former employee is throwing a party to vilify my company … which is dealing with layoffs

Remember that letter about a former employee who wanted to throw a company-sponsored party for some — but not all — of her former coworkers? Well, she’s got company. A reader writes:

I’m a manager at a large company. We are on the middle of a reorg, and a lot of people are losing their jobs. It’s unfortunate that good people are losing jobs, but I genuinely feel it is the right move, and the company has truly tried to be fair with people and help everyone land on their feet.

I learned through the grapevine that a former employee, not involved with this reorg, has invited most of my current and several past reports to a party themed around how awful the company is, to coincide with the last day for many people whose jobs are ending. I have also learned the identity of the person throwing the party. It is someone who voluntarily ended employment here for a job elsewhere and was often unhappy while here, in spite of our best efforts. This person has not worked here in some time and can only have heard details about what changes are being made and why second- or third-hand.

I am disappointed in this former employee’s behavior with planning and inviting people to this party, for a number of reasons (some of which tie to morale concerns that went on while this person was still here). It seems like such a misguided and unprofessional thing to do. And I’m worried it will spread bitterness and discontent among the people who are losing their jobs, and the ones who aren’t.

Should I say anything to this former employee? To my current staff who are not losing their jobs but were invited to this party?

Layoffs are hard, and they often do inspire a type of gallows humor at organizations going through them. But you’re right that this is an unprofessional thing to do. Go out for drinks, have a dinner to support them, sure — but a party themed around how awful the company is? No. Thrown by a former employee, no less? No.

But that’s different than the question of whether or not you should say something. My answer to that: Probably not.

For starters, you definitely shouldn’t say anything to the former employee hosting the party. He doesn’t work with you anymore, and he’s free to do whatever he wants. Your contacting him about this would not only be inappropriate, but would also probably provide further fodder for him in trash-talking the company.

But what about your staff members who aren’t being laid off? They too are entitled to socialize however they please in their off-hours … but yes, it would be a poor choice for them to attend. Attending an event designed to vilify their employer sends a pretty troubling signal about how they feel about their jobs, and how capable they’ll be of moving forward in they way you’ll need them to after this reorg. (If indeed that’s really what the party is; keep in mind that the grapevine has a way of distorting things.)

Rather than raising it directly with them, though, my first choice would be for you to talk to them about the layoffs in general. Talk to them about what’s happening and why, and why you think it’s the right choice forward, even though painful. Ask them how they’re doing. Ask if they have suggestions for how the company can navigate this period better.

I say this because the most common way that companies screw up layoffs is by not being communicative enough — not being transparent about the reasons for what’s happening, not being clear about the plans for moving forward and ensuring the company is stable in the future, not being candid enough about the security for those left behind, and not giving people plenty of opportunities to ask honest questions and get real answers. If that’s happened here, then it’s not surprising that a pretty understandable gallows humor has morphed into something more toxic.

By opening up a conversation with your staff about what’s going on, you might address some of this. If nothing else, you might get more insight into what’s going on with them.

And if it comes up organically in that conversation, I don’t think it’s totally off-limits to say, “I was disappointed to hear that Jane is throwing a party with such negative overtones about us. How do you feel about that?” But I would not direct them not to attend, or imply that their standing in the company will suffer if they do. (If for no other reason than that you might run afoul of the National Labor Relations’ Act ban on companies interfering with employees talking about working conditions with each other.)

But overall, I think the thing to do here is to try to figure out / understand why your employes would be interested in attending this type of party in the first place, and see what you can do on your own to address those root causes — rather than the party itself.

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