The Workologist | There’s little to gain if this ruse works, except getting fired.
Q: I’m pretty sure my employer is spying on me by reading my work email, because I’m highly valuable. I am thinking about writing a resignation letter, postdated a couple months from now, signing and scanning it, and emailing it to myself at my work address. I’m pretty sure the employer will see and read it. Should I?
A: I suppose the answer depends on your goal. If you want to get fired, this may do the trick. But if it’s meant to be some sort of sting operation, you should think twice, because it is not likely to work out in a way you’ll find satisfying.
You may be correct that your employer could be monitoring your email, whether you’re distinctly valuable to the company or not. By and large, private sector employees have no particular expectation of privacy for their work-related email accounts, says Alisa B. Arnoff, a partner in the Chicago law firm Scalambrino & Arnoff, which includes labor and employment law among its specialties.
A survey several years ago by the American Management Association found that nearly half of employers had some kind of email monitoring system in place (mostly using automated software, as opposed to having a person read every email). A couple of states require employers to give employees explicit notice before they can monitor their email, and similar legislation is pending in a few more, but these are “exceptions to the general rule,” Arnoff says.
(Arnoff advises her clients to be explicit in employee handbooks and the like that workers should have no expectation of privacy in their work email; being clear with employees about this may head off potential problems later. But either way, issues stemming directly from such monitoring are hardly a rarity. “It’s routine,” she says.)
So let’s say you send this honey-pot resignation letter, and your employers do indeed discover it and confront you. At that point you can say, “I knew it!” and perhaps feel satisfied on some emotional level. But (assuming the mentioned exceptions above don’t apply) that’s about it.
Meanwhile, you could easily be putting your position at risk. Arnoff has had employer clients whose workers used work computers and email accounts to update their résumés and look for other work, among other misuses of company time and resources. In those cases, “We generally recommend termination,” she says.
Simply receiving a job overture, or other dubious email, from a third party isn’t something that would likely be held against an employee, Arnoff says. But even if you write and send your fake resignation letter from home, it certainly gives your bosses reason to question your loyalty, and perhaps your judgment. For a typical at-will employee, that could easily translate into looking for a new job much sooner than expected.
That said, if you’re planning to part with your employer no matter what, this may work out to be a theatrically entertaining means to that end. It may also turn this employer into a much less enthusiastic reference later on.
Dealing with “Mr. Difficult”
Q: My workers go out on the road in two- and three-person crews, spending eight to 12 hours together. One by one, my employees have announced to me that they will not work with one particular colleague under any circumstances. He talks nonstop, complains a lot, and just plain gets on the others’ nerves.
I’m thinking about terminating “Mr. Difficult.” Is this fair or even legal? I fear he will not be able to land another job but what other options do I have?
A: On the legal front, there are a couple of considerations. Be certain that there is no “discriminatory animus” here, Arnoff says. If “Mr. Difficult” believes the complaints are rooted in his race, sexual orientation, age, disability, etc., and instead of addressing a hostile work environment you fire him, he might have reason to file a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Also, if his complaints are all about, say, workplace conditions, then silencing or dismissing him could run afoul of labor laws.
More broadly, I suspect the real issue here isn’t one of legalities, but one of management. “One of the pre-eminent qualities of leading anything is listening to what you’re hearing,” notes Michael Useem, a management professor at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania and co-author (with Harbir Singh) of the recent book “The Strategic Leader’s Roadmap.” When employees announce they simply cannot work with someone, Useem says, that’s “a very strong signal.”
Ideally this issue should have been addressed when it first arose, particularly because it sounds as if you agree that the worker in question has disagreeable habits. Invest the time to give a problem employee direct feedback, working with him to resolve the troublesome behavior, and maybe even arranging peer feedback. Be specific. Give the person a chance to respond, and improve. But be clear about what needs to change, and detail the consequences if it doesn’t.
Perhaps there is still time for that. I certainly understand the very human concern about this worker’s future. But the longer a situation like this festers, the harder it is to resolve — and if you find yourself reacting to the ultimatums of your workers, you risk undermining your authority in general.
“I wouldn’t give up on the person at the outset,” Useem says, “but the day may come when you do need to give up.”
If so, take that action with decency, fairness and respect. Be specific about problems that really affected the business, as opposed to just saying “nobody likes you.” This has become a situation that affects the workplace as a whole, and thus a test of your leadership. As Useem says: “Everybody’s going to be watching.”
This article originally appeared in The New York Times. Submit questions to Rob Walker at firstname.lastname@example.org.