is it bad to lay people off instead of firing them?

A reader writes:

What do you think of the policy of letting problematic employees go by eliminating their position?

I work at an organization that does this instead of firing people. Among long-time employees there’s a joke that it’s impossible to get fired here — they can think of one guy, nine years back, who was fired for theft (it was a relatively minor amount, and was not reported to police.) Everyone else with performance issues, no matter how ridiculous, eventually gets downsized.

I’m not in management or HR but I have legitimate access to a fair amount of behind-the-scenes detail due to my position. I am discreet and don’t gossip. I am amazed by some of the situations and how they’re resolved. Things drag on for months. Nobody gets a PIP to the best of my knowledge, although supervisors and HR have talked to the employees about the issues, so it’s not totally out of the blue.

I think my employer’s argument is that it’s easier to quietly get rid of difficult employees with a small severance package, and we don’t give references anyway (just confirm employment dates.) From the employee’s perspective it’s nice for reasons that you’ve outlined before — they can job-hunt while they’re still employed, and they can point to their position being eliminated as the reason they’re looking.

This happened recently to Jane, a longtime employee who I’m friendly with and actually quite like outside of work (although I’d have quit if assigned to her as my manager.) She’s bright and hardworking, but she’s prickly, condescending to everyone (including VIPs and board members who grew to dislike her), and as far as I can tell, simply cannot receive and process criticism about her management style— and management is a key part of her position. If I were Jane, the fact that I was being downsized by this company would ring all sorts of alarm bells. But she is oblivious to her own role in this, at least publicly, which I guess supports the company’s standpoint that there’s no point in trying to discuss it with her further.

Do employers “owe” more honesty to problem employees? I can’t help feeling like they’re doing her an enormous disservice. At the same time, I can see from her reaction that firing her would likely have been a lot more arduous than quietly easing her out. I thought about leveling with her, even at the risk of costing us our friendship. But I don’t think I can, partly because I can’t divulge knowledge of some of the details, but mostly because they’ve clearly opted for the “it’s not you, it’s us” routine. I feel management could have made clear to her something along the lines of: we’re letting you go because you’ve alienated so many people, and you need to seriously evaluate your soft skills if you’re going to succeed in this kind of role elsewhere.

This has happened with five employees in the time I’ve been here (although obviously the details differ). Each one of them was angry and hurt, and seemingly oblivious to their role in the situation, and anyone else in the organization would say they should have seen it coming, so a reasonable person wouldn’t be in that position in the first place. I can’t articulate why but this seems like a terrible policy to me.

It’s a morale issue for coworkers who are glad to see Jane finally go but resentful of the circumstances. Full disclosure that I was fired once — nicely. I was hired to do X but the job turned out to be much more Y and I was terrible at it. But being fired, while totally humiliating to me in the moment, was ultimately a great learning experience that informed a lot of my behavior going forward, both in gaining clarity about a position during job interviews and in how to reach out for help while working. Several years later I actually wrote a thank-you to them. Anyway, I’d love your thoughts on the topic.

First of all, did they really eliminate those positions? Or did they re-fill them soon after?

If they re-filled them, those weren’t “position eliminations” at all, and if any of those “laid off” people noticed that, they’re going to feel lied to … and when people you let go think you lied to them about the reason, they often start wondering if the real reason was something illegal (discrimination, retaliation for reporting harassment, etc.). That’s when people consult lawyers and you end up dealing with legal headaches, even if there wasn’t any actual illegal action.

If they didn’t re-fill those jobs and did genuinely eliminate the positions, then I’m wondering whether it actually made good business sense to cut those roles (in which case, fine) or whether they lost roles they actually needed just so they could call it a lay-off and avoid the hard conversation of firing someone. (Here’s the difference in the two terms.) I suspect it was the latter, since it seems unlikely that every time your company has let a low performer go, it just happened to conveniently be a role they wanted to eliminate anyway.

But even aside from that, it’s generally a bad practice to do this. It means that your employer probably isn’t having honest conversations with people about their performance, which means that they’re not giving people a chance to improve, which means that people are losing their jobs without realizing there were serious problems, which means they’re being blindsided by something pretty terrible (on top of the aforementioned lack of any chance to fix it). It also means your company’s managers aren’t managing, since laying out clear expectations and holding people to them and talking to people when they need to things differently are all fundamental parts of a manager’s job.

It also means that other people — people who aren’t being fake-laid-off — are seeing this happen and realizing that they too might be blindsided with this one day, rather than hearing it straight when their work has problems. And they might wonder what else the company misleads people about, or what else they’re too weak-willed to deal with in an honest, up-front way.

So sure, it’s easier in the short-term to just announce to someone one day that their position is being eliminated and “hey, we’re so sorry but there’s not any work for you.” Now they don’t have to have a hard conversation about what it really stemmed from! But it’s a terrible practice for all the reasons above.

Firing is not some terrible, shameful thing that companies need to hide and send themselves into contortions to avoid. If they’re fair with employees and lay out clear expectations and are candid with people when they’re not meeting them and give them a chance to improve, they don’t need to — and shouldn’t — hide what the decision is really about when they decide to let someone go.

{ 153 comments… read them below }

  1. Hills to Die on*

    I worked at a place like this. They would eleminate a position to lay off the problem employee, then chop up the duties and re assign them. If they needed more labor, they would create a new position in the department that absorbed the other jobs, just not that position that they laid off. they would reassign, restructure, open the role in another city, etc. Nobody ever gets fired and if you do, it takes 6-8 months of thorough documentation. When you get laid off, you get a severance package but you don’t have to go through the process that is totally untenable to fire someone.

    1. Hills to Die on*

      Kind of silly to have a process to avoid your process, but whatever. It should come as no surprise that that was just the beginning of the dysfunction there.

      1. Matilda Jefferies*

        That sounds like way more trouble than just letting them go in the first place!

        1. Mephyle*

          More trouble, but eliminates the awkward conversations! No doubt that was the rationale.

      2. Emily K*

        In a perverse way I might welcome the opportunity to absorb some desirable tasks from Eliminated Role and then offer some of my less-desirable tasks to be assigned to New Role. Every time a position gets eliminated my job could get a little better! ha.

        1. Kimberlee, Ranavain*

          Hahaha, yeah, I worked somewhere that was a bit like this… it was basically a department that had 3 roles with the same title, but each person was doing something a little different. It was high turnover, so whenever someone quit or got fired, they would reshuffle the job based on what the two remaining people most wanted to do/what they were best at, and then would post whatever version of the job ended up needing to be filled. Tbh, I think it worked pretty well!

    2. Specialk9*

      I’ve worked at the place that used layoffs to get rid of all kinds of troublesome people, to include women on maternity leave. It’s like, literally the only protection women in the US get on maternity leave is 12 measly unpaid weeks of leave where you don’t lose your job… And even that has loopholes.

  2. Indigo a la mode*

    I wish the OP had been more clear about whether these roles were re-hired. Has anyone here read Scaling Up? This reminds me of the authors’ discussion on Lean principles and how many extra roles can be trimmed if you’ve got the right structure and people. I’m a minimalist, and the idea of a company seeing just how many people they can continue on without (to avoid firing anyone!) is intriguing, if unsettling.

    Super agree with Alison’s point that pretty soon, people are going to start feeling the sword of Damocles above them, since there doesn’t seem to be a good feedback loop. It’s not a huge disservice to lay someone off instead of firing them – it’s a disservice to not do anything to help stop that person’s trajectory toward firing at all.

    1. CBE*

      It’s not intriguing to me. Maybe because I have *been* that overworked person who had a so-called minimalist approach and thought they’d see how much work they could cram into as few employees as possible. It’s sucked.

      1. mark132*

        That does sound awful. I do see some value in the concept. I’ve had coworkers busy doing stuff, that once they leave never gets done anymore, and everything is just fine. (unfortunately I’ve been that coworker too). So in theory “unneeded” tasks can get culled.

