The so-called ‘business decision’ to exit employees from your organization could be a positive experience for both you and the employee. With some thoughtful attention to what people need when they are being released from a familiar role in a company they have committed to. Instead, the vast majority of terminations are a cavalier process. That which lacks human connection and allows leaders to avoid accountability for their hiring decisions—and their management responsibilities. Listen in as Debra and Lisa explore why the way terminations are carried out has a profoundly negative impact on the individual, the organizational culture and broader societal attitudes about work and trust in corporations. The good news is that we can do better! In this, lisa and Debra offer their perspectives on how organizations can terminate employees in a way that aligns with their values.
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How We’re Getting It Wrong
lisa, how are you doing?
I’m good, Debra. How are you doing?
I’m doing well. We are going to talk about one of my favorite things to talk about. That is how organizations terminate employees. It’s an area where I have a lot of experience and a lot to say. We’re going to set the scene a little bit for how this is typically done. I’ll set the scene for that. A lot of people will be very familiar because it has either happened to them or a colleague, or a family member. Most people will be familiar. We’re going to talk about some of the fallout and the downside to that. We will talk a little bit about whether there are some opportunities here to do things a little differently.
Before we get into that, the reason why I say it’s something that I know a lot about is because I’ve had over twenty years in career transition consulting. What that means is for anybody who’s worked in Corporate America or elsewhere in the world but, generally speaking, in corporations. They go through restructuring, a downsizing, or a one-off situation where an employee’s being let go. It’s not for cause. I’ll make that distinction. That’s a whole other thing. It is for a whole variety of reasons potentially that they will call in support from a career transition person. That’s where someone like me would come into that scenario.
The employee would have the meeting and be told this news, and then I come in after the fact. The organization that I’ve worked for would then support that individual with a career transition program that the organization is providing. That’s one of the pluses that there is career transition support provided. Although I have seen a lot of change in terms of the support that’s provided over the years. Shall I kick us off? Is there anything you want to say?
Absolutely. The only thing I would add is my experience is different. I don’t work in that field. I don’t know if I have the pleasure of saying this or if I should be wearing the cone of shame, but I have been fired 5 times in my career, or 6 if you counted the job when I was 14. I was fired from a Dairy Queen kind of place. My brother and I joke about this because I’ve been fired one more time than he has. This might be running in the family, but I do have some experience on the receiving side of this.
You, as well as lots of people we know.
I’m happy to share a brief anecdote when we start talking about the impact on individuals when this happens in the way you’re about to describe.
I have a lot to say about that, too. Let me set the scene a little bit from two perspectives. It’s important so that our audience understands what we’re talking about. I’m talking about mostly professionals. I’m talking about people who work in corporate environments. It could be large financial services, organizations, pharma, retail, corporate real estate, software, and tech. There is a whole variety of industries. There may be some junior-level people, middle management professionals, engineers, and CPAs. You name it. I’m going to leave out the C-Suite from this conversation because sometimes, that maybe is a little bit different, but I’m going to say up to the VP level.
I am not talking about unionized environments necessarily. I’m not talking about layoffs that happen where unions are involved. I’m not necessarily talking about manufacturing, with the exception of leadership roles in manufacturing. I’m not talking about people who are released for cause. For cause is a legal definition that we sometimes use that says, “The person was caught stealing,” or something nefarious happened.
Although, I have been involved in situations where there was some really bad behavior going on and the person’s being released. That has not necessarily been addressed, nor is it necessarily expressed clearly as the reason for that. They’re still not released for cause, necessarily. It’s still a situation where they’re paid severance and so forth to leave the organization. That issue is not necessarily addressed.
This is an important distinction to make. I’m not necessarily talking about people who are released from the organization because of performance. What has become the norm, and I would say roughly steadily on the increase since about the mid-‘70s, is that organizations use restructuring and downsizing, whether it’s in one area of the business or department more broadly across the organization. It could be a pocket in one city. It could be globally.
They use this as a business strategy to be responsive to market conditions. It’s a very short-term reaction. It’s not always a more long-term strategic approach to take, but organizations use this because they want more flexibility in their workforce. I can say that sometimes, people are released because of performance issues. I will also say that, and this is an important caveat, that’s not always communicated to the employee. It’s not necessarily well-documented.
