just invited six people, but about thirty+ showed up. Needless to say, I was also terminated. In hindsight, I can see where they're coming from and how awful that looks.

My question however, is… should I disclose the reason for my termination in my job interviews? And what is the best way to present it?

Thank you.”

Dear Anonymous,

Thank you for the update, though I wish it was under better circumstances. Many apologies for a later than usual response. I was so excited to see your email and as I read it, I thought it would eventually end on a high note. So you can imagine my shock and disbelief at the turn of events, which I assume was your reaction when it all went down. I’m not sure how recently this happened and how you are handling it, but know I am thinking of you. At some point in everyone’s career, they will get terminated or laid off, it’s just inevitable. And it’s better to make all your mistakes now when you are young so you have time to learn and not repeat the same mistakes when you are at a more critical juncture in your career. I do acknowledge the reflection you’ve done to understand what happened and why your company made the decision they did. And more importantly, it’s wise and mature that you are looking ahead and being smart about how to move past this hiccup.

I will definitely answer your question. However, to shed some light on culture and the business world for any readers who are young, new to EA work, or going through the same thing, I want to address your email in its entirety. I do admit I don’t know exactly what happened, the people involved, and the exact nature of your office dynamics, so I may ask larger over reaching questions or make wild assumptions that will or will not apply to you at all. But I am hoping what I write will help readers think about differing view points from a business and professional perspective regardless of how corporate or “lax” a company can be.

I didn’t realize that the lady who disapproved came from a very corporate background and was also your boss because she was the CEO’s assistant until this follow up question. While I realize you also worked for an SVP, the disapproving lady seems to have some input, if not a lot, on your performance review because she is in charge of all the admins and also works for the CEO. Sometimes, if the CEO’s assistant isn’t happy, no one else is either. Whether this is fair or not is moot, unfortunately. The take away point is that every individual has their own back story, reasons for making decisions the way they do, and has input on you because they are a part of your team or department. The bigger question always becomes how much weight is their opinion worth to your stake holders. In your case, she may have been able to influence the SVP, CEO, HR, or the other assistants because she is in charge of all admin and it’s her duty to manage them. If she doesn’t manage admin well, her reputation and performance review will also suffer, and it will be her fault because she is the most senior person even though she herself may not have done anything wrong. Every manager, including your SVP and the CEO, must deal with this issue - how to handle employees so they can manage people effectively with room for mistakes and growth, without jeopardizing the company, clients, or cash flow/debt, and also do their own work. And part of that is managing up - bringing things to their boss' attention and up the chain it goes. Your SVP reports to a President or CEO. Your CEO reports to a Chairman, the board, the owner of the company, shareholders, clients, etc. Everyone is beholden to someone. So even if she didn’t have a say or wasn’t a catalyst, someone obviously noticed when most of product or engineering went missing en masse when it wasn’t a company organized gathering. And so a simple question of where everyone is, is answered with everyone is at happy hour, followed by why, with who, how did this happen? And it led back to you and up the chain the news went. People talk, all the time. This is how more than 6 people showed up to happy hour. When you have a big group, things don’t always go as planned.

You mentioned she was new to the company, would privately criticize other folks, and you were distancing yourself from her. I’m not sure if this means you were actually her BFF at work, whether you realize it or not, and suddenly you were no longer chummy with her and this bothered her. She could have very well been secretly friends with everyone with only loyalty to herself. I don’t know. I’m not sure if you do and right now, it doesn’t really make a difference. I’m sure you’ve realized while it’s common to have a lot of office politics, it is not fun to work in a gossip-filled environment. I know you know this lesson already, so for new/young folks: a good rule of thumb is to not gossip to begin with and just be a nice person to everyone because it’s the right thing to do.

You mention what broke the camel’s back was the going away happy hour. I don’t know how it unfolded that led to termination, but I would like to share a few things about business acumen that is similar across all companies.

1) Any minor criticism from a stakeholder is a huge deal. I mentioned this in my first post as well. If it was brought to your attention, it was important enough to mention. Now, it may not be a big deal in the sense that you are in trouble, or someone is mad at you, or you’re on your way out, but constructive criticism is really a message about, “We like you. We want you to succeed. We want to help you. This is how you can change/grow.” So when the disapproving lady brought up fraternization, that was a value she held high, which mattered because she was also your boss. The example of how it could be misconstrued wasn’t helpful to you, but nonetheless, what she was saying was, “My focus is on your social etiquette behavior and I am pointing it out to you.” The most helpful advice is when actionable items are given or specific instructions of what not to do are given. However, very rarely will advice come in this form so it’s up to you to figure out how to solve the gap.

2) Reaching out to the terminated employee is very different from coordinating a small happy hour. The first one means to share email addresses, continue to keep in touch, and socialize on your own time individually. The second one now puts you in the role of the company ambassador organizing an informal event as if it were company approved/sponsored. I know this is not how you meant it to come across because you only invited six people and it was at the end of the day. However, when you accepted the request to be the organizer you became the de facto representative of your SVP in a way which the SVP did not request. While the event was to start at 530pm, sure it was only 30 min or 1 hour before people usually cut out early, but the principle becomes the issue here. Too many people are absent because of an event that was organized too close to the end of the work day by an employee that should not have spearheaded it because it oversteps boundaries. Bosses usually ask themselves themselves: How manageable is an employee? How well do they listen? How good are they with logic, reasoning, critical thinking, and judgment skills? Will this happen again in the future and be a bigger issue with PR, image, and VIPs that will result in massive costs for damage control?

