employee keeps asking if she’ll be fired

A reader writes:

One of the people I manage is about one year into the position and is doing okay most of the time. She does make mistakes and has trouble remembering or picking up certain concepts. I am really hoping she will improve as she gains more experience.

She has one habit I find odd. Whenever she does make a mistake or forgets something basic, she asks, “Will I be fired?” I don’t want to be constantly reassuring her that she is not going to be fired, but at the same time if I don’t see growth and improvement, then I would have to think about it.

I don’t want to give her a false sense of security that nothing will happen to her regardless of performance, but I don’t want her constantly worrying about messing up.

And as a supplemental note, she was fired from her previous job. I knew this but felt she had enough potential to develop in a different role.

It’s not unusual for people to worry about getting fired when they’re making mistakes, especially if they’ve been fired in the past.

But rather than continually asking about whether she’s going to be fired, she’d do better to ask you for overall feedback and how you feel things are going in general.

What you can do on your side is to address that proactively, as well as to explain how you handle firings so that she understands she won’t be blindsided by it (assuming that that’s true, which hopefully it is).

I’d sit down with her and say this: “You’ve asked me that a number of times, so I assume you’re worried that you might be blindsided by it. Let me tell you about how I handle performance issues and what happens long before someone is fired, so that you’re really clear on what that looks like. We do sometimes have to let someone go when they’re not performing in the way that we need, but when that happens, it’s not a surprise because we have conversations about it before it gets to that point. That means that if your job is in jeopardy, I will tell you that clearly and will tell you what I need to see from you in order to fix things, and we’d establish a clear timeline for working on the issues.

That’s not where you are. You’re doing well overall. I’d like to see you make fewer mistakes on X and Y and work on your understanding of W and Z. That doesn’t mean never making a mistake; we all make mistakes from time to time. But I’d like to see you steadily improving your mastery of those areas, and I’m confident that you’ll be able to. If that changes in the future and I start having real concerns about your future with us, please know that I’ll talk to you about it directly, so you don’t need to wonder.”

Of course, this needs to be true — but that’s the way you should be managing anyway, and it makes sense to make sure that your staff understands that.

{ 112 comments… read them below }

  1. IT Kat*

    “I don’t want to be constantly reassuring her that she is not going to be fired, but at the same time if I don’t see growth and improvement, then I would have to think about it.”

    It kind of sounds like you are at the point of thinking that letting her go is a possibility? If that’s the case, then have the conversation AAM suggested sooner rather than later… and then make sure to hold to it.

    She’s a year into the job and still asking – could be PTSD from her last job, or it could be that she’s seen others let go for “mistakes”. Maybe it’s worth looking at your management style? If you’re not doing what AAM suggests above… then you should start, today.

    1. AMT*

      Yes, I’m thinking that if she’s a year into the job and still not up to speed, there does need to be a conversation about OP’s expectations for her performance. It might reassure her if she has clearer benchmarks. If that just makes her more anxious and panicky about her job status to the point that it’s affecting her work (“If I don’t get better at X and Y I’m going to be fiiiiiired!”) then maybe she’s just not a good fit.

      1. Nina*

        I thought the same thing. This forms a vicious cycle: she could be making mistakes because she’s afraid she’ll get fired, thus making her more likely to get fired because she’s constantly screwing up. I would have the conversation with her as soon as you can, OP.

        1. MsChanandlerBong*

          Bingo. This isn’t work-related, but one of my husband’s relatives is known as a clean freak, and the one time I dropped something on her floor, she gave me such a look of disgust and contempt that I cried all the way home. So what do you think happens every time I visit her house now? I’m so nervous about making her mad that my hands start to shake, and I am more likely to screw up. Last time I was there, I was so worried about dropping my plate that I didn’t see that she had a houseplant sitting on a low stand. As I walked past, I bumped into it and knocked the plant over…I got dirt all over the carpet.

            1. Buggy Crispino*

              Ha ha! I was thinking of poor Elizabeth the entire time I read MsBong’s story!!

          1. Jessica (tc)*

            I read this to my husband, and he said, “Whoa! Is she related to Hyacinth?!” We both had the exact same reaction, too!

