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How to Help a Coworker Who May Get Fired—and How Not To

Ask The Expert

By Barbara Mitchell

Q: I am almost certain a coworker is about to be disciplined or fired. Should I try to warn him, or is that overstepping my bounds? If there is something I can do to help, I would hate to miss that opportunity.

A: I know it's hard to watch a valued colleague self-destruct, but this is a tricky situation. Think carefully before you say or do anything. Why are you so sure that your coworker is about to be disciplined? Is this simply your observation? Have you heard rumors? Or do you have specific, firsthand knowledge?

It amazes me how often managers talk to team members about other team members and even share their plans to terminate someone. This should never happen. As hard as it is for managers to make these tough decisions, they should be professional enough to maintain confidentiality and should not burden other direct reports with their thoughts or plans about a colleague. If your manager is confiding in you, you may be flattered, but I suggest that you respectfully ask them to stop sharing confidential information. Would you want them to talk to others about you?

You may think that things aren't going well between your manager and your colleague, but you can't be sure, and putting yourself in the middle can be hazardous to your career.

If your intuition is telling you something isn't right, remember that, as in any relationship, the only people who know the facts are those personally involved: your manager and your colleague. You may think that things aren't going well between them, but you can't be sure, and putting yourself in the middle can be hazardous to your career.

If your colleague constantly misses deadlines or meetings, and you can see your manager losing patience with him, consider speaking with him privately. Inform him as kindly as possible that people are noticing he often drops the ball, and suggest he step up his game. You can frame it by giving examples of how his missed deadlines or meetings have had a negative impact on the entire team's performance.

You could also try showing concern for your colleague's situation by asking if you can help him in some way. Maybe he's having a hard time in his personal life and doesn't want to admit that he needs extra help meeting project deadlines for a short period.

Still, you can't change someone else's behavior no matter how good your intentions are. I love that you want to tip off your colleague to the pending disaster you suspect, but the best course is almost always to stay out of it.

Barbara Mitchell is a human resources and management consultant and author of The Big Book of HR and The Essential Workplace Conflict Handbook. Do you have a question you'd like her to answer in "Ask the Expert"? Send it to [email protected]

Career Development