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I work for a small privately-owned company located in Nevada. Recently, my manager was abruptly fired. In the aftermath, the company CEO began questioning me and demanding that I explain why my manager made certain decisions. He also demanded that I explain to him why my manager wasn't reporting certain information to him.

I explained to the CEO that I could not answer to my former manager's decisions because I did not make those decisions. I also explained that I had no way of knowing what information my manager was or was not reporting. This response made the CEO livid, and several days later, he attempted ask me the same things again, as if I would have some different response. I responded the same way, and the CEO suggested that by not having the answers to his questions that I was being insubordinate.

The icing on the cake is I don't even know why my manager was fired in the first place. I assume there was some sort of disagreement between him and the CEO. I don't understand why the CEO is coming after me. I hold no managerial responsibilities and it doesn't seem appropriate that he would be expecting me to answer to managerial decisions that I know nothing about. Am I missing something here? Is there any way forward if the CEO is determined to act in an unreasonable manner? If at all possible, I would like to avoid resigning, since if the company were to fire me, I might be able to make the case for receiving unemployment.

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11 Answers 11

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Seems to me like the CEO wants you to do some digging into documentation or older email threads. Ask him exactly what it is he wants from you.

Try looking at it from your CEOs point of view, he may be acting emotionally right now and simply sees you as somebody who is stonewalling him.

Perhaps try acting more proactively rather than being a passive participant - search for documentation, see if there are any email chains you have access to, find out if you can get access to pertinent email chains from others, and most importantly tell the CEO that you're doing these things to help him out.

Look at this as an opportunity to promote yourself rather than simply being a typical not-my-job type, effectively saying "urgh, the boss is being an asshole, waiting for him to fire me so I can collect unemployment lol".

The worst that can happen is that you get fired, which seems to be what you want to happen. The best case scenario is that you take over your former managers job and get a pay rise to go with it.

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    I am not sure to understand your answer. CEO has probably access to former boss emails, all documents on the entire network, etc. What information OP could have where the CEO does not have access? Jan 17 '21 at 2:12
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    @sebastien-derrico I don't know what OP knows that the CEO may not, which I also suggested in my second sentence that OP actually talks to the CEO to find out what the CEO wants from them. Jan 17 '21 at 2:28
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    Be direct and helpful like this says. It * is * his company and being g kept in the dark (by manager) and then everyone else says "we don't know a thing" must be incredibly frustrating. "I never knew anything and he never confided in me, so telling you things I don't know, is a non-starter. Sorry. That said, there could be records left, like email. Do you want me to set aside my regular work and see if there is anything? There's no guarantee but I can have a look. If so, how long for?' This also helps protect you in case later he is angry nothing turned up, or regular work got sidelined
    – Stilez
    Jan 17 '21 at 12:25
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    @jaranothing12 Who said you were responsible for your former manager's actions? Your CEO is asking you for help, you can either help him, or not. Also, comments are flagged for what exactly? Jan 17 '21 at 12:37
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    @DaveGremlin that makes no sense whatsoever. Of course you have to cover for the weaknesses of the people around you (in the same way they cover for yours). Of course you have to manage your boss' expectations. That's part of being on a team. All the answer is suggesting is that the OP exercise a little empathy and act more proactively. Jan 17 '21 at 22:32
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Two possible explanations here:

  • Your CEO is being unreasonable. He fired the manager and now he holds you responsible for everything the department did or did not do in the past.
  • Your CEO had good reasons to fire the manager, and now he is trying to reconstruct the state of the project(s) and the decisions which were made, and he does not trust anything the fired manager wrote down. You are still there, which could be an indication that he trusts you, at least a little bit.

Try to understand if it is the latter case or not. Your CEO is certainly stressed, so he might not be communicating well.

"Do you want me to summarize the information I gave to the fired manager in the past, including when he should have known what, or do you want the current state of the project as I understand it now?" Either way, put the truth in writing to the best of your ability, and indicate gaps in your knowledge.

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    For the quote part: exactly this. come forward with a proactive and helpful suggestion. Find out what he actually wants from you
    – Hobbamok
    Jan 18 '21 at 10:00
  • Note that if he's being unreasonable, there are probably reasons for him being unreasonable. He probably can't keep the department open if the person leaving can't be replaced. This means he might be unreasonable to the point of running off the department's employees. It's not a fair tactic; but, one that's been seen in many smaller companies.
    – Edwin Buck
    Jan 18 '21 at 15:21
  • @EdwinBuck, CEOs earn their money by making good leadership decisions under uncertainty and stress. So that's what I expect from them.
    – o.m.
    Jan 18 '21 at 15:35
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    @o.m. Good CEOs do that, but like all professions, there are a few good CEOs, a lot of average ones, and a few bad ones. At the end of the day, if the CEO doesn't have a position to move this person into, and the market is tight; then, the CEO will consider making this person walk without having to trigger severance benefits a "good" move, even when it's a horrible treatment of another human. You can expect otherwise; however, good CEOs don't let the profit margin slip to zero (or negative) when trying to figure out how to support employees in a department that doesn't exist anymore too.
    – Edwin Buck
    Jan 18 '21 at 15:41
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There is a huge difference between these answers to "why did the person I fired do X?"