            I love this community. :)

    2. Cautionary tail*

      Company PTSD was the first thing that entered my mind. It can last a long long time or forever. I was laid off at toxic job three years ago (not performance related) and to this day I keep nothing on or in my desk: no company owned items and I’ve never brought in a single personal item. Although I’ve never stated it aloud, I do have thoughts at times about being let go…and I’m a PhD and expert in my field.

      1. Long Time Reader First Time Poster*

        Yep, it’s been three years for me, too and I’m exactly the same way. At the very least I’ll never have to do that walk of shame again where I have to come back and get all of my crap.

        1. PTSD2*

          Me 4. I’m high performing and currently excelling, but still I worry. It’s better than it was, but it’s still a constant struggle, and for me it’s been 5 years.

          1. Jessa*

            Put me on the list. I once when working in a long term temp position at a company where temps were not even 3d class citizens, finally went to a supervisor and said in as many words “lack of communication does not mean I’m doing this properly, am I or am I not meeting your standards?” Because seriously? I had no clue and all it was doing was giving me literal panic attacks.

      2. J_Mo*

        Me three. That is also why I am only looking for part time, temp work right now. …Well, one of the reasons. I’m also taking care of my mom.

    3. J_Mo*

      I’m sure it’s PTSD of some type. I have the same anxiety when I land in new roles, because of a previous very bad working situation, where I was blindsided by all negative feedback, including my firing.

      That said, I don’t ask that question. I simply worl very hard at improving in any weak spots that come up.

      I really feel for this worker. Having the suggested conversation as soon as possible would be a very kind and productive thing to do. She is probably slipping up, because she is nervous.

      Very little harms us as much as an abusive work situation. I wish there were support groups for people who have been through it. It rakes a very long time to heal from something like that.

  2. TotesMaGoats*

    I also wonder what type of mistakes she’s making that’s prompting these questions. Is it after every mistake? Big mistakes only? Small mistakes only? Some of that probably comes from her previous job and what got her fired there. Some of it might be what she knows or assumes she could get fired for here. But I second what AAM has said to do.

    1. RVA Cat*

      Are there any stats being kept on mistakes vs. workload, to come up with some kind of percentage metric? This would help the OP gauge whether this employee is actually making more mistakes than others. It’s also valuable to spot training or process issues if everyone is messing up on a particular task. Also, it helps set realistic expectations – since perfection is impossible.

  3. KT*

    This is excellent advice. I know when I first started working a “real job”, I was terrified I would get fired for every little mistake (like a typo or not collating copies). If a manager provided constructive feedback, I DID always panic that this was firing time.

    I guess I looked at movies and the dramatic firings that happen out of nowhere and thought that was how real life worked. It would have been really helpful for my manager to sit me down and talk through how performance and improvement works to both reassure me and give me a concrete process of how I needed to improve.

    1. Dana*

      +1 We all know you can be fired from a job, but I for one don’t have the faintest idea how firings happen at my current job. Even though I haven’t had any negative feedback in the year I’ve been here, I would be more comfortable if I knew I wouldn’t be fired out of the blue or for something I thought innocuous.

    2. I'm a Little Teapot*

      I was the same way – partly because I HAVE worked at jobs where people would be fired for the slightest mistake, and for several abusive supervisors. That might be this person’s experience – in which case her anxiety is completely understandable and warranted.

      1. Anx*

        Yep. I’ve watched long-term, top performers I served tables with be fired on the spot for leaving a ketchup bottle on the table during dessert service (one diner ordered dessert while the other was still picking at their dinner). I walked into that job everyday wondering if it would be the day I got fired. I managed to last until their last round of lay offs for the year (seasonal lay offs), but for 6 months I was sure it’d be my last day.

        I still have a hard time shaking it.

  4. Anon Accountant*

    I have to ask if this is a carry over from her past job. Some places threaten to or even fire for small mistakes and not just a pattern of errors. Once had an employer like this. Their turnover was through the roof.

    1. I'm a Little Teapot*

      I had a job once where I was hired with a big batch of other people, then fired after 2 weeks – and I was one of the ones who lasted the longest.

      But there were people who’d been at that company for years. They must have been auperhuman – or had friends in high places.

