Helping Employees Who Unexpectedly Leave

My volatile manager was screaming at me, fists pounding on the desk. After sobbing in my office, I left ill for the day, coat and purse in hand. However, my Doctor had a different idea, and put me on stress leave. I left everything behind.

At one point, I needed a phone number, so I asked a colleague to retrieve my Rolodex containing personal and professional contacts I had built up over my Public Relations career.

Astonishingly, my manager refused to hand it over until she rifled through all my business cards, including friends, Brazilian wax experts, and medical specialists, deciding which ones were “their” property.

It’s just stuff, but leaving personal items in my office gave this supervisor yet another chance to bully and humiliate me. Yet I didn’t realize I wouldn’t be back.

Every day, employees unexpectedly go on sick leave, get fired, laid off, and sometimes, die.

These workplace traumas often leave employees and companies wondering what to do with that person’s workspace. What is a respectful amount of time to leave it? Who packs it up, and during or after work hours?

That’s where a Professional Organizer can help. We are trained to be impartial, non judgmental, and efficient. We work with an HR professional to reset the office.

Or, where allowed, directly with an employee who can rely on us to confidentially help sort through what’s personal, what is company property, and provide guidance on what can be tossed. We pack really, really fast too.

Organizers can also work with the employee via phone or Skype when he or she doesn’t want to go into the office. We even carry out the boxes of collected items and bring to clients, out from under the watchful eye of former colleagues, saving them from a possible uncomfortable conversation.

Before you are faced with such a scenario, I suggest thinking about, and acting on, what’s important. This could be regularly updating contacts off the company phone, keeping personal bills or pay stubs in a locked part of your desk, and not getting into the habit of keeping personal documents on the company computer.

When your job is terminated, Human Resources (HR) usually has security walk you out, or stand there while you take your most important belongings. The rest of your personal items are sent home after someone sorts through your office, cubicle, or locker.

This is the physical side of what happens when an employee abruptly leaves an office. But what about the emotional? This source of help is a mental health expert.

“Employees generally want to get out fast,” according to Sam Miller, a workplace trauma counsellor in Toronto who talks with dismissed workers. Aligned with the Employee Assistance Program, Sam is also an independent consultant.

He reveals some employees need to work through guilt or shame, or are re-traumatized if it’s happened before. “I am there for support and to address specific concerns,” he says. “I make sure the affected employee is managing and is okay. Confidentiality and discretion are key because I work for them (the employee).”

What is fascinating for him, Sam says, are those people who don’t run out. Some employees are relieved, others are angry, or cannot process what is happening, while others need to talk it out.

Sam says it’s a good idea to speak to him, take time to absorb their new reality, and when they are ready, make a plan. Those first few days, especially if they feel angry, is not a good time to make decisions, he says. Instead, step back and evaluate the situation first. Employees can always reach out for further assistance to a counsellor.

“Having a well thought out and organized plan helps mitigate risks to mental health in the workplace, allowing employees to cope and ultimately, heal,” Sam says.

And that manager? I moved to a different branch of the company, and met the best boss I ever had.