  • I don't know, I'm not a manager, it's none of my business
  • I really don't know, I told him not to actually, but he did
  • I don't know, he never told me anything, and he didn't listen to suggestions either
  • I'm sure he had a good reason, he never made bad choices that I saw

You have given the CEO the first one. "Not my department!" "I'm not taking sides!" "There might have been a good reason, who knows?" and this has made your CEO mad. It's probably too late to fix this, since you've done it twice, but here's what I'd try. Ask for a moment with the CEO and say

I was so shocked when X was fired, although perhaps I shouldn't have been. He did a few things I didn't understand, and I just assumed he had some information or details that I didn't have. When you came and asked me about it I was scared that I would somehow be blamed for his decisions, so I clammed up. Now I realize that I'm not responsible for what he chose to do, and I might be able to help you get the projects back where they should be if I remember some aspects of what was going on then.

At this point, you pause. The CEO may dismiss you (it doesn't matter if he says "it's too late for that now" or "I am not looking for help from someone at your level" or "the matter is under control already" or whatever, they all mean that you have had your chance to help and didn't take it.) But he may ask you something, like "why did the manager do X?" that he has asked before. If so, answer as completely and truthfully as you can. If the answer is "I don't know" don't take refuge in "and why should I after all I'm not a manager." If you have a hunch or guess, you can share it as that. If you ever discussed the matter with the manager, before or after the decision, you can share the conversation; if you never did then you can say "we never discussed that decision, before or after it was made."

What you are trying for here is openness. Not protecting yourself, not leaving an impression that you're protecting the fired manager, not trying to keep them from firing you by not co-operating. Instead it's "if there is anything I know that would be helpful I'd be happy to share it" and "if I can pitch in and make things better I will" with a little "I need to be told what constitutes better" since you apparently do.

Since I don't know what the manager did, why the manager was fired, or whether there's a connection between the firing and the things the CEO is asking about, it's hard to be more specific. You may be on the way out at this point no matter what you do. But it's possible that frank and open honesty, along with an explanation for your behaviour that is not "I think the person you fired was great and shouldn't have been fired" might enable you to find a way forward in this position. (As for how to avoid resigning, just don't resign, at least not until you have another job.)

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    To add to this, any future conversations with the CEO should be in front of witnesses too. And a one witness the OP chooses, not just someone from HR. If the CEO is going to throw out accusations/abuse, this could lead to constructive dismissal.
    – Graham
    Jan 17 '21 at 22:24
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I explained to the CEO that I could not answer to my former manager's decisions because I did not make those decisions. I also explained that I had no way of knowing what information my manager was or was not reporting. This response made the CEO livid, and several days later, he attempted ask me the same things again, as if I would have some different response. I responded the same way, and the CEO suggested that by not having the answers to his questions that I was being insubordinate.

It seems to me that you did not actually help your CEO. You just told them flat out "No". That's not helping. Your CEO still needs to solve their problem. If you continue to be the person to block and deny them, you will be gone soon, too.

Your job is not to tell your boss "No" with no way forward. Even if you cannot fulfill their request, your job is to say "I'm sorry I cannot do this, but I could do this other thing instead, maybe that will help?"

So the next time your CEO asks (or maybe you do that proactively, if you like your job, since you have been asked and failed twice now) you should say "I'm sorry, I have no idea how to find out what my former boss reported to you. I was never told to keep anything secret from you, I have no indication my former boss kept anything from you at all. But I can forward you my past status reports to my boss so you can check if there is anything you need to know that my former boss failed to mention to you. If you'd like, I can prepare a summary for you". Or anything else you can think of, that would actually move the process forward.

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Unlike other answers here I'd tell you to simply stick to your current work, doing what's in your contract only... you'll soon enough be dismissed and, according to you, eligible to unemployment (since it seems that's what you're gunning for).

I will not tell you to appease your CEO.
He fired your former manager without getting all the 'i's dotted and 't's crossed. And when he figured out his mistake, instead of owning it, he throws the blame on you - you're being subordinate because what?! You don't know how to answer his questions about your previous boss's thought process?!
Is this jerk for real?!?!?!

Also, the fact that he lashes out... stress, especially for a manager, is not an excuse.
This sounds like an abusive boss waiting to erupt.
(And I'm venturing a guess here: he's the owner/founder, or one of his sons, i.e., someone that has control of the company but never had any prior managerial experience and is winging it as he goes along).

Seriously, cut down your involvement with this company and CEO to the bare minimum your contract mandates, brush up your CV, and start fishing around.
Maybe you won't even need to rely on unemployment.

Just make sure to bail ship the moment it's feasible for you (financially, socially, whatever).
This is a Titanic waiting to happen, and as you may recall, there were very few survivors to that...

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What you said to your CEO was completely reasonable; you are not in any way at fault here. He is acting in an irrational and incompetent manner.

In your situation, I would talk to my peers (other reports of ex-manager - I assume you were not the only one because that would be pretty unusual.) If he is playing the same game with them, you can stop taking this personally.

