A reader writes:
I've recently started in a new role with a company I've admired for years. I'm excited about the job and before I started I felt inspired by the confidence shown in me by my new manager.
Now that I've started, I've found that the reason the big cheeses were so keen for me to start was that the previous incumbent left suddenly because he was fired. I want to make the right impression in this organization and progress, and I'd like to find out what it was that my predecessor did that warranted such extreme action so that I don't make the same mistake. At the same time, I don't want to come across as someone who is nosy, liable to make mistakes or lacking in confidence in my own ability.
What do you think?
You can absolutely ask, and it's potentially useful for you to know the story anyway, because it might give you additional insight into things you uncover as you take over the job. For instance, if it turns out that your predecessor was covering up the fact that work was going undone, this is useful for you to know because if you're, say, having trouble locating a report that he should have written, now you'll know that maybe it was never completed -- whereas otherwise you might put a lot of time into trying to find it. Or if it turns out that your predecessor had terrible relationships with other departments, it might signal that you need to put extra effort into repairing those connections.
So by all means ask. Word it like this: "Can I ask what happened with John? If you can't talk about it, I understand, but now that I'm taking over the position, I thought there might be history there that could be helpful for me to know."
Chances are that your boss will tell you.