Q:  I have served as the CEO of a small association for the last 10 years. During this time a number of factors, including the recession, changes in programs dictated by the strategic plan, and advances in technology, have driven several reorganizations. This has resulted in having to transition some individuals out of the organization. I have made every effort to help employees that were affected by these changes, and have remained friendly with most of the former staff.

In recent weeks it has come to my attention that whenever I am out of town former employees are coming to the office to see colleagues, and that this has been happening routinely for years.  While I think it’s great that staff have stayed in touch and supportive of one another, it’s disconcerting to me that the former staff are dropping by only when I’m away from the office and that the current staff consistently “fail to mention” the visits. Rather, I learn of them second or third hand; or, as in the most recent incident when a question arose and a staff member replied, “Well, when Jane stopped by to visit while you were gone, she said….”

I’m trying to be understanding and supportive, yet there is part of me that feels uncomfortable with people stopping by like this. I’m also a little uncomfortable with current employees being less than forthcoming about it.

 

A: Your discomfort is understandable. You’ve bent over backwards to help the former employees transition into other work, you’ve remained friendly with them, and they come back only when you’re away. Neither they, nor your current staff have volunteered that this is happening, let alone on a regular basis. On some level you must be wondering about the nature of the visits given that everyone is being so secretive.

My guess is that there is little going on here besides the fact that these are social calls occurring during work hours and people are feeling a little guilty about that. I say this because you’ve learned that the visits have been going on for years and you have not noticed any reduction in work levels or respect – at least you haven’t mentioned any.

Still, I would definitely raise this issue with your staff in a meeting. I would share that you are happy that they have formed such tight bonds with one another that they want to maintain these bonds even after someone leaves. That sort of friendship makes for the strong working relationships that has sustained your organization through all the turbulence. However, even more essential to strong working relationships is trust, and right now you have lost some of that trust because, while you seriously don’t believe anything untoward is going on, you do have to wonder why these visits only occur while you are away and you are never told about them.

It might not hurt to remind the staff that they have a duty of loyalty to the organization that prohibits them talking about the organization’s activities with people who no longer work there, even though these individuals are probably naturally and sincerely interested. Your staff wouldn’t even have to say anything. Their old colleagues might easily see something they shouldn’t sitting out on a desk, or overhear confidential information being discussed in an adjoining cubicle.

I might ask the staff whether they ever considered any potential liability issues that could arise with visitors in the building, if something should happen one day and these visitors had no legitimate reason for being there. You would be in an untenable position – responsible for the situation despite having no prior knowledge of the visitors’ presence.

I might suggest that since you have always treasured the relationship with these people as well, that perhaps every quarter (you set the interval that seems most appropriate to you), that there be an organization-wide event to which all former employees are invited.  Maybe it’s a birthday party for everyone who has had a birthday since the last get-together, a holiday party or even a happy hour, if that isn’t inconsistent with your mission.

You can remind them that you are not trying to dictate who they can see, or when. You are just asking that if one or a couple of them wish to go to lunch with one or a couple of the former employees, that they meet at the door.

I would be very clear that while they couldn’t have known your feelings on this issue before, they do now. If you find that someone does not adhere to these requests in the future, you will take quick and decisive action because this would be a betrayal of your trust. I would then codify this in a written policy.

Finally, I would call the former employees individually and raise this with them as well. I might start off with expressing regret that you have missed the opportunity to see them when they’ve stopped by in the past and that you are glad to know they formed such tight bonds while they were a part of your organization. If you decide to host get-togethers, this would be a good time to let them know that they are invited and you sincerely hope that they will be able to join you. I would go on to say that for many reasons, you now have a new policy that closes off your building to visitors – even those who used to work there – and you trust that they will understand.

All this stated firmly, with warmth and some humor, should be accepted without too much grumbling. If you find it’s not, you have a much larger problem than ex-employees visiting while you are away.