        1. Emily K*

          On the flip side of the same coin, every person who has left my department in the past 5 years has had to be replaced by two people. People take on more and more new projects to try to eek out continuous improvement in their bottom-line metrics and earn raises and promotions, until after a few years they’re basically doing at least two jobs. And while that person may have known their work inside-and-out enough to do it in their sleep, so they can bust their rump and get everything done, a new person coming into the company without that familiarity would take twice as long to do everything.

          I appreciate that management at least recognizes that much and does hire two people in these situations. But as a person currently doing 2 jobs’ worth of work and still interested in raises and promotions, I wish there was some option for me to get a little bit of support/relief without having to leave the company. (In spring of 2014 I informed my manager that I was at capacity and couldn’t take on any more work and needed some support. They hired someone to support me…but it took til fall of 2016 to get budget approval. The work continued to grow before and after she was hired, so now, summer 2018, I’m still doing 2+ jobs and so is she and we desperately need another team member again, and I’m sure by the time they hire them, probably in 2020, we’ll have already created so much more work between now and then that it will take us down from doing 2.5 jobs each to only doing 1.5 each and then we’ll be back up to 2 apiece by the time that third person is fully trained.

          It’s bleak.

          1. pcake*

            Wow, do I know what you mean! Years ago, I managed a nightclub that was actually several different clubs and also served food. Technically I was the assistant manager with two under-managers who reported to both me and the manager, who mostly did assistant work, leaving me to do the responsible work, ordering and decision making, and I was complimented to be trusted originally. In reality, I was grossly overworked and finally one day (on yet another double shift) I was dumbfounded to find myself crying – I had no idea why – and couldn’t stop. We had a trusted employee outside the chain of command who had been a friend and assistant to the owner for decades, and he came in to cover me. When I tried to drive home, I found I was literally unable to drive and called my mom to pick me up.

            The reason I mention this is that when my burnout took months to recover from, and I told them I couldn’t handle the job anymore, they replaced me with three – yes, three – people. And to the day the club closed years later, three people did the job I did alone for several years because no one or even two people could do it all.

        2. A tester, not a developer*

          I’ve been with my company long enough that I’ve seen those ‘unneeded’ tasks get culled, and everything is fine… for a year, or five years, or until we get audited, or we have to make some sort of root level change and we don’t have the data to make a good decision…

          Every organization has its weird outdated useless tasks. But I think that there’s often not enough analysis done to figure out if something that is useless to Area A is important to Area B – if it is, maybe Area B should take it on!

          (sorry for the rant – I’m i the middle of a ‘oh, someone actually USED that report?’ situation right now that is making my life h3ll).

          1. Specialk9*

            Sometimes the people making the decision about cuts doesn’t really understand the down stream implication. I’m currently just waiting for the consequences of cutting my old position to arrive. They have the potential to be vast. It’s not my problem anymore, but urk. I can’t not care.

          2. JustaTech*

            Oh yeah, I feel you there! “What do you mean you can’t validate this new teapot?”
            “I’m not validation. You laid them off years ago. We have no one in house to do any validation.”

            During one acquisition our new overlords laid off an entire department because the department name sounded like something that anyone could do as 10% of their job. Then the entire department had to be hired back (at higher wages) because it turns out that really simple thing is actually incredibly complicated and needs round-the-clock specialists. (We’ve since gotten new overlords who are better.)

      2. Indigo a la mode*

        I would never suggest putting actual necessary tasks onto people who already have a full workload. I can see how that was unclear in original post – I’m intrigued by optimization per Lean principles, and unsettled by this specific sketchy approach of “um, yeah, we totally don’t need all these roles, that’s why we’re laying people off…”.

        I’m a marketing manager in a department of 4 people that supports a portfolio of companies totaling over 600 employees, so I’m familiar with having to be agile and manage hefty workloads with a small team.

    2. Antilles*

      I’d be a bigger fan of the concept if not for the fact that the way it plays out in real life is usually something along the lines of “let’s lay off 20% of the staff to save money, dump that extra work on the remaining 80% of others for no extra pay, and then keep the savings for ourselves”.

      1. WellRed*

        Yeah, that happened to us. Increased workload but where did all the savings go? Not in my paycheck.

      2. Indigo a la mode*

        That is absolutely dreadful and much too common. I’ve lucked out with really good managers, including the one who had me read the book I’m referencing; Scaling Up/Lean is less about “how much work can we put on a small team before they actually explode?” and more about “what actually needs to be prioritized and who is the right, productive person with strengths in those areas so that this is easier/optimized for everyone?”

        We’ve seen a lot of that bad management on this blog. There should be a required reading list (leadership, strengths, empathy, conflict management) before anyone is allowed to have so much impact on another person’s life.

        1. Shishimai*

          Seriously common and seriously destructive.

          It’s particularly pernicious when some of the “unnecessary” tasks turn out to have been load-bearing, and now nobody has time, energy, or possibly even the know-how to do them right, because everything’s been cut to the bone, and the extra money vanished into thin air. So now not only do your 80% remaining employees have to do 100% of the work, that 100% is a little bigger and a little less functional than it used to be, because one key cog was removed from the machine.

          You could say “well that’s a failure to understand what’s important!” and to a degree, that’s true.
          It’s also the way I’ve seen this play out every single time, which makes me wonder if the problem might not just be systemic.

          1. Artemesia*

            No systems function well without some slack and those several levels from the actual productive work rarely understand which of the tasks are necessary or not.

            I remember a new Dean of a College who hired a business consultant to come in and streamline the management of said college. The guy diligently interviewed tons of people and then recommended cutting the Dean of Students and two or three other student management rolls. The college got 65 percent of its revenue from undergraduate students who would then have no one paying attention to their needs and the processes related to their being in the programs. Luckily the Dean was not an idiot, because the consultant was apparently assuming that if General Motors didn’t need these rolls then they were not necessary at this school.

            1. Bratmon*

              As someone who was recently an undergraduate in a school that had a Dean of Students, I don’t think you’re giving the buisness consultant enough credit.

              People in administration envision the Dean of Students as a role that “pays attention to their needs and the processes related to their being in the programs,” but the problem with that is that, by design, the Dean is seperated from these processes and the thoughts that led to them. If any undergraduate has a problem with anything, they are always best served going to the person in charge of the thing they have a problem with, not a random dean. If I were you, I would seriously look at what the dean actually does day-to-day, and how necessary it really is.

              And no undergraduate really cares about this role. Don’t believe me on this, if you do a survey, you’ll find the vast majority of students don’t know or don’t care about it at all. If you can find a single student that says they would transfer if that role was eliminated (or even not have joined if it wasn’t there), I will be completely shocked.

              Just because someone is nominally in charge of something important doesn’t make them important.

      3. Michaela Westen*

        As a customer it’s obvious when a retail business is doing this. No receptionist or sales associates, the few people who are there are not trained (often literally don’t know any more than I do), they’re too busy to help me and the 10 customers behind me, the equipment (sign in at the kiosk because we’re too cheap to hire a receptionist/admin!) doesn’t work…

    3. Hey Karma, Over here.*

      Re: sword reference. Yup. Exactly. The entire company has to pretend that the unacceptable employee was not unacceptable, even though every knows they are terrible.
      Oh wait. They don’t.
      They just know that every random amount of time an entire position is eliminated, because, well, since that is a lie, no explanation of the lie can really fit the facts.
      Where is Jane?
      She left the company.
      New job.
      No, we eliminated her position.
      Wow, are other areas under review?
      Nope, just Jane. I mean, Jane’s department. or I mean at Jane’s level. Or I mean…
      people are going to start wondering about their own job security.

      1. I Wrote This in the Bathroom*

        Exactly. We have all either worked, or known someone who used to work, at places that had one layoff, then another, then another, then the company shut down. Or at places that had a layoff, then another, then filled the positions with offshore contractors for a fraction of the cost. I cannot know every company employee’s performance issues. If Jane gets laid off, then Pete, then Spot and so on, I’m going to start to wonder about the company’s future and direction.

    4. Snarkus Aurelius*

      I work in government at the senior level. I used to report to the agency head and so did my two coworkers. Then he hired someone to manage our department. Annoying but okay fine. Things that need the agency head’s approval take that much longer, but that’s on him. Then we got a new agency head who only wants a set number of people reporting to him. So he’s hiring another middle manager to go in between him and my boss. On top of all that, the new agency head doesn’t want to discuss work matters with anyone who doesn’t report to him. If you try, he’ll send you back to your boss.