    2. Career Counselorette*

      I was yelled at, dressed down in front of my co-workers, and threatened with termination at one place because I didn’t make eye contact with my boss once. That did wonders for my self-image as a competent professional.

      1. Jessa*

        Particularly since eye contact or no eye contact is a very cultural thing. There are numerous cultures where it’s very rude to look someone straight in the eyes.

    3. Pixel*

      I worked at one of those companies as well. I think when we calculated it we had 80% turnover in 3 years (and we were a very small company, <10 employees with two family members running things). Also, the way the firing was conducted could have contributed to her anxiety.

      I saw the same thing happen there with a newly hired employee – quiet woman, great worker, who unfortunately had to be let go because we did not get a contract we were expecting. I was her manager, but the CEO decided to let her go. The second the woman got out of the firing/meeting, she ran over to my desk, collapsed in a chair and cried her eyes out. The whole time she kept asking if she really was such a terrible, untalented employee as the CEO had told her she was (she was not!) and if I also felt she had performed so weakly in the month she was there. I was taken aback and could only reassure her that I personally had no problems with her work, that we did not have enough work coming in to keep her on, but I would happily be a reference for her if needed in the future.

      All I can imagine is that the CEO 1) Did not want to admit that her own failings in running the company necessitated layoffs and had to throw blame at the employee, and 2) Did not want to pay this woman's unemployment.

      As expected, we had several more layoffs shortly after that, and most of us left for other jobs as soon as possible. That company has since folded (no surprise).

    4. Ruth (UK)*

      I once quit before an imminent firing from a sales job after 10 weeks and was the last remaining person from the 10 people who were hired at the same time as me. My next job was fast food with lots of shouty bosses.

      Now I do literally the cushiest admin job ever, as of about a year and a half ago and have a very calm boss. Every time something minor happens (whether it’s my fault or nothing to do with me) that would have got a massive reaction from my previous jobs, I brace myself and feel relieved and a little surprised by the calm or non-reaction of my boss, despite the fact I have never actually witnessed her voice anger or frustration. I’ve never voiced my fears as I know it’s just me being a little paranoid… But past job ptsd can affect for a long time…

    5. _ism_*

      In my experience this is so common in certain kinds of jobs. If the OP’s job is her first job of this type, she may well just have some PTSD. I was a cashier for at least 10 different stores when I was younger, before I got “real jobs,” and it took a long time for me to truly believe my bosses trusted me and had made investments and didn’t just throw away employees like in many service industry jobs. (Like, months of training instead of hours/days is just one example)

  5. grasshopper*

    If she is asking these questions, it is because she isn’t feeling secure. Keep communication clear and be be consistent with your feedback.

    1. Not the Droid You are Looking For*

      ^ This.

      I took over a time that had people “fired suddenly with no warning for one little thing.” Not the actual truth, but because everything was handled so secretively firings seemed out of nowhere.

      I had people crying over a misspelling in an email to a client because they thought this was a fire-able offense. It was so bad that I actually had a team meeting with HR to go through our company’s performance standards. We talked about what would get you a write up, what would get you a PIP, what could actually get you fired, and how all of those things worked together. We also talked about the difference between constructive feedback and “being in trouble.”

      I was so grateful because HR *really* went above and beyond, and it helped the team relax into their roles. It’s amazing how much better people are at their jobs when they are not constantly on edge.

      1. Ad Astra*

        That sounds like a great way to handle it. I think a lot of managers and HR reps are reluctant to spell things out because they’re worried it will be seen as a binding agreement and hamper their ability to get rid of someone who screws up really bad. But if you mean what you say when you’re explaining the process, that shouldn’t be a problem.

        I often have a hard time distinguishing between constructive feedback and “being in trouble,” especially when I’m new to a position and don’t have a good feel for what’s a huge deal and what’s not. It would be so helpful if more managers were clear about that.

        1. Not the Droid You are Looking For*

          We definitely had some push back at first for *exactly* that reason, and there were definitely a lot of qualifying statements of “these are examples, not a comprehensive list.”

          The one thing she said that I wish I had written down verbatim because it was so eloquently stated was that “due to confidentiality and respect for our employees we do not share any information about write-ups or PIPs, but I can comfortable share that we do utilize a system of progressive discipline and firing is a last resort.”

