Wednesday, August 18, 2010

On Being Fired

Someday, on one fine day, you will be called into a room, somewhere in your office building, and somebody (you may or may not know) will say, something like this: I’m sorry, but …
(a) Your employment has been terminated or
(b) Your position, with the company, has been eliminated or
(c) This is your last day of employment with this firm or
(d) …some variation of all of the above.

The bottom line is simply this: You don’t have a job with this company anymore. This will feel, at that moment, as if you had just been hit in the head with a baseball bat (I know it did for me). Another problem is that once the announcement is made, everyone you know at work will avoid you as if you had leprosy – Termination is apparently a communicable disease (cut them some slack, they could be next).

It is said that God has 10,000 names; so I’m not surprised that the phrase “You’re Fired” can also be expressed in many ways. Given the general state of the economy (beginning in 2007), termination, unemployment and “transitional management” have become the new Buzz Words in the business lexicon. The 2009 Jason Reitman film “UP IN THE AIR” even provides a fictionalized account of the effects of what is euphemistically known as “Fiscally inspired involuntary unemployment”.

The “Termination Rational”

There are only two kinds of unemployment: voluntary and involuntary. Voluntary unemployment (also known as “$#%^ YOU - I QUIT, YOU DUMB BASTARD!”) occurs when you leave your place of employment by your own action – essentially, you fire your boss. This occurs whenever you submit your “Letter of Resignation”, and give your employer the customary “two weeks” notice, or it may be an immediate resignation due the urgent circumstances (i.e., the night that Jack Parr walked off the TONIGHT SHOW). Involuntary unemployment occurs when your boss fires you. Involuntary unemployment comes in three sub-variations: Performance, Political, and Fiscal.

Fiscally inspired involuntary unemployment occurs when the overall level of business activity of your organization drops to the point that the current staffing levels are excessive. Accordingly, in order to save the remaining available resources, and keep the company operating (until it can increase sales and economic activity) “excess capacity” must be jettisoned (in the same way that a sinking ship throws everything overboard in order to stay afloat). Under these circumstances, in is not uncommon for companies to sell excess inventory, close and consolidate offices, relocate to smaller facilities, and (naturally) terminate staff.

A STORY: My former Chairman, in his annual budget letter, once said,”We are staffed for a higher level of sales activity than we are currently achieving” (how very clever i.e., we’re not over staffed; we just have lower sales. Surprise – The business did not improve and the layoffs began six months later).

Performance inspired involuntary unemployment results from an employee failing to do his or her job by not following the prescribed duties, responsibilities, practices and procedures as defined in the stated “job description”. Other items in this category (which are usually enumerated in the Employee Manual) might be inappropriate behavior, such as: fighting, shooting, rape, theft, fraud, drunkenness, drug abuse, etc. Notably absent from this listing: Stupidity (else many managers would be “unemployed”).

Politically inspired involuntary unemployment occurs when your supervisor (or anyone in their “chain of command”) has determined to remove you from the organization – for reasons known only to themselves (and maybe God). In his treatise THE PRINCE, Machiavelli advises: “Kill the enemy, for men may recover from lessor slights”. I have known of entire units to be fired by an income supervisor, simple because he wanted to pick his own people. KEY POINT: There is no “logic” to this action, and you are only wasting time and your emotional energy in searching for meaning where none exists.


Generally, we like to think that companies act in rational ways, with respect to downsizing - but this is frequently not the case. While it might make sense to keep the most experienced and versatile employees; past performance is no guarantee of future employment. KEY POINT: “termination” is like an avalanche - once the decision is made, somewhere by somebody, to fire you - there really isn’t a lot you can do to stop this action; although you may be able to postpone the actual termination date (see My Story).

Somebody (very famous) once said that, “The Best DEFENSE is a Good OFFENSE”. Accordingly, from the day you accept employment at the firm, you should begin to plan your “EXIT STRATEGY”. WHAT (?), you say; but I’ve only just arrived. Here’s my logic: if you have a plan to deal with your potential “termination”, then YOU, as verse your supervisor (or the “organization”), ARE NOW IN CONTROL OF YOUR CAREER. Take a moment to reflect upon that last sentence – doesn’t it make you feel powerful?

Step #1 – Write out your letter of resignation, and put in an envelope in your desk drawer (ready to sign, date, and deliver). If you have already quit (mentally), you can only keep your job by making the decision to stay. Cold hearted? YES, but what happens when the tables are turned? Remember that the Boy Scout Motto is: BE PREPARED. The “shock value” of Jack Parr’s on air resignation sent a shudder through the television industry, and ultimately, Parr was fully reinstated.

Step #2 – Be aware of the “skill set” that the organization expects, in order to survive and be promoted (i.e., learn to play their game). Also consider those skills which you need in order to obtain a better job within your industry.

A STORY: my college buddy spent 15 years as an Actuary, and determined that Underwriting Experience was his missing skill. He took a sideways transfer and relocated his family so he could run a branch office and its underwriting staff. He’s now had three better jobs and is currently a Senior Vice President of a major international reinsurance firm.

Step #3 – Periodically reassess “other employment options” both within and outside of the organization – the grass just might be greener somewhere else. How can you assess your “value” to the firm, if you do not have a reliable benchmark? The lack of other opportunities may also trigger a reassessment of your personal goals and skills (see #2).

Step #4 – Be aware of the three kinds of involuntary unemployment (Performance, Political, and Fiscal) and develop a corresponding plan of action to deal with each of them. If management thinks that they can control you through “terror”, their hand will be weakened if you have already planned a counter-move (see the game of chess).