      Now when something bad happens, I have to tell my boss who has to tell her boss who has to tell the agency head. And if any of those people miss an email or forget to tell the next person, then the whole thing breaks down.

      This is why I’m looking for a new job. My job is such that I have to have regular contact with the person I’m paid to represent. There’s so much upper and middle management that can easily be eliminated.

      1. Indigo a la mode*

        Oh my gosh, that’s dizzying to even read about! Good luck on the job search. I know lots of great government folks trying to streamline gov and make it more modern and accessible, but things like this really drive the stereotypes about government offices…it’s maddening.

    5. Mike C.*

      The problem with these approaches (in addition to the things folks have already said) is that many don’t understand that you can often keep those people, but have them work on other things, develop other products or simply deal with greater demands for your product or service.

      It’s always “what is the cheapest we can sell ten items” rather than “maybe we could use our greater efficiency to sell twenty items instead”.

      1. Ali G*

        Yes. The whole point of LEAN Manufacturing isn’t to eliminate positions. It’s meant to empower the people who actually do the process work to improve those processes (make better products, serve more clients) and then find other ways they can contribute to the success of the company.

      2. Indigo a la mode*


        Like almost anything, Lean/optimization is a great tool, but only if implemented properly. It’s a classic clash of “looks good on paper and requires buy-in/equal investment” vs. “humans have an unfortunate habit of greed/instant gratification”……kinda like the argument on socialism.

        1. Specialk9*

          My guess is that a lot of people don’t actually read up on it, just read the back cover or hear someone mention it and assume they understand. Business has such odd trends.

      3. Emily K*

        Yes, it’s somewhat like how open offices often rate highly in studies where the square footage per employee is roughly the same as in a closed/private office layout. Partially remote/traveling employees can plug into a hot desk when they want, full-time office denizens have their own dedicated spaces, there are collaborative spaces to work on group projects without disturbing those who need focus, common areas for lunches and downtime, and private spaces to work in quiet or take phone calls, and there are enough of those spaces that everyone who wants a private space can access one. In those offices, you do see high employee satisfaction and increased rates of collaboration and productivity.

        Instead, companies adopt open plans as a way to slash square footage per person and they cram in enough hot desks for everyone plus three private booths that will always be occupied, and wars will regularly erupt over whose need for the private space is more justified and who is taking phone calls too loud or eating food that’s too smelly in the open seating area because there’s no cafeteria. Then they’re shocked when everyone is miserable and unproductive.

        1. 653-CXK*

          The first few months that hoteling/remote work was introduced at ExJob, it was a hot mess. People would openly steal keyboards and mice from other docking stations if they were missing; they would sit in spaces already reserved by other workers OR not show up to their space during high-in-demand times.

          At home, I had an older modem, and my VPN dropped out at random intervals, forcing my computer to freeze. I think every time I called, they said, “Internet issues again?” (Seriously, though – IS were cool people.)

          The last straw came when upper management thought it would be a great idea to have people call in during all-staff meetings. What happened? Dropped calls, people not using the mute button, people not phoning in at all – mass confusion reigned.

          That convinced upper management that physical attendance at all-staff meetings was mandatory. The cherry on the sundae? The second after an all staff meeting email hit, all hoteling spaces in the building where I hotelled at were gone within three minutes, forcing others to hotel in the main building.

          I certainly do not miss that aspect of hoteling/working from home anymore.

      4. Anon for this one*

        I’m not familiar with the LEAN concept, but my company (not in US) rarely fires people, and the way we use people is totally different. We hire for potential, invest a lot in training people and moving them around, so you have to try someone in many positions before you can let them go. And if someone is hired or let go, the duties are reassigned in the department.
        But if your business model is just to hire workers to fill a position, then it doesn’t make sense not to fire them if they can’t do that job.
        I am curious to learn if there are companies in the US that also work this way.

    6. Anon for this*

      At my workplace, they’ve gotten rid of all the admin staff and left everyone except directors with no admin support. So managers are doing things like ordering toner for the printers (and having to look up how to do it every time, because the admins were the only ones who knew how to do it previously). And I’m a supervisor, who is currently unable to supervise because most of my time is spent converting documents to PDF and sending them to the web team for posting.

      Either our core jobs don’t get done because we’re all too busy with admin work, or critical admin support doesn’t get done because we’re all too busy with our core jobs. Minimalism in action!

      1. Indigo a la mode*

        Well, there’s minimalism and then there’s deprivation – those aren’t equal. Minimalism is about having what you need and what you enjoy, without extra fluff or waste. My company of 600+ has six admin folks total and four marketers (*raises hand*), which isn’t much but gets the job done as long as we know what our lane is.

        I’ve definitely been in your position before, though, and I empathize with the aggravation of having to pick between necessary busywork or my actual work.

        1. Anon for this*

          I wish more people understood the difference! We have the added complication of being in government, and our current political leaders are stomping around complaining about how “bloated” the civil service is, and boy howdy are they going to work to Save Our Tax Dollars!

          Nobody seems to understand that paying someone $90K a year to convert other people’s documents to PDF, and paying somebody else $120K to order toner, isn’t a good use of money. All they hear is they’re saving the $40K that they would otherwise have spent on admin support. Math is hard!

          1. Observer*

            This is not about our “current political leaders”. If you look at all of the discussion about the evils of overhead, especially in the non-profit and government sectors, this is something that goes back *decades*. It’s only in the last few years that there has begun to be push back on this issue.

            1. Anon for this*

              Oh, definitely. I’m not in the US, and didn’t intend to start a political discussion, but one of my political leaders did use the word “bloated” just very recently. You’re right that it’s not a recent situation, though!

          2. Kat in VA*

            This is an argument I always use when bargaining for my position (I’m an executive assistant).

            Is it better to pay me $70k a year to set your calendar, grab your lunch, order the toner, sanity check your Powerpoint, hustle your butt out the door to get to your plane on time… or is it better for you, Mr/s. C-Suite pulling $300k+ a year, to do these things for yourself?

            Because every moment you spend doing MY job, you are not doing YOUR job.

            It seems to resonate with said Mr/s. C-Suites very well.


  3. Jaybeetee*

    Here in Canada, it’s actually fairly common to “list” someone’s dismissal as a lay-off rather than a firing, even if everyone in the room (the dismissed employee included) knows full well that it’s a firing. I’m not that up on the legalese of it, but I think if the Record of Employment calls it a lay-off, the employee can still collect EI. If it’s a firing, the employee cannot. Most places I’ve worked, even if someone has performance issues or other problems, usually the bosses decide to show mercy and call it a “lay-off” instead.

    1. OhNo*

      I believe it’s similar in the US (or at least, I’ve been told that I’m eligible for unemployment after a layoff before). So, it wouldn’t surprise me if the original intention of this policy was to give people the option of filing for unemployment.

      Even if that’s the case, though, it seems like this one has gone way off the rails. It’s one thing to be nice to an employee you have to let go, but it’s another thing entirely to actively harm the fired employee and the company to do so. Since this sounds like it’s irritating other employees, doing a disservice to the leaving employee, and maybe even hurting the company (if those positions aren’t being refilled), which means it’s evolved into a really bad way to operate.

        1. Jadelyn*

          And, at least in California, the company can agree not to contest the former employee’s UI filing, even if the person was fired rather than laid off.

          1. NotAnotherManager!*

            My head of HR once told me that, unless the firing was for a particularly egregious reason (theft, fraud, or abuse of others in the workplace), they don’t bother contesting unemployment for terminations for cause.

            1. Bea*

              This is pretty common. Fighting unemployment is tiresome and costs you a lot of time you can be focused elsewhere.

              Depending on the state proving they were wantonly negligent is the deciding factor. You better have a ton of paperwork.

              We fired a guy who refused to do a job assigned to him and was threatening the owner. He received UI. We tried fighting it. Nope. He didn’t have a write up history showing he was on notice that he can’t threaten people.