However if he is singling you out, if you can think of any possible reasons for that, you should prepare arguments against them (e.g. "I did go to lunch with ex-manager occasionally, but we only talked about sports")

If anybody on your team has more information than you, great. "CEO, I asked around and according to Joe ex-manager once said/did X"

If not: when CEO next brings it up, always use the plural in your answers. "None of us were in the confidence of ex-manager" "Ex-manager discouraged us from questioning his decisions" "Nobody on our team knew what ex-manager's reports to you contained and what he might have left out. But if you tell us which topics were missing, we will of course provide you with all information we have about them."

If he persists querying you specifically and personally: "CEO, please help me understand why you think that I of all people can answer for ex-manager." "CEO, I would have nothing to win and everything to lose by keeping secrets from you, why would I do that ?"

He will probably keep storming and ranting in the moment, but maybe it will sink in later when he is calmer.

Best of luck !

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The manager either didn't do his job, or the job's expectations based on the CEO's desires couldn't be met. You worked with your manager, so you can estimate if the manager was trying to meet expectations.

This is pretty typical CEO behavior, especially in some of the smaller (under 50 person) shops. Basically he's pressuring you, as he has no place within the company for you (now that your manager / department is closing). The idea is that he will keep making demands on you until you walk.

Yes, it is a form of bullying, but bullying with a purpose. The purpose is for you to be working elsewhere, so now that you know the name of the game; prepare for the game.

I know a small oil services firm that played the same game. I had better answers than you did; but, the CEO shifted tactics. "That won't work" was thrown at me; and, I replied "Would you like me to come up with a better plan?" The natural answer was yes; but, in reality the CEO didn't have a history of backing plans, he had a history of not funding them and then firing people for failing to achieve them.

That company is now back down to 1/3 its size when I joined, mostly due to the oil slump. It won't go away fully; but, it won't grow despite a partner wanting us to build a product with a guaranteed $1.5 million sale pending; because, the CEO wanted the partner to pay for R&D for the product (the partner was going to give us a perpetual about 15% commission, so they didn't see a reason to fund us further).

Odds are your CEO has few options on the table. The easiest option to take is to cut personnel. Stall the CEO as long as possible, but start building your exit strategy now.

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The CEO doesn't trust you. This means nobody else in the company will trust you as they will be discouraged from doing that. They will get rid of you as soon as they can. Better start getting your resume into shape and look for a new job.

If I'm you I'd probably look up your old boss's contact info and get in touch with him to find out what happened between him and the CEO but I don't think it will help your problem with the CEO.

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    Question for all of those downvoting me... have you actually been in this situation? I have.
    – HenryM
    Jan 17 '21 at 16:34
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    It's not obvious at all that your experience transfers over. From the OP's description, the CEO may trust him but feel that he's not being cooperative or trying hard enough to dig up information.
    – user14026
    Jan 17 '21 at 18:06
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    I have been in a situation similar to the OP but maybe not yours. One of the top sales exec got fired for falsifying sales records (in reality he wasn't actually the top) and top level management was furious and was trying to figure out which client we actually had. After a few days one of the devs came forward and suggested why not look at server logs to see which client are still accessing our APIs. Yes management messed up by not having better data management system. No, what that salesman did had nothing to do with that developer. But everyone was sure glad the dev volunteered to help
    – slebetman
    Jan 18 '21 at 9:52
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    If the CEO is mad, that doesn't mean he doesn't trust you. Another reason has explained why the OP's way of answering alone would be enough to make the CEO mad. Jan 18 '21 at 10:51
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    Getting in touch with the former boss to ask if he can be used as a reference is one thing. Asking why he got fired is crossing the line unless they were very close friends, in which case the OP would probably already know.
    – FreeMan
    Jan 18 '21 at 15:01
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All situation looks very fishy. Nether mind how shaky or emotional CEO is, his communications should be clear and straight forward.

IMHO, find a new job and leave as soon as you can.

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It sounds like there is some miscommunication going on, and from what you have written, it appears you two share the blame just about equally.

You obviously have no psychic powers that let you divine your former managers thoughts. But you were at least tangentially related to the decision as you know what was going on in your own area that could have effected the decision, and may have or had access to documents that your former manager used to publicly endorse the decision.

It sounds like your CEO wants you to review the process and give your opinion as to whether the decision was a valid and whether you agree with it.

You should contact your CEO and determine exactly what he wants from you, a review of the decision to see if it seems seems reasonable (not necessarily the one you or the CEO would make, but reasonable) or a recommendation as what should be done now that your former manager is gone, or even just an overview of the factors you think should relevant to making the decision.

You should approach this from a practical, concrete, perspective: what actions does the CEO want you to undertake? Find out what is wanted, see if you can’t supply it.

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It usually helps to look for the positive sides in face of a challenge. Your CEO might be looking for a new manager, and he is considering you for a promotion. He could be testing you how you handle pressure. Do you rise to the task or do you crumble and retreat? As an employee, you should have an eye to the entire business, and always ask yourself "is this good for the business?". Second, your lack of knowledge around the bigger picture on why you were doing whay you do is offputting probably. Following orders blindly without knowing why never worked out in history...

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