          It helped them understand that there was a lot of stuff that went on behind the scenes that they weren’t privy to and that the people who were “fired for no reason” likely just hadn’t shared that they were being written up or put on performance plans.

    2. fposte*

      But it’s also legitimate and, I think, important to explain to her that the question doesn’t help her and may hurt her; it doesn’t give her advance knowledge, and it makes it hard for her to seem confident and effective. It’s a reassurance-seeking habit that doesn’t go along well with promotion and growth.

      1. JMegan*

        Definitely. I would have the conversation Alison suggested, and finish it with something like “Now that you understand our procedures, I need you to stop asking if you’re going to be fired.”

        Because that specific behaviour, while not a fire-able offence in itself, can be detrimental in other ways (as fposte and the OP both note.) Make sure she understands that this is one of the changes you need to see as a result of your talk.

        1. Windchime*

          Yeah, it’s super irritating to be having to constantly reassure someone. It’s draining, actually, and I can’t put up with it for very long before I start getting annoyed.

      2. Nina*

        IA. This woman will eventually drive the OP and her other managers crazy if she’s constantly asking when/if she’ll get fired. It needs to stop.

        1. Elizabeth the Ginger*

          I had a boyfriend in high school who worried aloud that he thought I didn’t really care about him as much as he cared about me, and started constantly asking if I was going to break up with him.

          This behavior played a big part in my decision eventually to do just that.

      3. zora*

        Yes exactly. I think the manager could explain “It’s not helping you to constantly ask. Both because it keeps you distracted from doing your work, and because it’s distracting to others and makes you look insecure.”

  6. Dan*


    During my first review at my first professional job, I got no raise and no bonus. I looked my boss straight in the eye and asked, “Is this a polite way of telling me to go find another job?” He chuckled a bit, and then said, “No. There’s a lot of people in your position this year. And if that were the message we were intending to send, it would be a completely different conversation.” I asked if that conversation involved a PIP, to which he replied, “yes.”

    1. Snarkus Aurelius*

      Okay I hate that. I don’t know how many times I’ve gotten glowing feedback and top notch reviews hey no raise and/or bonus.

      Mixed messages. If you value me, show it monetarily then. Don’t feed me a line of crap about how great I am but “budgets are tight this year” after other people get raises or a big party got held at a nice hotel.

      Then again, it beats getting trashed orally in my review but glorious in writing. Long story but my immediate bosses hated my big boss who loved me.

      1. Kyrielle*

        Enh. I’ve had that happen too and knew I was a top-notch performer, there was just _no money_ that year for raises (or very little, and people whose compensation was more out of line with performance than mine was).

        I’d rather get glowing feedback and top notch reviews with no additional money, than have them feel they have to make up some lower rating to “justify” no money, if there isn’t any money to add.

        1. OfficePrincess*

          This. At the lower levels where I work, raises aren’t a thing unless there’s a promotion. Everyone starts at the same rate and gets the same COL on their anniversary date whether you’re an all-star or on a PIP. Performance conversations are totally separate. There is a separate recognition program, but there’s a limit to how many people can be recognized each month, so it’s not necessarily going to line up with a review. I’m not saying it’s a great system, but sometimes the manager isn’t lying when they say you’re doing well but can’t accompany that statement with a raise.

      2. BananaPants*

        Like the year after I had a baby, when I was told I wouldn’t be getting a merit increase despite exceeding all of my objectives because I’d been out of the office for 10 weeks on maternity leave and the merit budget had to go towards rewarding the coworkers who’d covered for me. That was fun.

        Or when I had my second baby, when I blew my objectives out of the water to avoid a repeat of the first scenario and had a great performance review, only to get a lower-than-average merit increase – again, “It’s because you were out of the office for 12 weeks.”

          1. K-Anon*

            I was going to say the same thing. I don’t think that’s legal behaviour. At the very least is unethical!

        1. hbc*

          Oh, for the love of….Why even bother calling them “merit” increases if it’s really a time in the seat contest?