              1. Artemesia*

                LOL. I love this mindset. I once tried to have a doctoral student expelled for bringing canned material on a disk into his re-take of the doctoral qualifying exams. We had provided him with a sterile computer. When I presented the incontrovertible evidence (I confiscated his disk) of his cheating, the first response of TPTB was ‘well was he given written warning that he could not do this?’ To my great satisfaction our admin had in fact made sure each student received written copies of the rules. But really, you have to warn them not to cheat in order to throw them out for it?

                1. NotAnotherManager!*

                  Oh, god, yes. I fired someone once for falsifying time and billing reports, and we had cross-referenced this with keycard swipes in and out of their office (highly restricted area). In their termination meeting, they told us we were being unfair because we hadn’t told them they couldn’t do this (or that doing so could lead to termination). In fact, we had told them IN ORIENTATION that accurate recording of billing data was a job requirement and failing to do so was fraud AND had warned this individual once already about recording accurately. I told HR, “I didn’t realize we needed to expressly prohibit lying and time fraud. Seems self-explanatory.”

              2. Sunshine on a Cloudy Day*

                Ehhh… on the flip side – there are super shady companies out there who will try to screw over their (former) employees any way they can.

                I worked for a startup straight out of college that had me illegally classified as an independent contractor. After a year and a half I finally brought this up to the owner (hoping to be reclassified properly – brought it up similar to how Alison recommends, not as a threat, but as a “hey, I don’t think you realize this, but my role doesn’t seem to be appropriate to be classified as a contractor”. Wouldn’t you just know it, my role was eliminated by the end of the week. I was told to my face that this had nothing to do with my performance and that they were just downsizing/eliminating my role.

                I was devastated (I was very naive) that there had been no warning and was in a really bad position financially. Did some research and found out that I eligible for unemployment if I could prove that my work was regular employee work (rather than contract work). Applied for unemployment, was granted unemployment, then like 3 months down the line I was notified that my old employer was contesting it. By saying that I had been fired for cause. The specific cause – negligence. I had to fill out a long questionnaire about the circumstances surrounding my termination – including if I had received any written or verbal warnings about my “negligence”.

                Thank god the company would have needed to show some sort of proof that I had been warned/actually fired for cause – because it was a complete fabrication! Plus, who knows what exact details they provided. Maybe they said I did something as equally “common sense” as some of these examples.

                Obviously I’m a little touchy about this subject, and I get that it can feel maddening from the outside, but I’m incredibly grateful that law/policies here protected me from a really nasty employer.

                1. Mike*

                  This is exactly why these rules exist. To protect people. Just because some don’t get it doesn’t mean they aren’t needed.

    2. Clare*

      Yeah I don’t mind letting people be laid off so they can collect unemployment while they job search, as long as they understand why it’s happening. Although it’s not clear that’s what is happening at the LW’s company.

    3. Sue Wilson*

      You still get unemployment here even if you’re fired in most places, as long as it’s not for cause, so there’s really no reason to do that in most places in the US.

    4. CM*

      I’m in Canada too and I… consciously uncoupled from my employer last year under some really negative circumstances, so I learned a lot about this. Basically, the laws are slightly different in different provinces, but the main problem is that the public imagination doesn’t match up with what the laws actually say.

      So, people commonly seem to believe that 1) it matters whether you sucked at your job, and b) employers don’t have the right to get rid of you if the termination was “without cause.” Neither of those things is true, at least where I live.

      Basically, there are two distinctions that matter when it comes to EI and severance pay: Did you quit or were you asked to leave? And, if you were asked to leave, was it “for cause?”

      “Cause” is really narrowly defined, and basically involves hurting the company on purpose or through negligence. So, if you get drunk and drive a forklift through the wall, or you sign for expenses when you know you’re not authorized to do that, or you prop the back door open after they tell you not to and that’s how a burglar comes in and steals all their stuff — that kind of thing.

      Anything that doesn’t pass that bar, including sucking at your job and having a really bad attitude is not getting fired “for cause.” Your employer can still get rid of you, but they have to pay your severance, and you’re entitled to your full EI benefits. (Which I think is fair.)

      None of this has anything to do with the original question, which is about the company pretending to eliminate people’s roles instead of firing them as a face-saving measure but I agree that that probably won’t work if the roles get filled again.

      1. Michaela Westen*

        I’ve always heard if you quit in the U.S., you have to wait several weeks for unemployment. This has kept many people at very bad jobs.

  4. AnotherAlison*

    The only part of this that would trouble me is whether the “laid off” employees were getting performance feedback.

    My company will fire people and rarely lays off people, but when they do lay off, it is going to be the low performers or disagreeable employees first anyway. So, I don’t really care what you call it, but I think the company has an obligation to tell employees that they are not meeting their objectives, even if it doesn’t rise to PIP level. (With the exception being the time they thought they could eliminate an entire type of role and a whole group of people who couldn’t be reassigned was laid off, good and bad performers.) Also worth noting, we have a lot of people in the same roles, so you could easily and legitimately eliminate 10 of those people during a slow time and refill when work picks back up.

  5. Lalitah28*

    A company will never get comfortable with developing a fair firing practice if they do not go through the pain of firing people, especially that problem employee that is far more harmful to morale and the cultural dynamics, then having people just adjust to a restructuring the distributes duties more democratically. You just need to put on your grown-up pants and start the PIP across the board, so no one can argue that it was a deliberate biased move. But part in parcel of not having good HR practice is promoting people into management who do not like to manage.

    1. Not So NewReader*

      This and adding one more similar comment, the company will never get comfy with PIPs, write ups and just plain corrective conversations if they use their avoidance method they have here.
      OP’s friend should have been spoken to when the problem first became apparent. But instead it was allowed to go on and on. So Friend became confident about her way of doing things which meant Friend got worse and worse. No one was telling her to “Stop It!”, so she kept going.

      This leads to all kinds of interesting scenarios where people do things that might not be cool in order to cover for management who is not managing. It comes down to people repairing messes and trying to keep the company or department up and running. Repairing messes can mean anything.

      1. Lalitah28*

        Bingo. Everything unpleasant in life is just getting over the feelings of discomfort and just do it ethically, kindly, neutrally, without schadenfreude or spite.

    2. karou*

      My former boss used to eliminate positions rather than fire people who underperformed. I used to think it was because the process to fire someone was too long/complicated…until I saw other managers fire people just fine and realized former boss just didn’t want to/know how to manage people who couldn’t do their jobs properly.

  6. Antilles*

    Given that a lot of companies ask on applications if you’ve ever been fired, there’s a potential argument in favor of the company agreeing to use the semantics of “layoff” for that purpose…but you still need to make it clear to the employee what’s going on.
    We had discussed your issues before, we had discussed how to correct them, but they haven’t been correcting them, so we’re going to have to let you go. We’ll call it a ‘layoff’ as a courtesy to help you out because we like you as a person, but that’s just messaging; we all know what’s really happening.

    1. Hey Karma, Over here.*

      I agree. A bad fit is a bad fit. For person in a public facing role, soft skills are just as important as writing ability is to a journalist or coding knowledge is to a programmer.
      The company and the employee should be able to shake hands and walk away.

    2. Let's Talk About Splett*

      That’s what I was thinking. If you have to lose your job, it’s much easier to say you were laid off in interviews.

    3. lil'*

      I’m in that position. I was let go from my first job out of college, because the role changed and was no longer a good fit. I feel like I was fired, but HR treated me as I had quit, since I had to pay back my PTO that I hadn’t technically accrued by that point in the year. But then I wasn’t given severance and was approved for unemployment with no argument from the company. I feel like it was just their way of being considerate? Even though everything from my first day to my last day there was Hell….

      1. Indefinite Contract Attorney*

        Some companies make it a rule to not dispute unemployment. So long as they aren’t letting lots of people go routinely, it can be a judgement call that it takes too much time and effort to get involved in these processes.

