At the end of every Proust Survey is the question, how would you like to die? We are supposed to say something like, ‘in my sleep, after a perfect meal.’ A typical wag will answer, ‘not much.’
In looking at the question, how would you like to be fired, you could similarly focus on the word like and say, ‘not much,’ but your eye might also travel to the word, how.
I have had to think about the word how quite often in my career. It doesn’t fill me with pride to say that I’ve sometimes had the job of telling an employee they are out of a job, but there it is.
Not many people are truly fired these days. Gross misconduct with immediate dismissal is still rare, but redundancies are common. In theory, all redundancies are made on purely economic grounds, but they are also used to get rid of under performers and that is surely the worst kept secret in the modern workplace.
Whatever the reason behind the departure, it is still a horrible thing to be the messenger. I do not like surprising people. I know that if the meeting is called while cutbacks are already occurring, and the gap between the invitation and the meeting is too long, then the person will suffer some level of anxiety. They will inevitably lose sleep. They may panic. This state of mind is not safe for them and it is likely to have a knock-on effect on their home life. There is no good way to do this, but I would argue that quicker is kinder.
And many bosses, the same ones that tell me they desperately need to get rid of a person, cannot hold the tough conversations to save themselves. They will procrastinate forever. They can go into hiding on the day. I have seen this. I have dealt with managers who want to be as far away as possible, but will ring the person after the meeting, pretending they knew nothing about it. They will say things like ‘I just heard the news. What have they done to you? Is there anything I can do to help?’ If challenged on this gutlessness, they will respond, ‘I suppose I didn’t want to be the bad guy.’ But they were prepared to be a coward. The employee is not fooled.
Texting or emailing the message will – deservedly – land an employer in all kinds of hot water. And yet I note another case of this recently in Australia. Someone thought this was an acceptable way to tell an employee they no longer had a job. A former colleague recently became aware he’d been made redundant during a teleconference. He is a superb manager. Their loss I say, but what an appalling way to realise your livelihood is about to go. I started my very first office job hearing the murmured story about a senior executive who had just seen his job advertised in the Saturday paper, under the company logo. There was a lasting contempt for the way this has been handled.
It is awful to be the firing manager. (Worse for those on the receiving end of course). And it is so traumatic for those who have rarely had to fire someone, that they will generally recall a lot of detail about the experience. For those of us in HR roles, it becomes part of the job. And there’s the danger. We must tread carefully, oh so carefully, and avoid becoming too hardened or complacent, because this moment is often a watershed in the life of the receiver. It scores highly on any stress test and shock may be encountered. The person may be embarrassed, angry, tearful or even relieved. Relationships and daily structures have just been severed. Concerns about finances may trigger genuine panic. After they leave the office, they are going to need time to pick themselves up and move on. Some people do this well. Some do not.
It’s been my experience that many people know the day is coming, long before it arrives. For any employee in a company that is not doing well, it’s good to have a Plan B that involves getting a CV ready or thinking about some skills updating or networking. Who else is in the market looking for their expertise?
There are also silver linings and many people find the breaks between jobs to be a positive experience. Last year I met a former colleague for lunch. I’d had to tell him his employment was over six months before, but we had stayed in touch. He looked fantastic. He had been exercising for the first time in years and had lost a lot of weight. He looked so much better and more importantly, he was happy.
Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice wrote a beautiful song called Tell Me on a Sunday Please. The singer knows she is about to be dumped by her boyfriend and pleads; I’d like to choose how I hear the news. Take me to a park that’s covered with trees. Tell me on a Sunday – please.
So how would you like to be fired, dismissed, sacked or given the chop? Because if I had the controlling vote, I’d like to be told on a Sunday, preferably by some courier carrying a box of chocolates attached to the letter. If I had to be in the office, I’d like to open a large magnum of champers, which is against office regulations, and light up a giant cake with candles, also against workplace regulations. Then I’d have a bonfire of all my printed papers, by now infuriating the office fire wardens and ride off on my Vespa toward the nearest travel agent.
Or as the song continues, Find a circus with a flying Trapeze. Tell me on a Sunday please.