One reader writes:

After 10 years of working together, my line manager – our operations manager Jessica – was dismissed from our company a few months ago. There seemed to be some behind-the-scenes issues between her and our CEO Bruce (he alluded to me and others in conversations, I think to create transparency) that led to this result.

Bruce had the replacement for Jessica less than a week after Jessica was laid off (she was laid off on a Tuesday, my new manager Elizabeth started the following Monday), which leads me to believe that change was in the works for well over a month (due to the resignation Elizabeth should have done at her previous job).

I don’t know if I can share how suddenly Jessica’s resignation was. It was a surprise for everyone, but especially for Lila, who is one of Jessica’s best friends and works as a manager. When Elizabeth started, one of the top things to do was meet with the managers and department heads to get a feel for the organization … but the meeting with Lila was after work and after all I heard about it, it was not treated politely or professionally (I work outside of normal business hours and the doors to my office and conference room were both open). Elizabeth and Bruce were pretty aggressive towards Lila. Fortunately, another manager, Mandy, was also in the meeting and was able to give Lila a little support and a chance to take a deep breath. The meeting eventually seemed to calm down (and I closed my door when I realized what I was hearing) and I put this down to the fact that Elizabeth was being prepared by others (possibly Bruce) to be defensive due to Lila’s close friendship with Jessica To take position.

This is my riddle. Last night I went to our shared pantry to get some notepads. There weren’t any fresh new ones, but I was looking for scratch paper for myself and didn’t mind using up the scraps of someone else’s old notebook. I grabbed some leftovers and went back to my desk. While quickly searching through the notepads to clean up loose parts, I noticed that they had written down on the second page. I flipped the page up, intending to remove and destroy any notes on it.

The notes I saw were Elizabeth’s notes from (or possibly after) that first meeting with Lila. I’m sure I’m not going to shock you by telling you the notes (at first glance, realizing what they were) didn’t flatter Lila in the least. Some were about job performance, others were very rough (and inaccurate) assessments of Lila’s personality and what Elizabeth didn’t like about her. There was also a page after these notes with some written down information from a high-level meeting Elizabeth attended (again, at a glance).

I don’t know what to do now. Should I pretend I never saw the notes, shred them up, and shut up? Should I bring Elizabeth the notepad and explain how I got it so she can destroy the notes herself? I could even play it more than, “Weird thing, I got that old notepad out of the pantry and it looks like you still have some notes here. Did you want to check it out to see if you still need it? ”… But of course she will want to know if I saw what the notes were about. It is very fortunate that I was the one who came across this information as I work at manager level (with appropriate clearance and responsibility) and have previously done HR-like work for the company.

I suppose my biggest problem here is the question, if Elizabeth took such notes on Lila, what kind of notes did she take on me after we first met? I can’t ask her that, but I’m afraid she’ll distrust me when she brings Elizabeth the Lila Notes up.

To be perfectly clear, I have no intention of telling Lila or anyone else about what I saw. Elizabeth and Lila seem to have balanced each other out a bit and their relationship may not be the best in the world, but it’s certainly better than it was when Elizabeth started out. I don’t want to cause trouble or drama, I just want a good working relationship with my new boss.

First things first: the notebook. The easiest thing to do is to put it back on Elizabeth’s desk without comment when she’s not there. Hopefully, since you will be working outside of normal business hours, this will be possible without any problems. You don’t have to take responsibility for this anymore – you don’t have to shred the notes, talk to her about it, or even draw her attention to it. Just put it back on your desk, done. (If you find it back in the pantry afterwards, I would take that as a sign that she has no interest in keeping the notes and either ignore his presence in the closet or just throw these pages away without comment.)

If you’re wondering what notes Elizabeth made about you after your first meeting … On the one hand, you’re probably right that Bruce (or others) prepared Elizabeth to perceive Lila in a certain way, and it’s understandable that she should be her new one boss believes when he told her they had a problem to solve. But you can believe your new employer in terms of HR dynamics and still not wholeheartedly embrace their struggles as your own if you haven’t had a chance to win the country for yourself.

When you combine what you learned from that meeting with the rough assessments of Lila’s personality in the notebook … I can see why you are worried! If I were you, I’d worry that Elizabeth would jump to conclusions, find it surprisingly easy to harshly criticize people she knows little about, and be kind of an idiot … not to mention her utter indiscretion with a notebook of seditious Impressions about an employee member.

However, if I were looking for a reason to defend Elizabeth I would say that sometimes people see things through the lens they got, especially when they are brand new. If Bruce had told her that Lila was a problem – and if Bruce himself was very critical of Lila and had previously liked and respected Elizabeth Bruce – she might just have seen what he had shown her. With Elizabeth and Lila now appearing to have a better relationship, it is possible that once Elizabeth had time to gather her own impressions, she found that her initial attitude was wrong. That’s still a problem – at least it would show she’s too ready to jump to conclusions and be biased by other people – but it’s not all as alarming.

Ultimately, this is all speculation. What matters most is what you are To see Elizabeth in your own dealings with her. Do you see any signs that she is generally fair, reasonable, and forming an informed opinion? Or does she seem petty, overly influenced by superiors, quick without judging all the facts, unfair and / or kind of an idiot?

Of course, even if everything seems fine so far, you need to be careful based on what you’ve heard and seen. But you also don’t have all of the context, and you won’t necessarily benefit from drawing hard and fast conclusions from something that you only see / hear parts of. Be careful and keep this somewhere in your head … but put most of the weight on what you see of the way she works now that she blends in with her job.

(Also, there’s a completely separate question here about what happened to Jessica and why Lila is apparently being punished for being the close friend of someone who’s been fired. It’s not the focus of your letter, but I wonder if there could have been legitimate issues with Lila after her friend was fired, or whether she was just focusing on defending Bruce about how the layoff went or what.)

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