how to deal with a coworker being fired

A reader writes:

How do you deal with it when a coworker is fired? Today I was talking with my coworker and nothing seemed out of the ordinary. He went into a meeting with our boss, and next thing I knew he was gone, and an email was sent to the whole department saying that as of today he no longer works here. I don’t know what happened, but it surprised me, worried me, and made me nervous about my job.

It’s unnerving when a coworker is fired, especially when you don’t know why it happened. If you didn’t see it coming, does that mean that you could be fired out of the blue too?

First, keep in mind that just because the firing came as a surprise to you, it probably didn’t come as a surprise to your coworker. It’s extremely rare for someone to be fired without any warning (except in particularly egregious cases, like embezzling or punching someone). In most cases, the employee has had numerous conversations with her manager about whatever the problem is and what needs to change. If the employer is at all responsible, the person has also been explicitly told that she could lose her job if the problems aren’t fixed.

Next, remember that no matter what you hear from your coworker who was fired, there’s probably another side to the story. And people rarely share information that makes them look bad; many people who are fired find it easier to tell coworkers that it happened because the boss is a jerk, rather than admit that they were struggling in the job. Meanwhile, the boss hopefully isn’t broadcasting the person’s struggles, so you’re unlikely to hear that side.

And if you do hear from your coworker that she was fired for unfair reasons — because the boss is a jerk or was out to get her or whatever … well, look at your what your experience has been with that boss. In your experience, has the manager seemed reasonable, fair, and compassionate? Or like a monster who seems like she’d fire people without cause or warning? Generally, your own experience is going to be your most reliable guide.

Finally, if you’re still feeling insecure, you can always ask your manager for feedback. Ask how you’re doing overall, what you could do better, what advice she has for you. This is a good idea to do periodically anyway, and in a situation like this, it will probably end up putting you at ease.