      2. Antilles*

        The company not disputing unemployment isn’t “being considerate”. It’s just a recognition that the law is pretty clear on their requirements to pay unemployment – in order to get out of it, they would need to either show willful misconduct (obviously a non-starter since no documentation exists of it) or successfully argue that you walked off the job voluntarily (difficult to do given the change in your role).
        It also would cost a whole lot of time/energy from them, drag out the whole process, likely cause you to get an employment attorney involved, and maybe even cause morale issues on the staff if you’re still in touch with any current employees.
        Choosing not to contest unemployment was a pure business decision on their part, plain and simple – don’t give them credit for “being considerate”, because they weren’t.

        1. lil'*

          It was so toxic, I truly had no clue how to process it. Still don’t, but thanks for putting it into perspective for me.

      3. Bea*

        If you are borrowing PTO like that, fired, laid off or quitting will lead to paying it back.

  7. Amphian*

    The worst job I ever had would have layoffs every six to nine months to just dump the current round of employees who weren’t performing well OR the company no longer had work for OR had ended up on the wrong side of office politics OR whatever reason someone in power no longer wanted them there. That changed when the worst manager I ever had decided to do firings and PIPs for all of those situations instead – and it became clear the majority of those being let go were for political reasons, despite what the PIPs said.

    It sounds like the OP has a few clear cases where there was other behavior that was an issue and people should have been fired, and if they are doing them one at a time, then the company is opening itself up to potential lawsuits. I think what might be missing here is the company doesn’t want to have the hard conversations here with the managers.

    If the managers are implying problems that aren’t really there (or inflating how bad they are to HR) to get rid of the employees for other reasons, that might be why they aren’t doing PIPs. If they don’t really have the evidence to back up what they are saying, they can just talk to an employee without filling out paperwork where they would have to provide documentation. If they don’t want the employee to successfully complete a PIP, then they won’t give them a PIP to begin with so they can proceed with what they really want to do, which is get rid of the employee.

  8. wayward*

    Oh yeah, a place I worked sort of operated like that, though they were mostly soft money and had some legitimate funding fluctuations. I remember seeing one guy in a particular group laid off supposedly for funding reasons, and then the organization turned around and listed an open position with the exact same job title in the exact same group.

  9. HR Expat*

    Not disagreeing with what Alison is saying, but something that may be happening is that they are firing people AND paying them severance. It’s unlikely given what the OP is saying, but it’s still possible. In the US division of my company, it’s next to impossible to be fired without receiving some sort of severance package. The catch is that the employee needs to sign a waiver stating they won’t sue in order to receive the money. I know several large corporations have similar practices.

    The only time I can remember firing someone without a package was an employee who sold about $30k worth of our products on eBay over the course of a year. And even that was a struggle to get approved.

    1. OP*

      Yeah this is what they’re doing. They’re giving them severance and eliminating their jobs.

      1. HR Expat*

        I think the difference is that your company is telling people they’re eliminating their jobs. My company is telling people very clearly that they’re being fired for XYZ. I agree with Alison, though, that your company needs to be direct with people. They can still choose to pay them off if they want, but they need to be clear on why employees are being let go.

      1. HR Expat*

        You can fire someone and still give them severance. At least in my world, it’s all about how it’s listed in your people management system. The key is being really clear with people about the reason they’re being let go.

      1. HR Expat*

        We are so risk-averse, and the company was worried that the employee would sue us for discrimination. They were part of several protected classes and had made (unsubstantiated) claims before. Luckily, we had evidence on the employee’s computer showing eBay transactions, and the employee admitted it to us. But it took about 3 weeks to get approved. It drove me mad that I had to fight that hard to fire someone who stole that much without paying him off.

        1. Artemesia*

          The reasons creeps are emboldened is this kind of cowardice where people don’t fire someone for egregious misbehavior.

  10. Georgia*

    Ugh this happened to me. They had a consultant come in to try to figure out why my department was in shambles (It was the VP’s fault). Part of the outcome was eliminating my entry/mid-level position, turning it into a senior position, and giving it to the VP herself who wanted to do something “less-challenging” after having a baby. She immediately hired an unpaid intern to do things I used to do, and eventually had to hire someone for cheap to take it on full-time.

    It caused some drama in the office because the VP didn’t want it to seem like she stole my job, but that’s exactly what she did. In any case, unless you’re in a small office, eliminating one position like this looks suspicious no matter how you spin it.

  11. Snarkus Aurelius*

    This letter reminded me of an incident from my dating life.

    I had this guy friend. We spent a lot of time together. I developed romantic feelings for him. I confessed, but he shot me down. Here’s what he said verbatim, “I’m just not ready for a relationship right now — with you or anyone else.” Okay I can accept that.

    Except a few weeks later, I found out he had a long-term girlfriend. She worked a lot and had been out of town, which is how he did a great job of keeping her a secret for so long. My friend never mentioned her to anyone except the one person in our group who accidentally “outed” him.

    Obviously we didn’t stay friends.

    Anyway, your employer sounds like my former friend. Like rejecting someone, firing someone is a unilateral decision, which is why it sucks, but at least the person knows. If you don’t explain the diplomatic but honest reason for a rejection, then the rejectee’s mind will go to some dark places to fill in the blanks.

  12. this guy*

    Oooh this happened to me and even though I had a good outcome, I’m still really messed up by it.
    I worked somewhere where problem employees were just let go with zero warning, and told that there was no longer a place for them at the org.
    At first they purged people who were problematic and we thought, well, surely frank had it coming and surely there were conversations going on behind the scenes. THEN they started purging anyone who they felt wasn’t delivering what they wanted, or was annoying their boss, or had been there too long. With no warning. Imagine working somewhere for six years, getting nothing but glowing reviews, and then being told out of the blue you weren’t a good fit and were going to be gone by the end of the month because there was issues with your work. It really scarred me. I still don’t know what I did to get fired. I was never made aware of any issues with my work. My colleagues loved me (and were freaked out that I got fired). I had a mortgage and a family to support. Turns out i was the first of a wave. In the past two years, about 20 people have been told to leave with no warning and no reason – 2/5’s of the organization. A handful were people who were kinda problematic. But most were good workers who did fine. Just told to leave, no warning. it’s so terrible.
    To be clear, I think a company can absolutely fire people or get rid of positions that don’t make sense. But I think people deserve to know a, if there are issues with their work that they can address and b, what the organization needs from them so that they can try to meet it. To be blindsided is really unpleasant. To this day I wonder, was I a terrible employee? Do I suck? Am I going to get fired out of the blue? Does my boss actually hate me even though he says he likes me?
    It is such a spineless way to manage. Don’t do it.

    1. HarvestKaleSlaw*

      That is the worst. I’ve been at a place that would fire people with little/no warning for under-performing – and I mean things like “very first mistake,” or “does solid work and everything we ask, but not wowing us,” or, “not new and interesting anymore.” They had no clue how much paranoia and fear that created. People wound up making *more* mistakes because they were fried by the pressure to appear perfect, or hiding issues from management, or moving on quickly because they couldn’t stand living with the sword of Damocles hanging over them… If you shoot a prisoner once a week as an example to the others, it motivates the rest short term, but long term, they either learn how to scam the guards or they organize an escape.

    2. MissDisplaced*

      Sounds like every company I’ve ever worked at! They hire when it’s busy and if the don’t make their numbers they cut. The higher mid-levels or 55-60 year olds are most at risk.
      And worse now it’s common to layoff people with higher paying roles, say “marketing manager,” and then post the same job as a “marketing specialist at a lower pay level.

  13. OP*

    OP here…. clarifying: nobody here who’s doing a “good job” has ever been let go. They may leave for another job, but they’re not pushed out. Pretty much by definition, “your position has been eliminated” is code for we’re firing you. If I had to guess, it’s because they don’t want to go through the rigmarole of a PIP and documenting every issue with employees they find combative and difficult to deal with. Everybody signs a nondisparagement agreement and gets their severance, and they don’t have to say they’ve been fired. I’m not opposed to that in theory, except at least on the face of it these employees have no idea that they HAVE been fired; and it’s often infuriating to the other employees because severance is related to salary and length of employment, so the assumption is they’re getting a pretty sweet payout to leave. (That assumption is correct btw.)