I’m going to wager a guess because there is not really good data on this. Based on my experience, roughly half the time there’s a performance issue, it’s not necessarily communicated. I’ll even get information from HR to say that the most recent performance review on file is solid. There is not a track record there of poor performance. That means this problem is potentially being passed on because it’s never fully addressed and the person doesn’t get any feedback. That’s what we’re talking about when I’m talking about employees who are terminated.
The other thing I want to talk about is setting the scene for how this is done. This will be very familiar to a lot of people. You’ve seen this before, too. I’m talking about the situation where you go to work one day, a meeting pops into your calendar, and you go down. Your antenna might start to go up. A lot of people will say to me, “When I got this meeting, I started to think, “Am I getting fired today?” Immediately, that fight or flight response will start in that person.
Sometimes, they’re taken by surprise more when they walk into the room. Usually, there is a person sitting from HR and the person’s leader in most cases. It can be a very brief meeting. The manager will deliver something that has been pre-scripted usually. That might be a couple of sentences. Often, I’ve seen the leader leave in less than a minute. In other words, they deliver the message, “Today is your last day. The business decision has been made to terminate your employment.” A reason may or may not be given. The reason might be a business decision. The leader will then leave the room and the person will be left with HR to talk a bit about their leaving package and a bit about their exit that day and how to handle that.
Someone like me might be waiting in the wings if a career transition is offered. I will come in to meet with that person and talk with them privately after the meeting with HR. It’s always a scenario where you’re not sure what to expect when you walk into the room. Usually, what happens is the person is not allowed to return to their desk. That’s the most common scenario.
Somebody else will go get their immediate belongings. It might be another individual in HR. It might be the person’s leader. Sometimes, they refer to this person as a runner who will go get them if the person has a purse, a cell phone, and personal belongings of theirs. It could be their boots, coat, or lunch. They then bring it to the room. If there’s anything else, then the organization will say, “We’ll arrange another time,” or, “We will arrange to have it shipped to you.” The career transition person might often be asked to walk that person out the door after the meeting. Sometimes, it’s a little less stringent than that and the person will leave on their own. Either way, they’re, they’re leaving that day.
The one last thing I will say about this is this is often an individual who has been with the organization for a while. Maybe they’ve been there 10, 15, or 20 years. I had an employee who I met who’d been with the organization for twenty years. It was not a performance issue. This was because we’ve made some business decisions to make some changes in restructuring.
I can think of a couple of individuals. One guy sticks out in my mind. He had been with the organization for a very long time. He had a good track record of performance. He said to me, “I did not see my career with this organization ending this way.” At the end of that long tenure, feeling as though you’ve put in good work and discretionary effort and have given that organization not just the bare minimum but put extra into it that this is the way it ends. This is the departure. There’s no celebration. There’s no retirement party. There’s nothing like that that’s in recognition of that. It’s that type of meeting and leaving on the same day. I’ve set the scene, lisa. When I position it that way, it sounds a little bit crazy that we do it this way.
I would amp up a little bit.
What do you have to say?
I was going into more feeling than thinking as I was listening to you because I remembered one of my moments of being released to the marketplace, otherwise known as having my butt fired. It was done over the phone. Two days later, a taxi pulled up to my house with a box of my stuff. I had a lot of books at work. I had to send a list by memory of which books were mine. It was not a lengthy relationship but over a three-year relationship with the employer. It felt like a bad breakup. It didn’t need to be that way.
I’ve been let go from organizations sometimes for restructuring. Sometimes, it was because I didn’t fit with where the organization was going in the future. One time, I was let go because I questioned a decision by a senior leader. I did it in a very tactful way, but it was considered to have been insubordination. I am grateful that every time I was released to the marketplace, my employers did the right thing and gave me a modest severance. I was in professional roles.
I know what the psychological experience is of it. In one of the cases, it took me about six months to get over the feelings of hurt and disappointment. In fact, when you were telling that last anecdote, I was recalling a very good friend of mine. It was a similar story to what you said. After 23 years, there was a “business decision” and she and another person were let go. There was no contact after the layoff. It was as if she did not exist and was sucked into the void that nothing she had done in that organization was rewarded or recognized. It was painful for me to watch that. It was painful for her to watch that. This was an organization that I’d worked in before, so I knew the place. I thought they could have done way better by her.