  7. Dawn*

    I struggle with general anxiety and that leads to some serious Impostor Syndrome at jobs, particularly if I make mistakes or don’t feel like I’m getting enough feedback from my manager(s). I’ve also had some seriously bad jobs and bad managers so there’s been times when job PTSD plus the Impostor Syndrome would leave me shaking at my desk and feeling like I was probably going to be fired at any moment. Fortunately I have a great therapist and have been having this issue so long that I’m able to see it for what it is- anxiety and runaway thoughts.

    Please do sit down with this employee and lay out *exactly* what the procedure would be for being let go- what you would do before a PIP, how a PIP would work, etc. And then be really honest with the employee about how her performance is right now so that she knows exactly where she stands. Those are two things that you can do right now that will allay her fears quite a bit. Another thing that I would advise, having been there as an employee myself, is if you see her getting better at something or doing a great job TELL HER IMMEDIATELY. This did wonders for my self-esteem and battling impostor syndrome. I’m not saying you need to give her a gold star every day but just make sure you’re letting her know when she’s exceeding expectations or has done something particularly awesome.

    1. Ad Astra*

      Oh yes — if you have something positive to say about her work, be sure to say it!

      I once had a boss who clearly stated, “With me, no feedback at all means you’re doing a good job. If the work’s not right, that’s when you’ll hear from me.” Then every few months, I’d be brought in with another manager or two to be berated about three months of misdeeds.

      My confidence still hasn’t recovered from the damage done in that job.

      1. Snarkus Aurelius*

        A former friend had that problem. She didn’t hear about her mistakes until her annual review, and most of the time she didn’t remember them.

        Turns out there was an agenda. Her boss didn’t want to give her a bonus or raise and needed reasons. She figured it out after three years and left

        1. CrazyCatLady*

          I had a weird but similar problem where I’d never hear about any negative feedback at all, ever, and then at a review or even out of the blue, they’d completely go ballistic and say weird things like “Maybe you’d be better suited to another job” or just really mean things and they could never give examples or anything. The weird part is that I always got one of the best bonuses, and they were always giving me more money and trying to generally appease me… but it definitely messed with my head.

    2. Elizabeth the Ginger*

      Not only will it make the employee feel more confident, it’ll get better results. Positive reinforcement works! If you’re training a dog, it’s not enough to yell at him when he jumps up on people – you need to praise him when he sits quietly on command.

      Not that people are dogs, but we are still animals and trainable!

    3. AvonLady Barksdale*

      #1 reason why I need to go back to therapy. I had a rough start at my job and now I’m constantly on edge, thinking I’m going to get fired no matter what I do. It’s terribly damaging, and I know it wouldn’t be nearly as bad if I didn’t have awful anxiety and stress issues.

      I feel bad for the employee, though in the manager’s position I would get SUPER annoyed pretty quickly. I think it would be really helpful to sit down with this woman and try to take some of the pressure– real or imagined– off of her. If she does her best to focus on doing a good job without worrying about consequences… that might help a lot.

  8. SnowWhite*

    Another thing to think about – dependant on culture of the company: are colleagues winding her up to the point she is continually thinking she will be fired?

    We had a weird thing a while back where our employees would find an insecurity/the member of staff would tell employees what they were worried about to the point it was hourly/daily and then every time they made a mistake or expressed frustration they would make it worse: screwed up a drawing “ohhhh they’re going to fire you”; irritated about salary “I’m earning so much more than you and less qualified” – they weren’t but it was a wind them up and watch them go kind of thing. The employee would then flip out at management or me in an open plan office and the others would be laughing behind their backs.

    It was played off as ‘banter’ and we narrowly avoided a lawsuit before it was addressed and eventually died down.

    Completely gross and glad it has been stamped out – but it could be a combination of the employee oversharing and (insert appropriate name here) colleagues winding her up and watching her fall/go.

    1. Engineer Girl*

      The winder should have been put on a PIP. These antics destroy productivity. The target starts focusing on the trivial instead of work. The others focus on the target instead of work.
      I start to see red when this happens.

      1. SnowWhite*

        I saw red too – I have a zero tolerance to bullying antics and the ‘banter culture’ is just irritating anyway.

  9. Ad Astra*

    I’ve never actually been fired, but every time I make even the tiniest mistake I worry that I’m about to lose my job. It’s not a great feeling.

