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I'm an at-will employee. I have good reviews going back 2 years.

Lately I feel a strange atmosphere

  • boss asking co-workers questions he used to ask me
  • using them to assign tasks to me and approve my work
  • he recently gave clear instructions on protocol for coordinating, getting buy-in from 3 of my peers. Today 2 of them asked me directly to do something that goes against his instruction.

I have a disability - he knows I can't navigate grey areas like the above 3 points. It feels like he's trying to rile me up to make me leave (I don't want to)

If he wants me gone, why would he not just fire me? Why the games?

He's given me consistently good reviews (so far), as recently as December '22; might this and my disability be reasons he feels firing is a bad idea? He's the CxO - he can do what he wants.

  • Is at-will more complicated than it sounds?
  • If my state is at-will, why are there lawsuits in cases where people get fired?
  • might the apparent reluctance to just axe me be indication that at-will firing would make things difficult?

Previous related question: Is my boss trying to make me resign? - while I've solved that problem, the strangeness continues.


I put my head down and just got along to get along. Over the next 3 months things worsened (despite my best efforts). One night 3 weeks ago I drafted an email to HR about a worsening abusive situation that I needed help with. I decided to sleep on it before sending.

The very next morning - in a meeting scheduled under false pretenses - I was told my position was eliminated. I found out later that another position was eliminated - one of my peers. I'm 62, he's 60 (probably a "decoration" so I wouldn't be able to say I was singled out)

I talked with the leading local labor attorney; his summary was

  1. discrimination would be hard to prove without hard evidence (he gave some examples of recent successful cases (anonymized).

  2. his firm only takes discrimination cases on contingency and that as a result of lack of evidence he would not take it.

The employer would destroy me and put me in the poor-house if I had to pay for my own legal costs, so I have to just walk away.

I will probably file a case with the EEOC once I have found new employment (I've heard there are thousands of companies that welcome 62 y.o. people with open arms . . .. . if only)

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    From what you're saying, this doesn't sound like he's setting you up; it sounds like you need to improve your coping skills.
    – keshlam
    May 5, 2023 at 4:07
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    wow - you must be from HR - amirite?
    – user192127
    May 5, 2023 at 4:10
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    Not remotely close to being right. I'm an engineer with 40 years of dealing with my own self-doubts in the workplace. What you've described sounds like you are facing a challenge, but not one that is aimed at you, just one that is inherent in professional growth. Accepting that is the first step toward finding ways to handle it.
    – keshlam
    May 5, 2023 at 5:56
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    You're asking why. The correct question is if (from what you have said, no) or why you believe this (which we can't answer for you). You might want to bring this up with whoever is treating your condition; if not under treatment it may be time to consider that assistance. (I resisted for decades, preferring to rely on my own coping skills; eventually I hit a hole I couldn't climb out of on my own and accepted that I'd been doing it the hard way all those years.)
    – keshlam
    May 5, 2023 at 13:35
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    "It feels like he's trying", "probably". Stop right here. You are assuming stuff. Get your feelings out of the way and observe the situation with concrete hard evidences. Aug 25, 2023 at 9:13

5 Answers 5

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"While I've solved that problem"

Okay - let me stop you there. Have you?

Consider this a relationship where one of you cheated, you might get over the initial act, but have you fully reformed your trust in that person? Like your last question, I feel there's a lot we don't know and there's a lot you don't know (even if you were able to tell us) - so I'm going on instinct.

I think your Boss is still 'upset' at what happened (whether it's because he's still getting heat from it or otherwise) and so he's trying to CHA - Cover His Ass. It may also be that the incident has made him realize he hasn't been leveraging the Team, he's been leveraging you and now he's concerned about that. Remember with managers - nothing is a problem until it's a problem. If Dave always handles it and Dave is always available, it's only a problem when Dave suddenly has a car accident and is off work for a month.

There's 3 probable reasons why he wouldn't fire you:

  1. It looks bad to fire competent disabled people. Even at-will states are subject to perception. The wrong set of facts in the wrong local newspaper that gets picked up by the wrong national outlet is a whole load of pain and anguish he doesn't want to deal with and so it's a risk to fire you. One that he's not prepared to take.