    To Alison’s question — the positions aren’t immediately replaced; they just do a creative job of redistributing duties or restructuring titles so it’s not obviously the same job — I mean, it isn’t the same job. But they do end up hiring someone to do it.

    1. Snarkus Aurelius*

      A decade ago, I used to get all self-righteous over paying bad employees severance to go away and never come back. I hated the idea of rewarding bad behavior.

      I’m older and wiser, and I will gladly pay a bad employee to go away permanently. I’ve learned whatever the cost is, that money doesn’t compare to the damage this person caused over time.

    2. AnotherAlison*

      Curious why you think the people let go “have no idea that they HAVE been fired.” One one hand, I can see it, because often the Terrible Employee does not see that they are terrible, but on the other hand, if it’s common gossip every time this happens that Jane wasn’t really “let go” and “let go” means “fired”, aren’t they privy to the gossip about previous firings, too? I definitely get the frustration–there are people who do 1/10 of the work I do day to day already, and then to picture them at home lounging in the backyard collecting severance is not great.

      1. Let's Talk About Splett*

        It could be Dunning-Kruger, or it could be the employee knows or suspects they were really let go performance but they want to save face in front of their peers (and the company is giving them the perfect excuse).

      2. anon for this*

        I’ve definitely been… fired off? Clearly laid off (my position was either flatly eliminated or drastically changed, simultaneous with other layoffs at the company) but the conversation around it made it seem like I was being chosen because all of a sudden my performance was inadequate. It is very bad management.

      3. It's Pronounced Bruce*

        Yeah, that’s what I was going to say. I highly doubt these folks don’t get it, and I think there’s a pretty obvious reason for them to not go around telling everyone else “Oh yeah, they’re saying they’re laying me off, but I totally know it’s really just me getting fired!”

    3. Hey Karma, Over here.*

      Well, I would definitely want to do business with your company. They are really nice guys. And they won’t bother me with stupid details like, Hey Karma, you’re going to go over budget if meet the milestone deadline. And Hey Karma, there’s a problem with how our software interfaces with your database because it might be awkward for me to hear I need an upgrade. And thank god they won’t confront(!) me if I fail to understand any of the deliverables process because who wants to have an uncomfortable conversation?

      (!) or as the rest of the grown ups say, contact me to discuss.

    4. Amber T*

      (This is clearly not your problem, so my comment isn’t directed at you so much as your company.) Isn’t going through the rigamarole of getting creative to redistribute job duties, train existing employees, constantly write/create new job descriptions, and probably dodge legal headaches (because it really sounds like what your company is doing is just toeing the line of legal) just as much work, if not more work, than creating a PIP plan and documenting it? The hoops companies will jump through to not have to have difficult conversations (and yet still have awkward ones anyway…)

      1. It's Pronounced Bruce*

        I assume it’s not because they think it will be easier, but because they think they need to do this to avoid the possibility of ever being sued or otherwise challenged for a firing. Which is asinine for a totally different reason.

        1. BRR*

          That sounds awful and would kill my moral to have other duties piled on. Nothing stops them from giving severance to people who are fired.

      1. AMPG*

        When I’ve seen this happen, the low-performers were already being worked around somehow, anyway, just to keep the work flowing. So it ended up not being a huge problem that a position was eliminated – the people who had been doing the work unofficially just ended up doing it officially instead, which also opened the door for them to advance based on these new responsibilities.

    5. Anon right now*

      It’s very possible that those fired have been told, but that maintaining the polite fiction of “role elimination” is part of the non-disparagement agreement, or simply the agreement to keep things cordial.

    6. Clare*

      Wait, but would they still have to pay them severance anyway even if they just fired them? Some companies do give severance packages to fired employees too.

    7. Anon Today Anon Tomorrow*

      I think that this sort of thing is relatively common in organizations that are hyper concerned with being sued and/or they don’t want to go through the PIP process. I think the problem, as others have noted, is that the employee being laid off doesn’t get the feedback they need in order to improve in a future position. Although perhaps they are the kind of employee’s who wouldn’t care and would resent this sort of feedback.

      But, the practice sucks, mostly because the perception can be from hiring managers that someone who was laid off wasn’t good at their job (you get rid of the low hanging fruit), when many people are great and just the victim of unfortunate circumstances.

      1. Golden scroll*

        I agree. The last organization I was at, which was a toxic one, didn’t even follow their own policies, the HR director had been sued for sexual harassment HIMSELF by several female employees, so his stance was (instead of improving his inappropriate behavior), to assume that all employees were going to sue {eye roll}. They never put bad employees on PIP, in fact these employees felt that they were doing great, because our manager was a crappy manager and wanted to be everyone’s friend. These employees would get the benefit of having their position eliminated. Even though they were HORRIBLE employees, I’m not just talking about incompetent, but often they were unprofessional and also bullies.

        So, full passive aggressiveness, our stupid manager would take out all of her frustration regarding her bad employees on her good employees, but randomly micromanaging out of the blue or suddenly nit picking things that were never an issue before. While avoiding any 1-1 conversations with the actual PROBLEM employee about there issues and instead treating it as if the rest of us were guilty of it?!?! This resulted in good employees quitting, in fact, when I quit, it was in part due to frustration that one particular bad employee that my manager liked and favored had caused the rest of us so many issues (constantly cleaning up her disasters and manager constantly praising her, which didn’t make any sense and of course this employee felt as if she was doing great, even though she was terrible). I was one of their best employees, in turn, they started nasty rumors about me, because I quit due to being horribly treated, but the crappy employees are never confronted about how bad they are. Everyone who quit was made to feel like crap by the organization, it’s amazing. I’ve never worked anywhere that bad before where they made sure you had such a bad experience that you’d never return again, even if you were a good employee. They don’t have a glassdoor account, otherwise it would be full of bad reviews.

      2. Michaela Westen*

        “perhaps they are the kind of employee’s who wouldn’t care and would resent this sort of feedback.”
        Even if they are, it’s worth giving the feedback. They might be resentful in the moment but open to it after they’ve calmed down. It might be the first time they’ve been corrected so they dismiss it, but then they hear it again at another job, and again, and start to think there might be something to it… IMO it’s worthwhile to start that ball rolling.
        The feedback I got when I was fresh out of a bad environment *and* completely clueless was extremely helpful! Even if I didn’t understand it at first, it helped little by little. :)

  14. Ladylike*

    Another huge problem with this approach is that “eliminating positions” and “downsizing” read a lot like, “we’re having financial problems” to employees. It makes management look like they have no clear strategy about what roles are actually needed, and I bet the employees who haven’t caught on to this “fake firing” approach live in fear that their positions will be randomly cut for financial reasons.

    1. Anon right now 2*

      I actually work in a non-profit that has a department similar to this. Instead of actually managing a problem employee they just snipe, gossip and vent about them behind their back. I said something once to a manager (Bertha) who had been complaining about an employee: Have you ever actually sat Jane down and told her what issues you are seeing and trying to work on ways to improve them? Bertha’s response: No, it would hurt her feelings and then I would have to spend hours petting her. Me: So, you would rather have an employee who can’t do their job properly and just vent and talk about her instead of actually managing the problem and seeing if she could improve? If you don’t tell her she is doing it wrong, she’ll never learn to do it properly. Maybe she needs additional training or corrective feedback. Bertha just looked stunned. A few hours later I was called into my bosses office and told (Boss): I understand you were trying to help Bertha, but she says you hurt her feelings and made her think she was a bad manager. Me: Sometimes the truth hurts. Boss laughed and told me to just let them figure it out on their on. Although I have a good relationship with my boss and he is satisfied with my work and regularly praises me, I’ve been looking. It’s almost heartbreaking to see young people come in and not get any feedback at all and having a manager who is too busy venting and complaining about them instead of managing them.

      1. Camellia*

        You hurt her feelings? Did she then expect you to spend hours petting her?!? Glad to see you’ve been looking, someone like Bertha probably also carries grudges.

        1. Artemesia*

          And the boss didn’t notice that he too is a terrible boss for no correcting his manager’s failure to manage? The fish always rots from the head.

