Firing can backfire

Frederik Alpstedt, Playing with fire
Frederik Alpstedt, Playing with fire

Firing someone can be a difficult and painful experience.  It doesn’t matter which level of seniority one is in the organization, everyone struggles to perform this action. Needless to emphasize that the biggest struggle is, and remain, of course, with the one who gets the bad news.

Already in 1969, Elisabeth Kübler-Ross proposed the five stages of normal grief that one may go by as: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and finally acceptance. We all experience losses in our unique ways, but undeniably, these are tough experiences to go through. In the list of life events, which bring tremendous grief with it, including death, divorce and illness, the loss of a job stands out as a significant one.

I ask myself when it comes to the loss of a job, why are the messengers of the ‘bad news’ most always ill prepared to handle this process more professionally and compassionately? You hear of all sort of bizarre stories. Some people learn of it by not being allowed to enter the office building. Others are caught by surprise with a sudden invitation for a meeting with a manager, where there is also HR present, to hear for the first time about a long list of reasons for the dismissal, which may not withstand very long for its lack of factual evidence.

Let’s be objective and real here. It should be fine to accept that one can lose a job, being it for non-performance from oneself, or the company’s bad performance, which may lead to a restructuring process. The idea of a job for life or company for life, is over since a long time ago. But still, no one seems to be ever prepared to accept the bad news.

At times of Olympic games, one can clearly see who doesn’t perform as good as those who can make it to the finals, and eventually get the gold, silver and bronze medals. No matter how much and how hard you trained, there will always be someone who will do better than you individually, or than your company. Corporate athletes are no exception to this rule.

Why is so difficult to accept it then? In many situations, a badly handled process turns so unfair and disrespectful, that it drives people angry and makes them take it personally. Rational thinking is taken over by emotions.

People need and like to be part of groups. They have a sense of belonging and easily adopt a company identity. And companies create and reinforce this identity with values, mission, beliefs and a cultural setting. The longer people stay, the stronger this identity becomes. The trade off is loyalty and high performance.

It is common to see people talking about their companies as a family, and unconsciously replacing a life style and personal identity by a job title, social activities at work, benefits and perks that come with it. The sad part is that by the time they lose their jobs, they may feel like they lost their identity, and not only a job. It can be devastating.

Managers often will rather avoid or mess up the moment of firing someone. If there is no conflict involved, they don’t want to be judged as a bad person, who creates discomfort and harm another person’s well-being. They also don’t want to expose their shortcomings as leaders, as very often happens, when someone under-performs but received no timely heads up, guidance, evaluations nor coaching by their leaders. And there is also the classical situation, when they just feel threatened by the talents of their employee and decide to get rid of the ‘obstacle’.

There are many underlying reasons to explain why the messenger and the receiver fear this conversation, and most often live it, as a traumatic experience.

The lesson here is to apply simplicity and common sense.
For the receiver: If you know you didn’t make it good enough to get the medals, learn the lesson and move on. And if the company is not doing well and had to lose some of his family members, including you, yes, it is hurts, but it happens. If things turn sour and unfair, don’t ever lose sight of who you are and where you come from. This is just a job. Get a good lawyer, and don’t take it personally. As Ivana Trump once said, ‘don’t get mad, get everything.’
For the messenger: No fear. You are not a pleaser nor an executioner. Be decisive, fair, authentic and don’t forget your homework. Prepare to treat others, as you would like to be treated. You are paid for that too. You will certainly be forever remembered for how you behaved.
Tomorrow you may face this person again as a client or employer. It is your choice to build your legacy, by managing yours, and your company reputation professionally.

Everybody loses. It costs a lot of money to companies, and hurts reputations of so called ‘attractive employers and magnets for talent’. It adds an additional human cost to the people involved, a cost which cannot be measured nor paid for through a severance package.

It happens to you too. So next time, think about that more carefully.

Grant Potter, Boomerang practice
Grant Potter, Boomerang practice

Photo Credit: Frederik Alpstedt, Playing with Fire, 24.09.2013 –

Photo credit: Grant Potter, Boomerang practice, 17.08. 2013 –

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Sharing sights & insights captured with diverse angles. Ex-corporate, now my own boss. Cycling, hiking, cooking, reading, yoga, writing and photography, are no longer only hobbies listed on my resume. It's what I do when I want.

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