> Fiscal Unemployment is the easiest to identify and adjust. Stay abreast of the trends and activities within your industry and the company’s relationship to the wider-world. One guaranteed way to go out of business is to continuously acquire a growing share of a declining market (i.e., would you work for the sole surviving buggy whip manufacturer?). If your company’s business is declining, what long term chance of survival do you really have? Rats usually desert a sinking ship – so join them; first one out gets the best outside job.

On the positive side: if you have ideas for new products, services or operating methodologies – now is your time to shine (i.e., Drew Major continued to work on the Novell LAN Software, even as the company reorganized). BIG WARNING: they may ignore your ideas and the company may die anyway. Consider taking your ideas with you and going to work for the competition. BIGGER WARNING: they may take your ideas and fire you anyway – so be certain of your documentation and identify the “best” person to be briefed (which is not always your boss but maybe much higher up. A STORY: One morning I waited for my CEO to arrive, and then pitched an idea {man was I scared!}. No action was taken, but he always remembered me favorable wherever we next met.)

> Performance Unemployment is also easy to avoid – JUST DO YOUR JOB, STUPID! Be on time, and on target. Follow your instructions, and wherever possible – document your instructions and resulting actions (CYA). Sometimes, a supervisor will refuse to provide a written instruction; so that they can later deny any responsibility (in case it explodes). Under these circumstances, I recommend (a) prepare an authorizing memo for his / her signature, and if they still won’t sign-off, then (b) send a confirming email (i.e., “per our discussing this AM, I am taking the following actions ...”). KEY POINT: Depending on your company’s Security Policy, you may also want to make a backup copy (or BCC to your home account); as incriminating defensive documentation has a mystery way of disappearing (maybe the security staff will keep a copy for you?).

In this regard, it also helps to have had good, prior annual performance reviews (although this is an entirely separate topic). Beware of posturing and mediocre written reviews, regardless of how much money they pay you (i.e., “… hey look, we are giving you this money so you don’t need to worry about what’s on the stupid form - nobody reads them anyway …”). KEY POINT: whenever push comes to shove; what has been written - with your signed agreement - is what will be used for (or against) you with respect to your continued employment; or in any subsequent legal action you may feel necessary (i.e., why didn’t you object?). If the review is unfair, or unsubstantiated (i.e., hearsay comments) – clearly state your objections on the document; they won’t like it but always CYA.

WARNING: if you have had good or average previous reviews, and suddenly you’re being “downgraded” – WATCH OUT! This is management’s way of “telegraphing their punch” so that they will have grounds for future dismissal (they may not need it, but its in the file just the same).

> Political Unemployment is unavoidable and incomprehensible, so don’t try. The only advice I can offer you under these circumstances is: (a) be prepared, (b) CYA, and (c) keep your eyes and ears open for any potential changes in duties or staffing. A STORY: I once watched a guy be purposely promoted into a job he couldn't do (i.e., set up to fail) and subsequently become terminated for poor performance (he did fail). A STORY: I’ve known of situations where an employee’s job responsibilities were systemically reassigned to other staffers over a period of several months, and then the targeted employee was terminated because (after all) they had no assigned tasks or job activities.

MY STORY: Once upon a time, my department manager ordered my supervisor to fire me (reason = unknown). The Supervisor said I was “late” with a specific work assignment. I was able to show the supervisor the memo he had previously given me, which clearly stated that the assignment in question was due the following month, BANG! While his action was intended to set me up to fail, it not only (1) made me aware of management’s subsequent game plan, but also (2) proved me with time and resources to plan a delaying action (note: I couldn’t stop Political Unemployment, just slowed it down). I was subsequently able to negotiate a severance package, COBRA Benefits and outplacement services, in additional to the traditional unemployment compensation and an acceptable job reference (for future employment).

Assuming you unemployment is not “Performance Related”, it is so incredibly UNFAIR to give your best efforts, fidelity and allegiance to an organization (13+ years in my case), and then to become severed for no apparent reason. During the period of the MY STORE (above) I was in contact with a Corporate Recruiter (a/k/a a Headhunter). When I complained to him about my unfair treatment, he offered the following sage advice,

“Why are you fighting to stay, in an organization which doesn’t want you? Yes, you have been an above average employee. Yes, you have innovated and improved the operations, sales, expense controls, etc. Yes, the company may suffer as a result of loss of your abilities. GUESS WHAT: THEY DON’T CARE (else “they” wouldn’t let you go). Take the severance package, take a week off, then call me when you get back and we’ll start setting up interviews.”

EPITAPH - two years later:
(a). My salary DOUBLED and
(b) my former employer, while still in business today, has been reduced in size by more than 60%!

THE NEXT JOB – “Living well is be Best Revenge”

Being “fired” is heart wrenching and painful personal experience (much like the death of a loved one); but it happens. Never (EVER) lie about your termination on your resume or any employment applications; even if it was the result of something you did (or didn’t do) – i.e., Performance Unemployment. If a prospective employer discovered this “lapse”, it can be grounds for immediate dismissal – so look them right in the eye, and explain what happened and what you’ve learned from the experience.

In closing

Consider the words of the song “They All Laughed” by George Gershwin/Ira Gershwin:

They all laughed at Christopher Columbus
When he said the world was round
They all laughed when Edison recorded sound
They all laughed at Wilbur and his brother
When they said that man could fly
They told Marconi
Wireless was a phony
It's the very same cry.

They laughed at me wanting you
Said I was reaching for the moon
But oh, you came through
Now they'll have to change their tune
They all said we never could be happy
They laughed at us and how!
But ho, ho, ho!
Who's got the last laugh now?


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