  2. You are still good at your job. Getting back to my relationship analogy (probably not the best given your condition, but hey - I'm sticking with it) - Sometimes, I annoy my Wife - sometimes I really annoy my Wife, we are still married. Why? Because I'm good at all the other husbandly stuff. He might still have issues with you and might be making sure there isn't such a 'Single point of Failure' or he might simply be cooling off - but he doesn't want to fire you because you still do what he needs you to do.

  3. He's worried about the damage you could do if you leave. I'm not talking about malicious damage, but if you are high-up in the organization and have worked on a lot of things, there's potentially a lot of company specific knowledge that is wrapped up in your head that if he loses access to (or gets taken to a competitor) he's worried about - and firing you would lose that.

What I think has happened - is that you've had an event in your business relationship (it happens), that event has resulted in changes. The changes make you uncomfortable - but are a 'new normal'.

My question to you would be: In the new way of working, what specifically don't you like? And then, once you've formulated and articulated what that is, write it down or ask your boss for a meeting to discuss that thing.

There's nothing wrong with saying "Boss, I'm uncomfortable with my peers asking me to do tasks that you've specifically told me not to handle" - and then working through a set of procedures so that everyone is able to get back to a harmonious business relationship.

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  • Thanks for the detailed answer - the analogy clarifies. I think the CxO is bothered by his exposure resulting from over-reliance on me, as you suggested. I mentoring up-and-coming engineers about 25% of the time - it's broadly visible. >> Okay - let me stop you there. Have you? :) the technical problem, yes, my tech team is A+, and I already publicly credited them. Proof of of the tech-fix is clear in the visualization of Gb of detailed performance data. I agree that solution alone isn't enough. There's work for several of us to do
    – user192127
    May 5, 2023 at 4:40
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    If you think “the problem” is “the technical problem” that’s why you’re in this fix.
    – mxyzplk
    May 6, 2023 at 3:37
  • @mxyzplk - exactly my thoughts. May 6, 2023 at 3:40
  • I don't consider the technical problem all that needs solving. The tech problem is just the irritant that aggravated this unnecessarily into a storm - which is why I said "I agree that solution alone isn't enough. There's work for several of us to do "
    – user192127
    May 31, 2023 at 2:19
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It feels like he's trying to rile me up to make me leave (I don't want to)

It may feel like this to you, but it's likely not the case.

To me it looks like your boss is dealing with a tricky political situation and they need you to stay out of it. You profess to have "very little social skills" which is exactly what's needed right now. Your boss is probably using your peers to keep an eye on you so you don't do (inadvertently) more harm than good. You may have great skills for this job but navigating complicated interdepartmental conflicts is clearly not one of them.

All of that could be perfectly normal, so I would encourage to just sit it out for a while.

is at-will more complicated than it sounds?

Your state publishes their laws including a detailed definition of what at-will means in your state. Read them. But yes, at-will does NOT mean you can fire everyone at any point in time. There are always exemptions. People in protected classes, whistle blowing, constructive dismissal, violation of public policy, retaliation, sexual harassment etc.

If my state is at-will, why are there lawsuits in cases where people get fired?

You can sue if you feel you are one of the exceptions listed above.

might the apparent reluctance to just axe me be indication that at-will firing would make things difficult?

Even if a company CAN legally fire you, its much easier for them if you resign: No severance, maybe less unemployment payments, no risk of a wrongful termination lawsuit, no bad press, etc.

Firing is always more difficult then a resignation. You MAY be in a protected class. Legally you are disabled if a medical professional certifies it. That certification should also include all accommodations your employer needs to provide. You may be protected through age (which in some states starts at early as 40).

But chances are, no one wants to fire you, they just want to manage the current situation without you screwing it up.

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There doesn't seem to be much to substantiate the idea that the boss wants you gone.

You say (in your question and in the linked question) that this boss has given you outstanding reviews for 2 years, with the latest as recently as December-22.

Unless there has been a clear bust-up (and it's not clear there has been), why would things have suddenly changed?

In your linked question, it sounds more like there is conflict amongst higher-ups, and that you're engaging in behaviour that could be regarded as interference.

Without your behaviour necessarily being unproductive for the organisation as a whole, this could concern your boss for two reasons.

First reason, there may be clear demarcations of area of control and responsibility at your boss's level, and you're interfering in the area of another boss, without that boss having the right to consult with you or allocate your time.

