I Got Fired

I’ve been talking a lot about courage recently. I’m starting to conclude that it’s one of the most important characteristics for any entrepreneur.

My first real job lasted for three years. It ended the day I was fired.

In retrospect, it was clear I had it coming. I pushed everyone too hard. I didn’t tolerate fools at all, no less gladly. I ignored every warning because “what did they know?” And it all ended the morning my CEO let me know that my services would no longer be needed.

Or at least it should have ended that morning. 

You see, when I got fired I thought I could still beat the system. I had heard that it was easier to find a job while you still had one, so I pushed my boss to let me keep coming to work for another two months. Miraculously he agreed.

And so began the great charade. For two months I came to work each day pretending I still had my job and for two months everyone else pretended they didn’t know I had been fired. Even worse, as the time approached where it was actually time to leave, I had to pretend that I was leaving of my own volition while everyone else had to pretend they were sad to see me go.

I quickly realized what a bad idea this was. Unable to move on with my life, and given nothing interesting to do, I was resigned to a 60-day sentence pushing paper at a company that clearly didn’t want me. 

It was just as bad for my co-workers who had to go through the motions of working with me, all the while avoiding any mention of the dead moose in the room. But without question, the person whose reputation took the biggest hit was the CEO who had agreed to this nonsense in the first place. 

Since most of the company knew within 15 minutes that I had been fired, they wondered why the CEO was allowing this charade to continue. But for the people who inexplicably hadn’t yet figured out that I was fired, the CEO’s behavior was even more puzzling. Why hadn’t he fired me? Why would he tolerate someone with such a bad attitude sticking around?

In retrospect, it’s clear that an act intended to allow me to depart with dignity had exactly the opposite effect.

In this past year, Covid has forced every single company I work with to do painful layoffs of their own.  I’ve coached all of them to do so with compassion and honesty.

But a few weeks ago, I heard that a company I know of was “letting go” of one of their VPs. Even though his performance had been disastrous, he was a “nice guy” and they wanted him to be able to “leave with respect”. So the head of HR explained they weren’t firing him; they were simply going to “eliminate his position”. What a crock of shit.

But it gets better. To further reinforce the illusion that this departure had nothing to do with the employee, the VP would continue to come to work every day for the following month. This was an even worse idea.

To start, it was likely the person would go to work for a competitor, so continuing to give him access to company data was foolish. But even worse, just as in my case 30 years earlier, this was a no-win situation for everybody. Since it was obvious to every one that this person was not performing, having the CEO describe “how   unfortunate it was that the position was being eliminated” was met with nothing but eye-rolling.

And it certainly didn’t fool the employee, who within minutes was texting his close friends that he had been fired.

But the biggest loser in this story was company itself, since it demonstrated that it sugarcoating the truth was true to its culture. If the CEO himself was signaling that is was OK to play along with such a blatant misrepresentation, where was that going to stop? Would it be OK for sales to give invented reasons for deals not closing to spare the engineer’s feelings? Would finance not want to communicate the true shortcomings in a P&L to not make a GM look bad?

Companies make a big point of how their culture is all about “bad news first” but when it comes to people, they are suddenly scared to communicate bad news out of some mistaken feeling of politeness or political correctness.

The truth of the matter is that when someone is not working out it makes no sense to sugarcoat the issue. You know it’s not working.  The employee knows it’s not working. And everyone who works with that person knows it’s not working.

That’s why putting someone on a “plan” is such a ridiculous waste of time. You both know that the odds of an underperforming employee successfully turning things around is miniscule – you’re just wasting each others’ time.

Netflix is famous for it’s corporate culture, which rightly emphasized directness and personal responsibility. If things aren’t working out, they are not afraid to say so.   And in the end, that’s the true sign of respect for someone.

And by being courageous enough to state the difficult truth, the most important reputation that you will preserve is your own.

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