I do want to start by saying thank you for all those details and for painting us a picture of what it’s like. I’ve had the HR manager after the boss has said, “You’re not working here anymore.” The HR manager’s like, “So,” and then pulls out an envelope. They’re like, “Let’s go through the details of your termination.” The last time it happened, I was like, “I’ll read it on my own and I’ll let you know once I talk to my lawyer if it’s good.” After you’ve been through this a few times, you don’t have that huge explosion of bewilderment. You’re like, “I’ve been through this before. I know how it works.” In fact, I still have the name of my last employment lawyer on my phone, so all good.
I’m not belittling people. I’m only saying it this way because the first time, it was an absolute shock. The second time was an absolute shock. The third time was an absolute shock. After that, I would get hired again somewhere or I would find work. To anyone reading this and feeling that your name is mud in this town, that’s not true. You have skills, abilities, talents, and a history that many employers want. I want to add that.
I do want to say something. When you talk to Debra, it’s a business decision. I get my back up a little bit when I hear this lack of human connection in that language. They’re like, “It’s business. It’s a business decision.” To me, that’s the coward’s escape clause because of a couple of reasons. The person who’s saying it is not someone who’s losing their job. They would probably feel differently and wouldn’t say that if they were. It’s usually said by someone who’s acting in a manner that advantages them and disadvantages you.
It’s this weird logic because nothing is just business. Businesses are run by people. Decisions are made by people. The singular of people is person. It is personal. When people are let go, it’s personal. I’m not saying that there’s something bad about you and you’re a bad person. What I’m talking about is that organizations will do their best to woo you and bring you into the recruitment phase. You’re welcomed in and onboarded and an asset to the organization and then you’re treated like a disposable wipe when your time comes to be laid off. I want to say I feel very strongly about this that every business decision is personal because it affects people.
There is another part of this, and I thought this was interesting. There are a lot of layoffs going on in the world of tech, like Amazon, Google, and Meta. I was following up, knowing that Google had laid off thousands of people. It was done in an email-ish kind of way. I know we’ve heard this about Twitter, where people try to log on and it is like, “You can’t get into your email anymore. You can’t access any of your files.” You find out later in the day through an email or when somebody who’s also been laid off calls you and tells you you’ve been laid off. There’s a lot of this bad inhumane behavior.
What I thought was interesting in the Google case was that the employees wrote a letter back to the CEO because of how the firing was done. Part of the way it was done was impersonal, but it didn’t take into account that some of the people being fired were Ukrainians and were in the United States on work visas. Without a work visa, they would be returning to a war zone. This wasn’t taken into account.
The other thing that wasn’t taken into account was the hundreds of job postings that Google had listed for people who might have been able to fill these roles. No effort was made to match the talents of people who were being laid off to the roles that were available. There were people being laid off while they were on maternity leave or while they were caring for a dying relative. To me, this is the stuff I find gets under my skin.
Companies are very quick to make a ton of profits off of people’s discretionary effort, but at the slightest whiff of recession or being responsive to market conditions, they’re not acting strategically. This isn’t part of a plan that includes, “The market might dip for a little while, but we believe in our people because they’ve made us into what we are.” It is like, “Jettison the extra cargo,” without a thought to the human lives that are behind it. I get that businesses have to make tough decisions. To me, it’s the lack of humanity that we bring, particularly to layoffs and firings, that points to potentially a better way of doing things. Thanks for asking for my thoughts, Debra, as I did have a few thoughts.
As always. To your point about it being personal, it always feels personal. Business decisions might need to be made. It’s how it’s done. It’s how it’s communicated. We could argue over the business logic, whether long-term or short-term, without even going into, “Is it a sound financial decision?” There are studies that say not necessarily. There’s a huge potential downside to that. Stock prices tend to dip. One study showed that there’s a drop in profits for up to three years, sometimes in organizations after a restructure or a layoff. There is a 20% decline in performance with the remaining employees in the organization. There is a potential real cost and downside to this, too.
When we talk about long-term or short-term, I have, in the past few years, seen this happen a few times where the individual who’s being released as part of a restructure, not performance-related, has been with the organization for less than a year. If I recall correctly, the record is four months from my personal experience. It is meeting someone who has only been on the job for four months.