    1. Charlotte Collins*

      When I was a trainer, I noticed that sometimes the people who were doing best at the job were the hardest on themselves. (To be fair, since they were going to be answering fairly complicated questions on the phone, I understood the anxiety.) Basically, I reassured them that there was always help with questions and checks in place, since everyone makes mistakes and it can’t be avoided.

      I do wonder if this employee is especially young and if she’s worked somewhere that was trigger-happy on letting people go for small errors. That could be making her more likely to make errors in general.

      1. Ad Astra*

        I wonder the same things. In my case, it often felt like our processes didn’t have enough checks in place (it’s a chronically understaffed industry) and it was easy to make serious mistakes without anyone catching them before it was too late.

  10. Ama*

    I worked for an employer that was not at-will for a long time — but while I was there, I got burned several times by a workplace culture that liked to blindside employees with complaints and which routinely blew the tiniest of mistakes up into major calamities. I didn’t realize how much it had affected me until I moved to an at-will employer and found myself terrified that any mistake would get blown up into a fireable offense. It took me actually making a couple significant mistakes and realizing my panic was completely out of proportion with my bosses’ much calmer reactions before I figured out that I was extrapolating “at-will” to mean “even more mercurial and reactionary than your last job” when that couldn’t have been further from the truth.

    I’ve been here just over two years now, and I still experience flare ups of this panic from time to time, even though I know it’s not based in the reality of my current situation.

    1. Stephanie*

      Oh yes. The panic. I was at a job that was and missed something and freaked out. I went to find supervisor and was super apologetic and he’s like “Oh, don’t worry about it. Sh*t happens. This is easily remediable.” Of course, I made sure to never let that happen again, but it did help to see that the world didn’t end after that one screwup.

  11. Stephanie*

    She may have been fired before. I’ve been there. The paranoia is real and not from a logical place.

    Just be really clear about your expectations and transparent about the process, if that is to happen.

    1. BRR*

      I’ve also been fired before and it was my first job after I had interned there (aka they knew my work). I will forever be scared.

      1. T3k*

        Same. I was “laid off” from my first job out of college after about 7 months (they say I was laid off because of their tight budget, but I have reason to believe it was for another reason they didn’t want to say). I was blindsided by it because there was no mention of me doing poorly, I was always told I was a great worker, I wasn’t the last hire, etc. and suddenly it’s “sorry, we bit off more than we could chew so we’re letting you go” type deal. It’s left me feeling constantly uneasy and now always casually applying for other jobs despite having a current one (granted, it’s not that great either, but still).

    2. some1*

      The letter says she WAS fired, and from her last job. Of course it’s still a real fear for the employee. I’m not saying it’s healthy for the employee to be expressing it all the time, but I think if the LW acknowledges that she understands where this is coming from it would be reasurring to the employee.

  12. Gallerina*

    I’d also assume she’s been fired before or worked somewhere where firing was common and is permanently scarred. One office I worked in a few years back fired a perfectly competent assistant for a typo on a letter than didn’t even go out, so places like that do exist.

    1. Olive*

      Seconded. At a company I worked for once, a guy fired an admin because he didn’t like the sound of her voice on the phone. He also fired an INTERN for accidentally including an extra blank page in a report she’d copied (no pages were missing, just an extra sheet of paper). He was brilliant, so there was no shortage of people wanting to work for him, unfortunately.

      But these things do come around. He was coming back into town from a business trip a day early and one of his assistants panicked, realizing she’d forgotten to stock the fridge with his favorite juice – a fireable offense in his book. While she was doing that, she neglected to confirm that the car service had changed his pickup. So he was stranded at the airport, totally his own fault, because when everything is a fireable offense, your employees can’t prioritize. (Fortunately the assistant managed to blame the debacle on the car service and avoided being fired.)

  13. Amber Rose*

    I’ve only once felt that insecure, I was 18 and hadn’t yet had a job I wasn’t fired from (oh teenage me, you did terrible things). I had made so many mistakes I asked my manager why she’d even hired me. She told me that she was confident that she could teach me, and that I could learn.

    I felt better after that talk, and she turned out to be right. I started making less mistakes and left on good terms when school started.