          1. Anon right now 2*

            Unfortunately, he didn’t. He wanted the director of the department to work with the Bertha on management issues (he’s the executive director) because there has been a bit of murmur about that department. Bertha hoped going to my direct manager would get me reprimanded, but it didn’t.

        2. Chaordic One*

          But I’ll bet that Bertha has an “open door” policy and if ever anything is bothering you, you can feel free to talk to her about it.

  15. tired anon*

    My company has done this and it really sucked all around. It basically came from having a mediocre employee at a junior level, who was sort of split between two departments, and didn’t get feedback or any actual management or help from either one. And on the one hand, plenty of it was on her — she really wasn’t performing well — but on the other, she was set up for failure by the fact that neither department’s manager actually addressed her issues or gave her any kind of path forward. Would she have improved with a PIP? I have no idea — but she never got a chance to, because they decided to restructure (very very slightly) specifically to remove her role so they could let her go without attempting to deal with her performance at all.

    I don’t know of other cases where that’s happened at my company, but those same managers are just… really not very good at managing people. It shows in tons of other ways, but that was a biggie that stood out to me.

  16. Sigh*

    This happened to me once. I missed an arbitrary deadline–the client I was responding to was going to be out of the office for an hour or two and wanted it before then, but it wasn’t a problem that it came back after the deadline. I missed it for procedural reasons and because I had confused the deadline with another I’d had that same day–one was 12PM, one was 2PM, and I had them mentally swapped. Nothing happened because of me missing the deadline…except that the guy who gummed up the procedural aspect demanded I be fired for making a poor representation to the client. I didn’t know about it; I waited for the other shoe to drop for about three weeks, but it was almost two months later when I was let go.
    Only, my boss and HR sat in the room and said they wanted to talk about my “separation from the company.” When given the chance to ask questions, they confirmed it was the above circumstance that had resulted in process-gummer-upper asking for me to be fired. I don’t work for him though–my boss and HR and folks I do work with didn’t want me gone. But they couldn’t convince him to stop making the demand, so they instead were able to get the CEO to approve it as a layoff instead and gave me two more weeks of work and a severance.
    I’m still pretty tore up about it, and it was last year. If only, if only, if only. But given the circumstances though, at least I know it was something small that someone fixated on, rather than an overall performance thing.

    Oh, and to add insult to injury? The guy who demanded I be pushed out left the company back in March.

    1. Observer*

      Wait some guy you didn’t even report to wanted you fired so even though your boss didn’t want you to be fired, and you didn’t do anything wrong, they pushed you out? It sounds like a company on its way to major toxicity.

      I hope you’re in a good job now, because that one was definitely heading to nasty territory.

      1. Myrin*

        Yeah, I was just thinking- “they couldn’t convince him to stop making the demand”, so maybe they could’ve just… ignored him? Or was he so high-ranking that no one dared go against him? What a bunch of baloney!

  17. DKFM*

    I actually have been curious about a practice at my nonprofit company that I’ve never seen anywhere else, and I’m wondering what people think. Instead of firing certain people from a team, management will have the whole team reapply for their jobs while still employed, and then only “re-hire” the people they want to keep on. This always seemed sketchy to me… is this common practice other places? If people are not fired but simply not “re-hired”, can they still collect unemployment? This recently happened with a coworker who had been at her job for 10 years, was pregnant and was known to be planning maternity leave in the fall, and was not re-hired for her job. From her point of view, the company had terminated her after years of service at a very vulnerable time. But they left themselves an out by being able to argue, “well, we didn’t actually fire you, you just didn’t fit our needs for this upcoming year.” Thoughts? These are W2 employees, not contractors/ consultants.

    1. Indigo a la mode*

      That sounds incredibly stressful, incredibly pointless, and incredibly conniving.

    2. Amber T*

      No, not normal, very very not normal. Once you have a job as a W2 employee, you have that job until you quit, you’re fired, or you’re laid off (I’m not sure what seasonal retail employees are considered? But that’s not the case here, so I’m sidestepping that for now.) Keeping your job is not like a season of the Bachelor – there should be no worry of “omg am I good enough to be selected to be kept on again??” The overall “re-hiring” process sounds super sketchy, and the situation with your pregnant coworker sounds like they just didn’t want to deal with maternity leave/new mom, so they found a “loophole” to not deal with it. I hope for her sake that she’s found an employment lawyer, because I’d be shocked if this was 100% legal.

      1. Lindsay J*

        Seasonal retail employees – usually laid off. They have to reapply for the position at the beginning of each season. However, it’s due to operational needs – they’re just not needed (or just not available) outside of the specific season they’re used in so there is a gap in work and then they reapply again after several months when the work is back. It’s not like they’re working continuously, and then all of a sudden have to reapply. It’s usually done this way because practically there is a decent amount of turnover between the seasons – people find different (sometimes full-time) jobs, people move, life situations change and they don’t want or need a job anymore, the company’s HR or scheduling system changes, people’s tax witholding info changes, the store redesigns and now has a kids section that needs to be staffed but has a much smaller tailored suits section so the staffing needs are drastically different. It’s easier to have everyone who wants their job again to go through the same process, rather than to pick through a list and try to track down people to find out “Okay, Annie says that she will come back, Becky we couldn’t get ahold of on the phone so who knows what her plans are, Cathy moved out of state, Derek got a full time job and won’t be back, Eugene says maybe she can work overnights and some weekends but she won’t know until the semester is over, Frank’s phone number says it is disconnected, etc).

        Sometimes they are officially furloughed, which is rare.

        Sometimes they are just taken off of the schedule but remain active employees. Especially if it’s like, “April worked for us for 3 years during high school. Now she’s in college out of state but is definitely coming back to work Winter Break and over the summer. So we’ll just give her zero hours in September, October, and November, and February, March, April, and May. I think this is more common with small stores where there is a personal connection rather than big box places with a lot of turnover and buggy scheduling software.

    3. Sue Wilson*

      If they weren’t rehired for a job they already had….then they were fired. There’s not even a distinction here.

    4. RandomusernamebecauseIwasboredwiththelastone*

      I’ve heard of this. It was a student position (non-work study) at a university (Don’t know if that makes a difference). My boss at the time told me she had done this before when she had a less than stellar batch of students.

      I’m not sure of the details and I’ve never seen it in action. But I will admit I’ve kept that in the back of my head… as in “Would I get rehired for my job?” It makes me want to perform enough to answer “Of Course!”

      1. Lindsay J*

        I think it’s more common for positions where there is a large gap between working and working again.

        I worked at a seasonal amusement park and this is the way it was done. In October you were laid off (earlier if you were heading back to school out-of-state or something). In March you reapplied and were rehired.

        I can’t remember us ever not rehiring a previous employee. But that was generally because if they were bad enough that we didn’t want them around we started the discipline process on them and so they either were fired or at the least knew that they weren’t high performers and they were probably better off finding positions elsewhere.

        Oh, okay, I did have to not rehire one woman because she dyed her hair bright colors which was outside of the company dress-code. But we let her know we would be more than happy to have her back if she changed her hair back to “natural” colors or came up with a solution like a wig that HR found acceptable.

        Seasonal retail etc was the same. As were college jobs between school years (between semesters would have been odder because it was only a couple weeks off rather than a couple months over the summer).

        There’s logistical reasons why plenty of people won’t be coming back due to their own choice (graduated, got full time job, moved, no longer want or need to work, etc) plus possible changes to the nature of the position that make it seem more natural than just randomly having everyone reapply for their jobs while still actually currently doing the work at that job.

    5. McWhadden*

      My organization has done this although not as a general practice. Just in a few circumstances. (Not advocating for it, at all! Just saying it’s been done here.)

      As I understand it the are constructively laid-off and they do get unemployment. Although it’s possible we just didn’t fight unemployment.

    6. Triple Anon*

      I have seen that. It was a well known company in a struggling industry. Everyone thought it was sketchy.

    7. Dwight Shrute*

      Something similar to this happened at a previous company I worked for. Fortunately, my department was not impacted, so my knowledge is based on what others told me about their experience. Basically, the supervisors of a single department were required to go through some kind of people management skills assessment. The details of which I’m not clear on. Based on the results of the assessment, it was determined whether or not they were suitable for the position. The outcome was keep your job, be moved into an individual contributor role within the company, or let go from the company. I’m not sure if the let go option was considered a lay-off with severance or what, but it seemed to be an all around shady deal and caused a lot of stress within that department.