What that means is that the organization went through a hiring and selection process, which takes time and has a cost associated with that. They hired the individual, onboarded them, started investing in their training development, got them up to speed and, within 4 months to 1 year, decided that the organization is going in a different direction and released that person. This is someone who may have resigned in another perfectly good job that they might have been in for potentially a long period of time. When I talk about that shortsightedness, I do see things like this happening.
With the Twitter example, Twitter’s been interesting since Elon Musk took over. I’m certainly not necessarily following super closely, but I am on Twitter and do see a few things. I did see one exchange there where a former employee of Twitter was talking about their experience. It was where they spent about a week trying to confirm that they had indeed been fired.
This is an extreme example. I’m not trying to suggest that this is the norm necessarily. Are we moving towards this kind of thing becoming the norm? Maybe. I hope not. In this particular case, the person went to log in one morning and couldn’t log in but did not receive any communication. He was trying to confirm with their HR representative and their leader, “Is this what’s happening?” and couldn’t get confirmation about it. He was left in this limbo.
I’m going to call this a workplace practice. This is how we let people go in organizations, not with cause but for a variety of reasons. It is not necessarily performance-related. I think of the effect in three ways. Maybe we can dive into these each a little bit. The first is the impact on the individual. One could argue, “Why does the business care about that? The individual’s gone. Why do we care about how it’s landing with the individual or the impact?”
Quite frankly, the organization doesn’t know the impact on the individual. Someone like me might know it, but that feedback doesn’t go back to the organization. My conversations with that individual moving forward are confidential, with rare exceptions if the person’s going to do harm to themselves, a property, or something like that. I treat those conversations as confidential, so the organization doesn’t necessarily know the full impact. However, these individuals go from company to company. They take those experiences with them when they walk into other organizations. Over time, it is contributing to a culture that has certain beliefs and attitudes about work and about corporations in general. We’ll get to that a bit later.
The second way that the impact needs to be thought of is the impact on the people left in the organization. We call them sometimes survivors. What does it mean for those people? What does it mean for the culture of the organization? Lastly, what is the broader impact of the fact that we have a couple of decades where this has become more common? Younger people have seen this happen to their parents. They’re developing attitudes about work and corporations. They’re coming into the workforce. People have seen this happen to people they care about, to coworkers. What does this mean about how we feel about the world of work?
We’ve certainly seen a lot of fallout since the pandemic of quiet quitting. I’m going to call it a movement. It’s fair to say there’s an anti-work movement, especially amongst Gen Z, the great resignation, and whatever other terms we can come up with. Those are the three areas that are important to think about, going from the more micro view in terms of the individual to a macro view about how we feel about our world of work in general. Let’s start with the individual. Do you have any thoughts on that?
Yeah. I’ll speak from personal experience. Every time that I was laid off, it was once bitten, twice shy. I brought less of myself into future roles. In spite of organizations saying, “We want your great ideas. We’re looking for innovation,” and I can be very passionate about the work I do, I would tone that down. That got toned down because I realized it’s not true.
You can have a great boss, but the organization is full of people with complex personalities and traumas from childhood. Let’s face it. When you walk into work, you’re not this clean slate of productivity that’s there to make money for shareholders or make the world a better place. People bring a lot of stuff into the workplace. You learn over time that you don’t do that as much. That’s one thing that employers lose going forward.
The other thing I would say about that is that it is connected to also how you talk about work if you’re surrounded by family. If you’re talking negatively about your work experiences, it does jade the people around you. You and I are in the business of helping people who are either released from an organization or people who are unhappy at work. Work causes a lot of distress in people’s lives, and it doesn’t need to. A lot of us are carrying these painful and ashamed stories of how we were treated in the workplace. That has an impact not only on the individual and the people who love them but the broader piece, which we’ll talk about in a second, about society.
The third part of what you carry with you into your next job is you might decide to be a bit of a bare minimum Monday person. You might keep your energy for those people who have side hustles or hobbies. With the discretionary effort that you might have been willing to give to an organization, you’re starting to learn that you could be ejected by the whim of someone’s finger on a lever. You might have a tendency to not give what you have to give. That’s a loss for organizations.
The word that comes to mind for me is distrust. We carry that. There is a general distrust of organizations and corporations. You’re right. When you go in with, “We’re an employer who does this and that,” there’s often a sense of, “You do.” It’s a, “Show me. I’ll believe it when I see it,” kind of thing. We do see that sense of distrust.