    She was the ideal manager in so many ways. I really looked up to her, despite being nearly a foot taller. :D

  14. Simplytea*

    This is why I love this website. What a fabulous, well-thought out response.

    If only I could send subtle hints to my workplaces that they should get advice from here ;)

    1. Pixel*

      Yes – I wish all businesses would handle things with such intelligence and transparency. Instead, the ones I have worked for are always afraid if people wise up and know they may be on their way out, they will sabotage the company. So people aren’t sure where they stand and I have seen people get blindsided. That culture of fear is reciprocal.

  15. Not My Usual Name*

    I got the letter from my job with the reasons for my termination and it feels like scar tissue being ripped open. (Apologies for the gory image, anyone who is squeamish)

    From my own experience, it does feel like every tiny error is a firing offence and it is hard to get confidence back after that happens. Towards the end, I was finding I couldn’t do the tasks which I had been excellent at in the past and when you feel so sick that you can’t even write a simple email, then something is seriously wrong. Even some praise and encouragement might have gone a long way.

  16. BritCred*

    Might be worth considering how you are starting these conversations. It may be she is like me who has a bad reaction to “Can I have a minute….?” from a supervisor. One office those words even quietly could stop the whole office until the person came out of the managers office because it was usually a sign they were getting fired.

    I’m not saying its justified – it just sometimes takes a bit of time to disassociate the phrase.

    1. Me*

      Word. We’ve had multiple firing rounds here and any time a boss asks me into a meeting or ‘could you step into my office’ I immediately assume it’s my turn.

      1. Anon For This*

        Mine was a fairly innocuous “Can we meet on Monday morning?” (Sent on Friday afternoon)

        The fact that my boss generally said what she wanted to talk about prompted me to say, “Sure–anything in particular on the agenda?” I got no response.

        Come Monday, I was told that my previously multiply-renewed contract was not being renewed (for reasons that they had never communicated to me and a number of which were outright fabrications) and that while they would pay me through my contract (approximately 4 months), I should make plans to leave immediately or I would be fired. (The subtext was that they would attempt to destroy my reputation if I didn’t capitulate.)

        The employment lawyer I spoke to told me that what they were doing was “shitty, but legal” and that were I to fight it, I should be prepared for at least 18 months and a lot of personal and professional grief with no guarantee of success. As it was phrased, “even if you win, it’s going to feel like you lost.”

        I opted to negotiate additional severance and move on. But that experience served to ramp up a nascent case of Imposter Syndrome and added to it a nice helping of work PTSD that continued in the next position I held for quite awhile. In hindsight, I’m well shut of that place and its poisonous politics, but leaving on other than my own terms did a number on my self-esteem and has had repercussions for my career.

  17. AnonyMiss*

    I’m also on the side of Bad Job PTSD mixed with an unhealthy dash of Impostor Syndrome. It’s a crappy place to be in.

    I had that kick in at my last job a few times, and I seriously wore my husband’s nerves thin. I’ve been fired, berated, and/or written up for literally no reason before (or for reasons outside of my control) in various prior jobs, so I’m a little easier to scare. Being a (legal) immigrant with a very different cultural background doesn’t help, either. So when I found out that despite being in a normally due-process-protected government job, due to the nature of my specific function, I’m at-will (something I was supposed to be advised of when I started, but something that just wasn’t relayed to me), I freaked out a little. Shortly thereafter, we had a big change in management. My new manager and I just couldn’t see eye to eye professionally (she was a micromanager), and she’d send me two-page email reamings if I forgot to clear a docket on a soft-deadline (e.g. “Follow up with Wakheen on opinion review – op due in three weeks”), or for eating my lunch at my desk instead of leaving the building, or for not meeting her stylistic standards in emails to our internal clients (FWIW, the client was fine with my emails, both in style and substance).

    Long story short, I left as soon as I could find a better opening. I dread that one day, this type of PTSD could return.

    1. Steve G*

      You say “I’m ALSO on the side of Bad Job PTSD,” but we have no indication that that was the case here.

