There may be no more humbling experience than getting fired. And as a leader and a manger, there may be no more gut-churning responsibility than having to remove someone of their employment. I’ve been on the giving end of that equation more times than I would like, but I’ve also had the privilege of getting it handed to me, as well.
I was 20 years old and working as an intern for a photographer and getting school credit for it. I’d wrapped up my responsibilities for the week and decided to head out of town to visit a friend. We’d originally scheduled a shoot for that Saturday, but he’d cancelled because he was going out of town with his family. This was back in the day before I had a cell phone, so I gave him the number of where I was going, just in case. 7 am the next morning rolls around, and the phone rings. It’s my boss, and he’s madder than a hornet. “WHERE are you!,” he shouts into the phone (even though he knew because he called that number). “I told you I was going out of town, and I’m out of town!” I said in shock back to him. “Well, I’m headed back home, and if you’re not here when I get here, you’re fired.” He was 3 hours away, tops. I was 3-4 hours away by rural, country roads. I knew I was screwed.
I drive like a maniac and make it back by 10:30, and as I pull up to his house, I see his car is already in the driveway. I part at the street and sheepishly go up to the door. As I approach, I hear LOTS of yelling coming from the kitchen. He and his wife are sparring mightily (which was a big reason they decided to come home 1.5 days early). I knock on the door, and he answers. “Come inside,” he says, smoldering. “I told you that if you weren’t back when I got home you were fired…” I interrupted him, “But you said the shoot was off today! I told you I was going out of town and where you could reach me! This isn’t my fault!” He went on, “Mark, some day you’re going to have to learn that your commitments matter and that you need to do the things you say you’re going to do. You’re fired.”
What did I do in that moment of crisis? Did I fight back and tell him how wrong he was? Did I throw his arguments back in his face? Did I storm out in triumph? No. I burst into tears. I wept like a child. And I let the guy who’d just wronged me console me. He put his arm around me and said, “It’s ok, Mark. This is a valuable lesson for you. Maybe you’ll learn to stick to your word from now on.” I pulled myself together and Charlie Brown walked out the door. There’s a good follow-up story to this, but that’s for another blog post. But the thing I actually learned from this event had nothing to do with the petulant lesson he was trying to teach me, and it had everything to do with understanding how it feels to get fired, even when you don’t deserve it.
Losing your job is one of the most humiliating experiences a person can endure. It doesn’t matter if you get laid off, furloughed, downsized or terminated. It just plain sucks. The message you receive is somewhere between “I’m damaged goods” and “I wasn’t good enough to make the cut.” And neither of those makes you feel good. The message that “you’re inferior” is all that rings true.
So as managers and leaders, what do you do when you know you’ve got to deliver the news to someone, even if they deserve it? Start with empathy. Know that this event is going to sit with them for months. Fight the temptation to be cavalier, uncaring, or cold to protect yourself. There’s nothing you’re going to say in that moment that makes them feel better, but your body language and tone of voice are the only ways you can show someone that you genuinely hate this for them. But most importantly, remember that’s a human being you’re talking to. Imagine it’s your partner, your kid, or you getting that information. How would you want it done? Go and do likewise.
Secondly, there’s no explanation that’s going to make it feel ok, so don’t expect someone to understand and be warm in response. You are literally upending their life. Give them that. And don’t be surprised if they are not warm in return.
Third, they’re probably going to hate you. Like, forever. Even if you don’t deserve it and even if you’re just the messenger. So get comfortable with the fact that you’re now on someone’s list of people they’d like to see dead.
For me, the value of getting fired is also in seeing the possibility for something new. It takes a few days before you stop wallowing in self pity and start realizing this is a new opportunity. And no one can tell you that or preach that sermon to you. You have to arrive at it yourself.
So my advice? Go get fired at some point. You – and your future employees – will thank me later.