On an individual level, I’ll say that I’ve seen everything from absolute delight. I’ve walked into a room where someone’s like, “I got my package. I am out of here.” Do you know that commercial? There are a lot of commercials where the person’s dancing out the door and they’ve got a boom box on their shoulder. I have seen that. It’s not that common, but it certainly does happen.
That’s not to say there isn’t still some distrust that’s carried forward. It’s that they’ve been hanging in there. Maybe they’ve survived a few downsizings and restructurings. They’ve seen people exit. They’ve been waiting for their turn. The writing’s been on the wall for a period of time. They’ve been waiting for the other shoe to drop and have mentally prepared themselves.
If they’ve been there a long time, they might know, “I’ve got a fairly robust package coming.” They’ve gotten to that point already where they’re seeing there’s opportunity potentially in this and there’s a light at the end of the tunnel. They’re already ready to move on. There’s that. There’s everything from that to complete traumatization and despair.
I had a gentleman. When I spoke to him for the first time, it had been about four months since he had left the organization. He shared with me that he still had not told his teenage son, who lives with him. That is an indication of the amount of shame that sometimes people can carry. Related to this, there is a real grief process. With any significant loss, we go through a grieving process. Job loss is the same to varying degrees, but it is a loss.With any significant loss, we go through a grieving process. Job loss is the same to varying degrees, but it is a loss. Click To Tweet
I’ve also seen a lot of people struggle to come up with a reason why. Sometimes, they make up a lot of reasons. Your mind starts going all over the place. You’re like, “Maybe it was this. Maybe it was the time I was five minutes late two years ago. Maybe it was the time I had to leave early to pick up my kid.” Your brain starts going to places because that’s what our human brain does. It is looking for reasons. There’s no reason. They don’t get answers to these questions. It’s tormenting to the individual.
Our brains, based on neuroscience, do not like uncertainty. To be in the job market is a time of great uncertainty. We don’t know what’s going to come next. Is it going to take 1 month, 6 months, or 1 year? I say to everybody, “Plan on 4 months to 9 months to potentially 1 year.” The more senior you go, the more specialized the type of work that you’re targeting. It takes a long time. The job process is slow. There’s a great deal of uncertainty. There are so many other factors that come into it.
I’m often struck by how little the leader knows about the individual when I go into a meeting like this. For example, the leader might not know much about the person’s personal life at all. They might not have details that might be helpful when preparing for a meeting like this. I met an individual who was blindsided and shocked and was in the middle of a very difficult separation, which the employer did not know about. He was under a restraining order. There were a lot of things going on for this individual. It was not released for performance or for cause.
It’s compounded by things that are going on in individuals’ lives that make this an incredibly stressful event for people. You already spoke to the attitude shift. It is what we take with us to that next employer, the attitudes we share, and how we feel about the employer. Sometimes, people share this on social media or share it within their networks. That’s how I would describe it from the individual level. Let’s talk a bit about what’s happening with the survivors and the culture within the organization.
I want to make one last point on the previous one, which is when you talked about grieving. I know for me and for other people I’ve spoken with, and sometimes this affects men more than women, your sense of identity takes a real blow. That is a painful part of the grieving process because you think of yourself as someone, whether it’s the role you played or that you’re a breadwinner, or the profession that you’re in. That often takes a long time to undo the hurt that comes with a loss not just of status but of identity.
This whole language about victims and survivors, as far as I’m concerned, everyone’s a victim of layoffs, even the people who remain. Part of it is the psychological shock with relationships you’ve spent many years developing, teams you’ve worked with, and people you like. A lot of people become friends outside of work. People meet their spouses. There’s a lot of social connection and a lot of social needs. There’s the distress of losing people from a social and emotional. There’s then the big concern about who’s going to do the work since those people aren’t there. They’re not being replaced. They’re sucked into the giant black hole of the unknown.Everyone's a victim of layoffs, even the people who remain. Click To Tweet
The third is, “What’s going to happen to me? Is this the first round?” It’s very difficult for a lot of people. In the past, it was only maybe word of mouth. When people are treated poorly in layoffs, both the “survivors” and “victims” have means like going on to Glassdoor or Indeed to voice what they’ve been through. Organizations and brands can take a real hit as well by not handling these things well.