    8. Someone else*

      I’ve only seen something similar to this when an acquisition or merger was involved and everyone was technically let go and allowed to reapply for their jobs at the new company. Not just an arbitrary “this job you have? please apply for it again”. That’s bizarre.

      1. Triple Anon*

        Yeah. In the case I saw, it was part of a restructuring. The company changed its focus a bit, and they changed the job descriptions, and in some cases the titles. People were reapplying for their own jobs, but it was because the job descriptions and required skills had changed.

  18. all about eevee*

    This happened to me. First, I was removed from all my projects and given all the admin work for the entire group. Then, my performance review was rescheduled over and over and over again. I never received any feedback from any manager or any training from any other employee in the department. Finally, my position was “eliminated”. They asked me to stay on for a full month’s notice period. I got another job in just a few weeks and am much happier here. They then proceeded to go through this exact same procedure (remove all projects, reschedule all reviews, and then “eliminate” the position of) with several more people who had been on the team, until the entire team except the manager and assistant manager turned over.

  19. Kyrielle*

    I agree with everything Alison said, but OP, I’ll also say that some people can be put on a formal PIP, fail to meet the goals, get fired, and *still* be shocked and stunned and take nothing away from it.

    It’s better to do it that way, because people who can improve have a chance to, and because it’s more honest with those who fail. But it’s not a guarantee that someone won’t be shocked and hurt and upset – even if they were *explicitly told* it was coming, they can still find some way to cover their eyes and not see it until it hits them.

  20. Episkey*

    I worked at a company who did this too. And like Alison alluded to, they got sued because they “eliminated” a position to get rid of the person and then re-filled it. The “laid off” person (who found out they hired someone else through friends still at the company) of course assumed it was some kind of illegal discrimination and they ended up settling with her.

    Ridiculously, this didn’t deter them and they continued to get rid of people like this. They laid me off by eliminating my position as well…the HR Director point blank told me there was nothing wrong with my performance, they were giving me severance, and wouldn’t fight unemployment benefits. …About 6 months later, my former supervisor delightfully decided to tell me they rehired someone for my role, she said, “Well, technically it isn’t your job [they called it something different], but it’s your job.”

    *Insert hand on face emoji*

  21. Polymer Phil*

    I used to work for a company that played a variation on this game. Person A’s position was genuinely being eliminated, but they wanted to get rid of person B for some reason they didn’t want to admit – age discrimination, office politics, poor performance, etc. The company would eliminate both positions, and move person A to a newly created position that, by an astonishing coincidence, just happened to be identical to person B’s eliminated position!

    1. Polymer Phil*

      I should add that when this game happened, person A was usually about 30-35 years old, and person B was usually over 50.

  22. Triple Anon*

    Getting fired sucks, but it’s a fair consequence for really bad behavior, whether it’s one excruciatingly bad thing or a pattern that the person is aware of but chooses not to change. If someone has made bad choices, it’s fair for that to be part of their history. But the company has to be honest about it, and they have to give the person feedback and a chance to change. I think moving to a different role should also be an option, depending on what the issue is. What this company is doing should be a sort of plan F – something that’s only done if the more reasonable options won’t work for some reason.

    By not giving people feedback, they’re doing a disservice both to the laid off workers and to those who will work with them in the future. People need to be told what they’re doing wrong so that they can change for the better.

  23. Selene*

    I’m almost more concerned about the fact that no one gives references at this company!

    1. Bea*

      We had the rule years ago. The former COO thought if you give a good reference and the person sucks at their new job…he could be sued by the person who asked for a reference. It was one of the more bizarre myths I’ve heard in my years.

      Otherwise it’s some turd who doesn’t know you can deny a reference for a bad break. Lots of companies fear lawsuits if they share too much info or may give a negative reference and it gets back to the former employee. It’s a headache hearing all the excuses I’ve seen about not giving references like that. Bleh.

      1. HR Expat*

        I hear all the time that “it’s illegal to give anything other than dates of employment.” Which, as we all know, is false. But companies being afraid of lawsuits and refusing to give references has really led to this misconception.

  24. Ann O'Nemity*

    My company did this once, everyone knew it, and it felt yucky. I can’t imagine how I would feel in a culture where this was the norm. Do these people even know it’s coming?

  25. Bea*

    You don’t get a severance if you’re fired. So it sounds like that’s part of this procedure more so than unemployment benefits.

    I prefer this method to the bs they pull for just slashing hours until a person quits because you can’t live on 2 midweek day shifts a week or something.

  26. Close Bracket*

    > Nobody gets a PIP to the best of my knowledge

    Are your higher ups total n00bs? PIPs are how you get rid of people with enough documentation that they can’t sue.

  27. Chaordic One*

    The “position being eliminated” thing is something that is all too often abused and misused by employers. I’m aware of way too many instances in which the person whose position is being eliminated just coincidentally was also someone who was getting ready to go on maternity leave, or who had to use FMLA, or had to go on disability because of illness. My former employer was sued for this several times and in each incident they settled out of court without admitting any liability.

  28. Evergreen*

    For any Australian readers it’s worth noting that this practice constitutes unfair dismissal in Australia: you can’t make someone redundant and then rehire into their position within a set timeframe (6 months maybe). The idea is that you can’t use redundancy as a workaround to the unfair dismissal rules that require the employer to work with the employee to improve their performance, provide training etc and use firing as a last resort.

    It’s still incredibly common, but not legal.

    1. missc*

      As far as I know, it’s the same in the UK. There are all sorts of procedures that need to be followed in order to make people redundant, and the employees have all sorts of rights attached to that – you can’t just ‘lay people off’, you have to prove that the actual jobs themselves are no longer required (rather than the people doing those jobs) and you usually have to have some sort of consultation period in order to do that. I went through a whole redundancy thing in one job and the boss had to give us notice that the company was considering redundancies, and then there was a consultation period during which we had the right to meet with the boss to discuss why we believed our jobs were in fact essential to the company. There were various hoops they had to jump through before they made a decision on how many jobs would go and which jobs those would be.

      You also can’t make people redundant and then re-hire people for those same jobs, or not within a certain amount of time, anyway, because the whole idea is that the company no longer requires that job to exist.

      1. only acting normal*

        I came to say the same thing.
        Making someone redundant in the UK is only legal if you don’t refill the position soon after, otherwise the person laid off can challenge it legally as unfair dismissal.
        There are all sorts of legal procedures to go through for both redundancies and dismissals; you can’t do the former to avoid the procedure for the latter. (Doesn’t mean it’s impossible to do either you just have to do it properly). I’ve seen both happen at places I’ve worked, neither is fun for those affected, but the proper procedure is better than the alternative.

  29. 653-CXK*

    In my ExJob, even mentioning the word “layoff” would set off a huge panic. I do suspect they “manage out” people by using PIP’s and progressive write-up route, however, before termination. This way, (a) they don’t have to pay out severance, which is usually one weeks pay per year of service plus continued health insurance for same period, and (b) unless the offenses were absolutely egregious, they would allow terminated employees to collect unemployment.

    When they did reorganize at ExJob six years ago, they took away all of the senior positions and gave the coaching duties to the supervisors. No layoffs, but it did set in motion a record amount of retirements among the older staff.

  30. Elle Kay*

    My mom used to work at an organization that was semi-unionized. Some Depts and roles were and some weren’t but all employees were processed using the union procedures. One of the consequences of this was that, if you had worked here for more than 12 months they were *required* to give you 12 months of notice if you were getting fired. (I think it was even longer if you’d been there for years and years) Between that and the grievance procedures it regularly took closer to 2 years to fire anyone AND they were forbidden from hiring the replacement in the meantime. (IE you couldn’t have the outgoing employee do nothing while a new employee took over the job duties) This, of course, also meant that people who were waiting for that year to run out didn’t do their jobs. (Why would they?)

    So, they ended up with A LOT of situations where they would eliminate the position instead as a work-around.

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