      I was fired from a job that had steady involuntary departures, and I was eventually surprised with a firing, and I am still not sure why it happened…there was something about “long term fit,” nothing about performance or attendance, and the language the Dept Director used (with whom I barely dealt with), my new manager (whom I hardly knew), and HR (who I only ever had a few pleasant chats with) was very…emotionally charged, I couldn’t button down a specific reason for being let go, and the thought of other good coworkers who disappeared flooded my mind, and I just thought “whatever, they don’t want me here, fine.” I had 0% PTSD from it, and I should have had it given what a shock it was and how lousy the severance and the lack of warning were.

      I think we need more info on why the subject of the letter was fired before we say it was PTSD from another job.

      1. Stephanie*

        Hmmm, I still think even if her firing from her last job was fair (she was on a PIP, had plenty of warning, had sane bosses who genuinely wanted to see her improve), it’s still a pretty big confidence blow even if it isn’t PTSD from a toxic work environment.

        1. MsM*

          Heck, I had secondhand shock after a coworker I worked closely with and had thought was doing a good job got fired. My boss handled it really well – let me know that the employee was well aware this was the direction things were headed if there weren’t certain improvements made (without getting into overly personal details), that she was going to do what she could to help him find a role better suited to his talents, and that I wasn’t in any danger – but I’d only ever worked at places where you’d have to be dragged out of the building in handcuffs for them to consider letting you go before, so it still took me a little while to relax.

      2. Liane*

        So far I have seen a couple other commenters post about their own Bad Job PTSD. I think AnonyMiss is counting herself as one of them, rather than meaning “I have Bad Job PTSD just like OP’s employee,” since as you pointed out we have no way of knowing if this is OP’s employee’s problem.

      3. moss*

        Just because you didn’t get PTSD-like symptoms from a bad job doesn’t mean others don’t. Some job situations are genuinely abusive. Everyone reacts differently.

      4. AnonyMiss*

        No, but that was raised by several other commenters, and it’s actually very common. I’m not making assumptions about the letterwriter, but in my experience, what we refer to as “bad job PTSD” here is more common with women, minorities, and young people – those demographics who already tend to be put down in the workplace and may have complexes of inferiority driven into them by society.

  18. NeuroticEmployee*

    This is so me. I have so afraid that I will be fired. I don’t have any real reasons besides some basic mistakes but it eats at me! It is a weird, irrational fear that I have… maybe because I am divorced and living paycheck to paycheck so if I am fired I would.be.screwed. But I even had that fear when I was married and financially comfortable. Some people are just wired this way… be kind to us anxious people!!

  19. weasel007*

    As someone who suffers from BBPTSD (“Bad Boss Post Traumatic Syndrome Disorder”) I can totally relate. I’m lucky that I have a boss who I meet with every other week, therefore my reviews are never a surprise. However, I am in a big organization and we have layoffs every 10 months or so. People who got exceeds exceeds in a review in February and a HUGE bonus were let go the next week. It is hard to work under the pressure we are under never knowing if you become a target because of a mistake. The OP needs to have routine meeting where they talk about how things are going well, how she thinks things are going, how the boss thinks they are going, and what can she work on. Best of luck!

  20. NicoleK*

    Maybe she has an overly anxious personality? Or there’s an underlying anxiety disorder?

  21. zud*

    Hi, OP here – Thanks so much for responding to my question, and to all commenters for sharing their experiences on both sides. Yes I think the employee I’m dealing with does have some “ptsd” from her previous experience and general self confidence issues. I do give her regular feedback, but I can do a better job phrasing everything, and being mindful of my tone and expressions as she is easily unnerved. I want her performance to improve based on other motivating factors, not by fear of being fired.

    I’ve poked around the site some more, and read some related links. The post that really spoke to me was Nov 6, 2014, how to recover from a mistake at work. When this particular employee has made mistakes, or demonstrated poor judgement, I was not getting from her that she understood the impact of what occurred, I was not getting from her that she understood how it happened, or where she went wrong in her decision making process, and I was not getting from her what she would do to prevent the same mistake from happening again. She would mentally freeze and just jump to the worst case scenario of will I be fired. I think this is why I wasn’t sure how to respond.

    As a manager and fellow human being I totally get that mistakes happen. I desperately want to reassure my team in these situations but I do need them to come to the table and demonstrate accountability and understanding.

    Own your mistakes, don’t let them own you!

    Thanks again AAM!!

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