I’ve been in the room when a mass layoff was announced. This, “For those of you who are leaving, you know, you’re getting a package,” they’re squared away. For the people who are staying, there’s nothing for them. There’s no staying package. It is like, “If you’re having problems, we’ve got an EAP program for you.” That’s on you to deal with the fact that you’re having any distress.
I was told in one of these situations how lucky I was that in spite of 1/3 of the organization being let go, I had been chosen to stay. It was as if I was supposed to fall on my knees in gratitude in perpetuity. I was in shock that this was happening. What does it mean for people who leave? What does it mean for people who stay? Both of them go through a period of loss and shock. There’s a lot of distress all around.
I would agree with that and with your point on sharing via social media. Some people won’t relate as much to this because, depending on your age, you might not be as familiar. Although, I have a couple of examples. I do follow a handle on Twitter that is called @FuckYouIQuit. It shares stories and examples. They will black out or get rid of anything personal or identifying features there. They are sharing examples of communication between employees and bosses. People are sharing their stories about how they’re treated in organizations. On Reddit, there is a strong anti-work movement there and components. These things are being shared.
In terms of the survivors, we do see this phenomenon of it’s only a matter of time. The organization will shed employees at certain periods either at certain times of the year or at a certain cadence. Many people are thinking, “It’s a matter of time before I could be impacted by this. This is how I’m going to be treated.” When they see their colleagues walking out the door after a solid performance and giving what they had to give to the organization, that doesn’t feel good. Nobody wants to be treated that way. It impacts how they feel about their employer and about work in general.
Let’s talk about big-picture here. This has been going on for a long time and it has become more common. I’m going to relate this to some of the Gallup research I was looking at around well-being. It’s fair to say that this is a workplace practice that can have an impact on how employees feel about their employer and their sense of, “Does the employer care about me as an individual? Do they care about people?”
This was released not long ago. We’re in March 2023. This is Gallup research. Only 24% of employees say they believe their employer cares about their well-being. There’s a caveat to this, but it’s down from 49% at the height of the pandemic. Between the years of 2011 and 2019, we saw a very gradual increase in how employees felt. Did they strongly agree with the statement that their employer cares about their overall well-being? It was low. It was below 25%, but it was gradually creeping up.
At the height of the pandemic, it spiked from about 20% to almost 50%. Since that time, it has crashed again and had come back down to where it is at 24%. That’s not a lot of people reporting that they feel their employer cares about their well-being. This speaks to this idea about general attitudes about work.
I hear that. There’s a little part of me that has this tiny little scintilla of optimism around this. If it went from 25% up to 50% of people thinking, “My employer cares about me,” leaders have been doing something during that period of time to demonstrate care, attentiveness, and respect. It’s not that they can’t do it or that they’re unable to do it. Over the course of the pandemic, there was a reason to show care and empathy. It’s like, “The pandemic is over-ish. Now, it’s back to the hard-nosed everyone-is-a-cog-in-the-machine.” That’s disappointing.
People talk about, “What’s the business case for diversity? What’s the business case for employee wellness?” The business case for running a profitable organization is happy, engaged employees. We know this. We keep knowing it. There are more studies that show this. I don’t know what is preventing organizations from putting people in leadership positions whose job is to be thoughtful, caring, and show empathy when people are going through a life crisis. These are the people who are making your profits. These are the people who are serving your clients. The better I am treated, the more I am willing and able to go the extra mile. It’s a good business decision to treat people well. It’s not a fluffy.
I’ll interject with one piece that I mentioned before. It’s related. This speaks to what is the leader’s role in all of this. I painted this picture of what their role is in that termination meeting. Keep in mind that this might be somebody who the employee has reported to for a long period of time and thought they had a good relationship with. Leaders do this because they’re instructed by HR to do it this way. They’ve been trained to do it this way. The career transition industry, quite frankly, has trained people to do it this way.
We could get into legal precedents. I don’t know that we’ll have time to dive into that, but I have talked to employment lawyers about this in the past. There’s not necessarily a strong legal precedent to do it specifically this way. The thing that concerns me is the lack of accountability for the leader. Somebody made a hiring decision. Somebody hired this individual. This individual went through a hiring and selection process. The leader made a decision. The leader has been performance managing this individual. If something’s not working out or a “business decision” is being made, I get this sense of the leader wanting to wash their hands a bit. They want to be in and out.