I don't know where you fall with what I am about to explain. Some terminations are because something so big and public happened that the only way to resolve the issue and keep business on track or keep credibility is to let the employee go. Other terminations are an overall look at an employee’s performance. If an employee has too many areas that call for growth and improvement with personality, performance, or culture fit, it may be harder to explain why they should be kept on. Or last, it really could just be a harmless difference in skills, personality, fit, management, communication, or values that is learned during the working relationship or learning curve.

3) While I understand your friend left with an amicable separation note the company will either give a thank you gift, have some sort of company wide announcement, or actually throw a party, have cake, or some sort of good bye ceremony. Any one of those things signals that is what the company wants to officially do as their goodbye. There might even be an lunch or dinner where only senior executives attend. But how the company says good bye is the amount of attention and energy they want to spend. Anything beyond that is usually considered inappropriate unless it’s made very clear that other gestures or festivities are done off company time and through actions by any individuals in no way, shape, or form connect back to the company as if sponsored or impact them in a negative way.

4) For readers who may be asking what you should have done... The best thing might have been to either organize an event on the weekend on behalf of your good friend on your own personal email address and time or much later after work where people didn’t cut into their own work day. While the company has a lax policy of just make sure your work gets done, the fact that the event was related to amicable termination is the problem. If a normal happy hour was organized and all those people went missing, it may have not been as big of a deal. The best answer could also be politely decline and the terminated friend should have sent out her own invitation and invited everyone by waiting a few days or so. It would not have been in bad form for your friend to host her own party and you show up after business hours were over if it so happened to be later the night of her last day. Some events, I understand, if you host yourself are not socially acceptable - like to have a birthday party and demand presents or a baby shower and ask for things from a registry. However, in this case, it would have been fine.

Now to answer your question on how you should address your termination while you job hunt. Here are some tips.

1) Try to find someone who can be your reference from that job, but it doesn’t have to be from that company. An outside person could be a client, maybe a different boss (not the SVP or disapproving lady) or the person who got you that job. Perhaps the termination offense is minor that your SVP will actually give you a recommendation. Regardless, get a letter in writing on letterhead and their contact info for phone references from whomever.

2) What exactly did they say when you were let go? Whatever phrasing they used is most likely what you should say too so your story is the same, but is honest and shows you in a better, reformed light. Sometimes HR will actually work with you and say, “It just wasn’t working out/not the right fit.” Your aim is a neutral, non dramatic, unemotional short explanation followed by what you learned and how things will be different. Perhaps 2 explanations could be:

I made a poor decision in hosting a happy hour for an employee that was recently terminated. When too many people attended upon hearing about it, in hindsight, I realize it gave the impression I was not a loyal team member. Otherwise, I frequently received unsolicted praise for my work and delivered results beyond expectations, going above and beyond the call of duty.

I was there less than a year because it wasn’t the right fit. I really enjoyed, x, y, z, and am currently looking to offer my talents of x, y, z to a new company.

3) You will most likely be asked why you left your last job. You might be asked if you are allowed to work there again. They usually ask this question anytime anyone ever leaves a company as standard procedure. Be prepared to be honest with that answer as well and go off of what was discussed when the termination conversation happened. I am not really familiar with terminations so I can only assume unless one did something really illegal this would come into play. I am also not sure if upon your exit interview, HR gave you any guidance on if you could collect unemployment, etc.

4) Start temping immediately. This puts the focus back on the fact that you are working, employable, and have options. Your termination is more “in the past” than being the focal point of your resume because your first job description will be the temping stuff.

5) Practice interviewing and answering any questions related to your last job and the departure. You need to have a quick, concise answer. The more you try to hide, hem and haw, or get flustered the bigger the issue becomes when it doesn’t need to be.

If I didn’t answer your question completely, please feel free to ask again. I wish you the best of luck and know you will be fine. You are being proactive and mindful. Everyone has a hiccup now and then. Feel free to keep me posted on how you are.

***New “rule” - when you ask me a question for anonymous advice and I answer it, could you write an anonymous comment so I know you read the post? You can just write “Thx!” or something! :)

As always, I usually tweet any new posts I have. And anyone can email me questions and I respond only via this blog, not to your personal address. It usually takes me 3-4 days to answer.

I also write over at under Hollywood Executive Assistant.


  1. The Muser at Musings of a High Level Executive AssistantMarch 25, 2013 at 4:22 PM

    You are most welcome and I am glad my post was helpful to you. You asked me: Have you ever had struggles when you first started out as an EA or have you always been confident in what you did? I did have struggles, mainly in trying to close the gap between not knowing what I didn't know I didn't even know. However, over the years, I learned a lot of business is just so fast paced that you have to operate with only half the information or less you need, everyone does. My tendency to think out every single detail is just my nature and I'd constantly ask myself if I did everything under the sun that I could. So early in my career I would (perhaps) needlessly question myself. I think everyone struggles as an EA when they first start out and as they work with different people or industries. The best part of our job is every day is different and unpredictable, but that's also the worst part too. Anyway, I'm glad you were able to reflect some more and come up with a plan to move forward with more insight.

  2. How come you didn't publish the comment that you are replying to?

    1. The Muser at Musings of a High Level Executive AssistantMarch 27, 2013 at 12:54 PM

      Hi Tara - Fair question. :) It was there earlier/published, but the anonymous person deleted their comment, shortly after. The gist of the comment was because I addressed the entire email, they were able to figure out which skill they were lacking (analytical) and they said thank you, etc, along with a short update. I decided to leave my answer there in the interest of transparency and because I thought they asked a good question - did I ever struggle. So I thought that would be helpful since my comment still made sense without the deleted one. :) BTW - thank you for reading and I am going to post a new Q&A today/tomorrow re: horrible bosses.