In other words, you seemingly waltz in after things have gone wrong to make blame clear, but you aren't there beforehand to make sure that things stay on track in the first place.

Other bosses may be implicitly posing the question to your boss, that he either keeps you within his own lane, or he shares control of your time and talent so that if things go wrong in future you carry responsibility, and if you make things go right then they go right for everybody (i.e. for all the bosses involved).

Second reason, whilst your performance may not be in question, your boss may have other people on your team who are not as competent, and when you undermine other bosses by pointing out all the faults with things under their area of responsibility, they respond by doing the same to your boss, pointing out all the errors his staff (your team, but not you) have made.

What both bosses may decide is that they want a less critical atmosphere - less dirty washing hung out - and an acceptance of the work done by staff who might not all be of your competence and might require more than one go at the task. In other words, let things be fixed at a slower pace, by those who are actually responsible for that area.

No matter how good you are, you can't run the whole company yourself, and a way has to be found to make effective use of those with more ordinary talents.

It's possible that your boss has attempted to tell you this, but due to him lacking the necessary words, and/or you lacking the necessary common sense to intuit the point, the issue remains outstanding and your boss is crudely trying to pull the choke chain without being able to convey exactly the system of reasoning behind it.

What is nevertheless clear, is that he's said no more interference with other teams for now, and at the very least let him have a chance to have discussions with other bosses before you blunderbuss in putting the IT configurations right but putting the social relationships or political arrangements at the company all wrong.

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  • thanks for the insights. "you seemingly waltz in ..... but you aren't there beforehand to make sure ...stay on track ....." In this case, there was egregious over-reliance on me to carry it across the finish line in the first place. An earlier responder suggested maybe the issues was over-reliance on me followed by regret. Now that the dust has settled, it's clear this was the issue. Several people have been told to get involved, stay involved, and help.
    – user192127
    May 31, 2023 at 2:12
  • @user192127, if you've been told to get involved, that's very different from being told not to get involved. As I say, the question may never have been about whether you were useful - only about how they manage a scarce resource like yourself.
    – Steve
    May 31, 2023 at 4:53
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There's a simple reason for this, in addition to what is written in the other answers.

The Americans with Disabilities Act makes it illegal to terminate an employee solely due to their disability, even though most employees in the United States work on an “at-will” basis, which means that they can be fired for virtually any reason with no explanation.

If you are disabled within the meaning of the act then you can bring a lawsuit claiming that you were fired on account of your disability. Without good documentation by the employer you might win - and even if you didn't the company is going to be burdened with huge extra expense just defending the action.

From the company's point of view it's going to be much better if they can persuade you to quit.

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    It is not true that you can always sue. Some companies have you agree in your work contract that any litigation brought against the company must go trough arbitration.
    – Neil Meyer
    May 7, 2023 at 13:22
  • @NeilMeyer - Companies have attempted and failed to have things in work contracts that were illegal. You can put anything in a contract you want, having the contract held up in a court of law, is something entirely different.
    – Donald
    May 8, 2023 at 16:19
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I will focus on just one part of the OP's question:

he recently gave clear instructions on protocol for coordinating, getting buy-in from 3 of my peers. Today 2 of them asked me directly to do something that goes against his instruction.

This is a situation I've faced myself, where I am feeling like a tennis ball caught between two racquets (how's that for a metaphor!) ....

So, when they want to do something that "goes against his instruction" this could mean a very large range of things:

  1. If it is illegal or even close to illegal, don't do what the two colleagues asked.
  2. If it is clearly against either company policy or against what 'anyone, anywhere' would do (or not do as the case may be) abide by common sense and don't do it.

There is a third possibility, more of a gray, murky area. Is this just a personal inclination of the boss that no one would obey. Is the disobedience just a matter of timing, e.g. they want to do something slightly early, or slightly later?

Probably the best thing in this third case is to just send a memo (probably email, teams chat, or maybe call a meeting and discuss verbally) outlining what the issue is and the constellation of possibilities. Whatever the format, include the boss, and both co-workers, and anyone else who has an obvious interest, though the smaller set, the better. Then see if the boss 'buys in', or else there may be a double-down not to do it (in which case, don't, of course).

Generally, obedience is good, but sometimes this is known to have limits when situations change, it's hard to know what to do.

I do feel your plight, so navigate as best you can.

Best wishes!

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