The system is allowing them to do it that way. There’s no accountability necessarily if they made a bad hiring decision, for example, or they weren’t effective as the leader. They don’t have to have those tough conversations. They can sit in that meeting for 30 seconds to 1 minute and then walk out the door. It’s not to say it’s not hard on people. I’ve talked to many leaders who agonize over this. I don’t mean to diminish that. What I am noticing is that there is this lack of accountability and this lowering of expectations on leaders to have difficult conversations and to take ownership of these decisions, which is a hard thing to do. If you’re in a people leadership role, that’s part of the job.
I worked in an organization. I recall this one leader who insisted on doing all the reference checks themselves and doing all the hiring. When it came to letting people go, they said, “It’s HR’s job. I’ve moved on.” You want a slight bump in salary. You want the title on your business card and your email signature. You’ve signed up to do some hard things to do them tactfully and with respect, frankly.
I have this growing awareness that we’ve segmented society that these are the areas in which we show compassion, love, and attentiveness. It could be parenting, family, or people who are ill. We’re paying for causes or there’s an earthquake in the country or a flood. That’s where we bring our love and compassion. In the workplace, this is where we get to do the cowardly thing and treat people in a way that we would never want to be treated ourselves. That’s not based on what we know about how people feel and how people work.
The vast majority of people, and I would put myself in this group, who’ve been laid off, it’s not even that they were laid off. The issue is how it was done. We can do a lot better on how we treat people. It’s upsetting to lose your job. You’ve got bills to pay. You might have a family to support. You might have some financial commitments. You’re getting yourself out of debt for an education you paid a lot of money for.
It is not pleasant to lose your source of income. In addition to that, to be treated as though you’re a thief, that there is something morally wrong with you, or that you’re somehow defective, to me, that has to change. I was interested when I did see that letter from the Google employees that 1,400 people have signed it saying, “We get that this had to be done for the purposes of profitability, but you could have been a lot more humane and less of a jerk.” The word was not jerk. It was something that had a slightly more adult thought to it.
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I’m trying to swear without swearing. You get what I’m saying. We’ve got such a short time on this planet. Can we find ways to be a little kinder and more tactful and have some dignity around people? We make mistakes sometimes earlier in our careers. Things come out of our mouths that are maybe not optimized for thoughtfulness. Organizations have been doing this a lot. HR has existed for a long time. We know how to do this better. It’s time to stop saying, “We have to walk the person out of the building for legal reasons.” You don’t.
Let’s talk about that. Let’s talk about how we might be able to do it better. One thing that comes to mind for me is I don’t feel as though the employee is usually put at the center of this process. It’s the organization and the leader. I’ve seen situations where employees are asked to travel long distances and drive. Maybe they’ve been working from home or they’re a person who maybe worked in a smaller regional office, but the boss is somewhere else. They drive into the office for an hour or two hours to receive this message and then drive back home.
I’ve seen people get this message in hotel rooms because there was some reason why they had to be done that way. It could also be they’re at a conference or something’s happening. I’ve even seen people fly into a head office, a location, or something like that. Most of the logic that goes into these decisions is what’s convenient for the leader.
To our point about accountability, this is not a time when the leader’s convenience and comfort should be at the center of this process. The leader has signed on for some challenging stuff because they’re the ones who are selected to be the leader. It should be the employee’s convenience and comfort that should be at the center of thinking about how we’re going to manage this. It is because of that that we can have some flexibility here. On a case-by-case basis, we can make some thoughtful decisions about how we want to exit someone from an organization that doesn’t always have to look exactly the same. I get that we think about being consistent, but there are ways to do this. Do you have any thoughts on that?
Yeah. One of the things that I’ve often been upset to witness is that you’ve been let go. There is this negotiation around your package. It’s suddenly penny-pinching on behalf of the employer for often amounts that are less than a few thousand dollars. Don’t make it worse. No employee is trying to do a money grab at the end when they’re negotiating a severance. People want what’s fair. Organizations, especially those that make billions of dollars, and maybe those aren’t fields that you and I have worked in, who are laying off people can afford to be slightly more than less generous and a little more thoughtful. On a very practical level, that’s one thing organizations can do.No employee is trying to do a money grab at the end when they're negotiating a severance. People want what's fair. Click To Tweet
Leaders are under a lot of pressure. I never want to give the impression. I can get on a good soapbox rant about poor leadership practices. The vast majority of leaders that I know and that I’ve worked with are under tremendous amounts of pressure. These are difficult things for them to do to have these conversations, but they’re not set up for success.
