I’ve participated in quite a few terminations over the years, and it never ceased to amaze me how often the terminated employee seemed to be truly surprised they’re losing their job. And while “seeing it coming” doesn’t always give you the opportunity to stop it from happening, a warning can provide the opportunity to plan countermoves. Even if the situation is hopeless there is always resume preparation, an external job search, or a complete career change.
Being surprised should never happen. If you’re surprised, you probably weren’t paying close enough attention to the signals and properly reading the tea leaves.
The only reason I can imagine a person being legitimately surprised in a termination is if they are falsely accused of some misdeed. In my experience, that just doesn’t occur.
The primary “illegitimate” reason employees are surprised is that they aren’t “tuned in” to their work environment and what is currently going on in bother the political and performance categories of the business.
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Why are you letting me go?
Employees are typically terminated for any one of a number of reasons, and while this list isn’t exhaustive, it captures the vast majority of cases I’ve observed.
- The business is in decline and they are released to save money.
- Their performance isn’t up to snuff (according to management).
- They break a policy or rule in an egregious fashion.
- They repeatedly violate less important rules or policies.
- Continued employment creates a liability for the company.
- They are generating an unacceptable amount of conflict with others.
As you probably realize, items 3-6 above are all risky actions in which the employee voluntarily engages. If you embezzle from the company (item 3), systematically arrive at work late (item 4), get involved in an outside lawsuit that puts the company at risk (item 5), or waste enormous amounts of time fighting with your boss or peers (item 6), you shouldn’t be surprised when you end up taking that long walk down the hall to HR.
The best way to avoid termination for these causes (most of which I consider to be unusual) is to simply avoid getting involved in them. When you choose to ignore this advice, you can expect that the ax might fall at any moment – often as soon as the situation is discovered.
It wasn’t my fault
Losing a job because of economic cutbacks is what seems to surprise people most often. But why should it?
There are two things you can do that can reduce your chances of being surprised under such circumstances – Make yourself difficult to replace, and pay attention to how the company is performing.
Becoming irreplaceable is difficult. Companies understand that irreplaceable employees have leverage and they work to prevent this from happening. Even with this caveat however, I’ve witnessed many instances where it has become difficult to replace a particular employee and that difficulty protected the individual during a downturn. Here are some things that make you more difficult to replace:
- Having unique skills (Example: The only licensed engineer at the firm.)
- Performing complicated jobs that no one else knows (Example: The only employee that knows complex export documentation requirements.)
- A willingness to do a job no one else wants to do (Example: Traveling to an undesirable location.)
- Unique and valuable (normally external) relationships (Example: Deep contacts in supplier industry for the firm’s critical raw material.)
- Being assigned mission critical tasks (Example: A senior financial person.)
- Knowing where the bodies are buried (Example: A senior HR person.)
These characteristics will all increase the difficulty in replacing you in your job. If you are motivated by job security, and you have the opportunity to add any of these characteristics to your role, they will only help to protect you in the case of a layoff.
If you see the company making specific moves to reduce their dependence on you, then you should be suspicious that a change is coming and it won’t work in your favor.
Economic-related terminations (no-fault lay-offs) normally only happen when the company’s fortunes are in decline. If you pay attention to how the company is doing, you should be able to see them coming.
I’m surprised at how many employees seem to take little or no interest in the company’s financial performance. It isn’t difficult or complicated – if profits are increasing and sales are growing, things are fine. If either of these conditions are not true, you can anticipate reorganizations and restructurings may be just around the corner.
While knowing that it’s coming may not save your job, it does afford you time to develop alternatives – increasing your savings, conducting a covert job search, working outside contacts, etc.
I didn’t realize things were so bad
Because most managers/supervisors are a bit cowardly when it comes to performance reviews, indicators of “poor performance” are sometimes a little subtle.
Here are some of the telltale signs that your job might be in danger…
- Your supervisor delays giving you your performance review (probably because it will be difficult)
- Your review has at least one highly critical rating in it, particularly if this is the first time the criticism has appeared. Forget about all the praise in the review – focus on the negatives.
- Your supervisor is avoiding or “shunning” you. This is a sign they may be screwing up their courage to take you out.
- Your treatment in meetings and discussions becomes increasingly harsh. This is may be an unconscious way of urging you to quit on your own. It might even be an intentional strategy.
- Peers avoid you. Sometimes peers can see a termination coming sooner than the target and they avoid any potential guilt-by-association.
- Responsibilities are withdrawn from you and given to others.
- New people appear in the organization that can understudy you or replace you with little disruption. This usually only occurs when you are in a critical role.
In my experience, when these signs start showing up, there is little you can do to stop the eventual termination – the decision has essentially already been made, even if it is still informal. A huge change in performance could possibly still save you. Moving to another job within the company could prevent your firing.
But both those circumstances are quite unusual.
I attended a recruiting seminar once where the presenter referenced research showing the average delay between realizing an employee needs to be terminated and the actual job action is nine months. While he didn’t quote the source, the interval sounds about right to me. During that intervening nine months, the manager is validating their belief and planning for the aftermath of the termination. That’s why late reforms rarely revers such decisions – by the time they are undertaken things are already written in stone.
Once again, knowing it is coming might not save you, but it at least puts you in the driver’s seat of your own future. You can confront, make changes, plan career alternatives, or even go after the supervisor that seems to have it in for you.
If you pay attention to a few signals and avoid provocative behaviors, you should have plenty of warning that your job is in jeopardy. In some cases, this may allow you the opportunity to save the job, while in others it might only afford you the opportunity to plan around the inevitable end.
In either case, knowledge is power in your hands – power to act and determine your own destiny. 33.4
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Non-Fiction: NAVIGATING CORPORATE POLITICS
To the left is the cover for HEIR APPARENT. Someone is killing corporate leaders in Kansas City. But who? The police and FBI pursue a "serial killer" theory, leaving Joel Smith and Evangelina Sikes to examine other motives. As the pair zero in on the perpetrator, they put their own lives at risk. There are multiple suspects and enough clues for the reader to identify the killer in this classic whodunnit set in a corporate crucible.
My novels are based on extensions of 27 years of personal experience as a senior manager in public corporations.