A reader writes:

I work for a small nonprofit that underwent a leadership transition earlier this year. A few months later, I’m the only surviving member of the staff, all of whom had long tenures with the organization (up to 35 years) and stellar service records. I won’t go into details about all of those terminations/departures—suffice it to say that a lot of them were pretty shady, and I’ve been edging toward the exit for awhile.

This week I gave my boss notice that I’m starting a new position next month. Right after that meeting, I responded to emails from two long-time volunteers about the volunteer schedule for next year, and let them know that while I was leaving, the organization valued their service and that when my successor was chosen, they would be in touch with them about the schedule.

This morning, my boss called a meeting to tell me that she had “heard from a few people” that I disclosed I was leaving, and dressed me down about making the organization look unstable within the community. I was then instructed not to tell anyone else, including members of our board, about my departure because it might “mar my contributions” if “word gets around town.”

Now I’m not sure what I should have done and should do now. Was what I told the volunteers really inappropriate? Would it have somehow made the organization seem more stable if I had let them wait to learn I was gone until they tried to contact me again and received an undeliverable notice? Can she ask me to basically cut off contact with my professional acquaintances this way? Is it really appropriate to keep *the board of directors* in the dark about all this? And am I right to read the bit about “marring my contributions” as a veiled threat to badmouth me within the community if I tell anyone else? That was how it felt in the moment, so I stammered my way out of the meeting and am now sitting here worried that if I, say, update my LinkedIn, she’s going to find out and retaliate against me. And what would be my recourse if she did?

Nah, that’s not reasonable.

It’s one thing for a manager to say, “Can you give us a few days to figure out the plan before you announce it to others?” That can be reasonable, particularly in a situation where hearing someone is leaving is likely to generate lots of anxious questions about how their work will be covered, or what it means for the X project, or so forth.

But a few days only. After that you need to be free to talk about your plans with others and to start working on transition items (which is much harder if no one knows you’re leaving).

It sounds like your boss is worried that with all the turnover the organization has had in the last few months, when people hear that you’re leaving too, they’re going to think the organization is fully crumbling or something horrible is happening. So she wants to control the message … which in this case seems to mean completely hiding the news.

It’s obviously not a good long-term plan, because you’ll be gone in a few weeks and then what? She might just be stalling for time … but who knows what story she might come up with to explain your departure, and who knows how that story will reflect on you.

I don’t know if the “it might mar your contributions” bit was a threat. It sounds like a threat! Or it could just be a desperate statement without any real intent behind it. Interpret it through the lens of what you know about your boss and how she operates.

As for the board of directors … in a lot of nonprofits the staff doesn’t have much contact with the board, but I’m guessing that you do since you’re bringing it up. Either way, “do not tell the board this thing that affects the operations of the organization” isn’t okay as a general rule (and the board likely wouldn’t be thrilled if they found out she told you that).

I’d say this to your boss: “I can wait a few days so you have time to figure out the messaging about how my work will be covered, but I can’t not tell professional contacts that I’m moving on, especially since I’ll be updating my LinkedIn and my broader network.”

If your boss is normally a reasonable person aside from this (it sounds like she’s not, but just in case) you could add, “I of course don’t want to do anything to hurt the organization. I do need to tell people I’m moving on — that’s not something we can hide — but maybe there’s a way I could frame it that will address your concerns.” (You don’t need to offer this! But if your boss is otherwise sensible and not vindictive, this might get you closer to the outcome you want.)

As for potential retaliation … she could decide to tell people something false about the terms of your departure (like that you were fired, or couldn’t hack it, or who knows what). She could badmouth your work in general — although when there’s already a mass exodus going on, that kind of thing doesn’t usually carry a lot of weight. She could also have you leave earlier than you’d planned, meaning you could potentially lose access to the contact info for people you wanted to inform — so gather that now and make sure you have it at home with you (assuming that doesn’t violate any rules of your workplace). If she does misrepresent things, it’ll help to have contact info for people so you can set the record straight … and potentially warn the board that she’s defaming you and they have a legal obligation to stop her.

But again, how much you should worry depends on what you know of your boss in general. For some bosses, asserting yourself and pointing out that you do need to inform people would be enough to get them to back off. For others, you’d want to have a lawyer in the wings. So pay attention to what you’ve seen of her up to this point.

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