There are many times in which the leader comes in with a pre-scripted thing. They don’t want to have that pre-scripted conversation. They want to have an empathetic, connected conversation with the person. I’m not saying that you go in with your tail between your legs like, “I’m so sorry. I have to let you go.” That’s not a good idea. It’s person-to-person. Any conversation worth having is worth having well, especially if it means the loss for one of the parties in the conversation. Organizations can start thinking a lot about how to train, if you want to use training, and how to ensure that their leaders can act as humanely as possible in very tough situations. This comes down to who you want to be as an individual leader, but who you want to be as an organization.
Where I get a little or a lot miffed is when organizations are quick to splash their values on the wall. Respect, integrity, courage, and inclusiveness are common ones. When it comes right down to it, they don’t live those values in how they let people go. There’s a line I love, which is, “How you do anything is how you do everything.” You can be a 90% fantastic employer and do great things, but if your termination procedures are that 10% of suck, that’s who you are. That says a lot about what you value in terms of people. Some alignment around organizational values and termination practices would be welcome.
How do you want to exit people from your organization that is in alignment with your values? That’s a great question for an organization and organizational leaders to ask themselves and to rethink this practice, which I realize is not a small undertaking. This is something that we’ve come to feel is the way things are done. I realize that I am going out there on a limb a little bit. I’m asking organizations to stretch their thinking in this area quite a bit.
In fact, it is done differently. It is done differently in other parts of the world. It’s done differently in parts of Europe, not for legal reasons because they don’t want to walk people who have been there for fifteen years at the door. It’s a business. It’s a business decision. It’s not because of the individual. They don’t want to treat people that way. This can happen, to your point, over a couple of meetings. In fact, we go back to what we know about brain science. There are certainty, autonomy, and choices. Where can we offer the employee some choice in this? It’s not a choice whether to stay or go, but in terms of how this exit unfolds, how they want to leave, and how they want it communicated. Do they want to be part of that?
Especially when we’re talking about long-term employees with a solid performance records, do we really want to be walking these people out the door? Can this not be a couple of conversations with the leader or HR? Maybe it is present for some or all of that. Maybe it is, “Have a meeting with your leader. This is what’s happening. Go home and think about it. How do you want to handle this? I want to work with you to talk and come up with a strategy to manage your exit from this organization. It should be in a way that will be respectful to you, recognize your contributions, and takes into account the things that are important to you and matter to you as you leave this organization.”
I had this little moment of remembering that in one of the jobs that I was laid off from, that message didn’t go out. People were coming to my office and I wasn’t there anymore. People were like, “Where’s lisa?” People were like, “We don’t know. She hasn’t been here for a few days.” Not even the dignity to the people remaining to let them know. That said everything to me. That further enshrined my not-so-great feelings about that previous employer. There are some things that could be done a lot better. I agree with you on that. When they’re telling people they’re going to be let go or they’re going to go postal, to use that word, or they’re going to jump on the photocopier, or they’re going to take an ax to the ergonomic chair, people don’t do that.
There’s not a lot of precedent for that. Handle one-off cases as you need to. We’ve gotten to a place where we assume the absolute worst or the absolute most extreme and treat everybody accordingly. There are ways to involve the person in that process. We’re not offering a choice of, “You can stay or go.” It’s about, “Let’s talk about the changes that are happening in this organization and how it’s impacting you and your role.”
The decision is made. If the decision’s final, the decision’s final, but let’s be inclusive. Let’s treat people with respect. Put more accountability on leaders to be involved in this process and be accountable for the people they’ve hired, been managing, or maybe have inherited in some cases. They don’t maybe always make that selection.If the decision's final, the decision's final, but let's be inclusive. Let's treat people with respect. Click To Tweet
There’s a lot of opportunity here for improvement. There are a lot of people out there who can consult with your organization on this. There are a lot of professionals in that space, me being one of them and you being another one. They can help your organization to do this in a way that is more reflective of the organization you want to be, the reputation that you want to have in the marketplace, and also to help you be more known as an employer of choice.
That’s a wrap for this episode. I want to thank our audience. Please send us your comments on our website at WorkRevolutionPodcast.com. We always love to hear from you. We look forward to speaking to you again soon. Bye for now.
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