updates: dealing with firing someone, the lost bonus, and more

Here are three updates from people who had their letters answered here in the past.

1. How do you deal with having to fire someone?

Nearly a decade ago, you answered my letter about feeling guilty when I had to fire someone for the first time. When I wrote, I’d only been a manager for three years and had only recently moved into a more direct management role.

Your answer to my letter focused on creating and maintaining a healthy team environment, that by holding the poor performer accountable it would boost the overall morale of the team. That’s exactly what happened. After the firing, I could tell the remaining student employees were relieved. I hadn’t realized how much one person’s behavior could impact a team. While we never divulged that the employee was fired (we only said she was no longer working for us if asked), the remaining student employees sussed out what happened. In the remaining weeks of the semester, the rest of the cohort dug deep and gave us their best.

You also mentioned the employee probably should’ve been fired for her first no-call and no-show. At the time I worked in a community college library. Our student employees were young, between 17-21 years old. For nearly all the students this was their first professional job. My fellow managers and I felt strongly about teaching student employees professional norms and skills. Almost like a paid internship except the student employees didn’t receive course credit. (Including performance evaluations every semester. Which is practically unheard of for student employee positions.) Mistakes that might have gotten employees fired in other jobs were given more leniency. When mistakes were made, we counseled the student employee on the correct behavior and expected them to incorporate the feedback going forward. Over the years I worked in that job, we had several student employees start heading down the same path as the fired employee. Through mentoring and a couple of firm talks, they pulled a 180 turnaround and became our best performers, including one student employee who works with me at my current job! She’s told me privately that without the coaching and mentoring she received as a student employee, she never would’ve gotten her second job which helped her build the skills to be hired into her current role.

I don’t regret the amount of time and effort spent mentoring the fired student employee. She chose not to take the opportunity offered to her. Sometimes I wonder how she’s doing, and mostly I hope that her firing was the wake-up call she needed to change her behavior.

2. I’m losing my bonus, which accounts for a big chunk of my pay (#2 at the link)

I wrote to you in 2015 when the company I worked for suspended our bonus structure, which accounted for a big part of my pay. A pretty uncomplicated question that was really the tip of the dysfunction iceberg. I’d planned to take your advice and ask for a pay increase, but that plan became irrelevant really quickly. At this point, I don’t remember the order of all the events, but among them:

– My team started working from home more. We eventually learned the lease for our team’s office space was not being renewed and later someone saw our office furniture/equipment for sale on Facebook.

– I was offered a “hypothetical” job and raise to replace my team lead if they and other team members left over the no bonus thing. When asked who I would be leading if most of the team quit, I was offered a couple people from other teams with no background/qualifications for our work. I gave a pretty non-committal response (for many reasons, I had no interest in that job at that point) and was asked not to tell anyone about the offer.

– We heard from a member of a different team that management had mentioned eliminating X number of positions, the same number on our team. Eventually, we did all get laid off, in a management-tear-filled meeting. Other weird, hilarious-in-retrospect stuff happened before and after that but for the sake of workplaces everywhere, I really hope that’s too specific to share. Suffice to say, by the time of the layoff, it had been enough of a roller coaster that I was not sad or surprised about it.

Even though I didn’t get a chance to use it, I still appreciated your advice and script. Artemesia’s comment that this was a big red flag was right,and while not aimed at me specifically, I do think it was intended to be a first step in shutting our team down or getting certain people out. Not because we weren’t profitable, but because the company was unable to or uninterested in appropriately managing our variable revenue and expenses (both were more fixed for other business lines).

Since then, me and a couple colleagues started our own company in a similar line of work and have been pretty successful. Happy to say I’m still getting to do work I care about but in a generally drama-free atmosphere and with more control (and pay!).

3. I was planning to leave my job for grad school, but… (#3 at the link)

Around the time the original letter was published, I was offered a small raise, but not nearly enough after taxes to cover the ~20k difference between my savings and the full cost of tuition, so staying the extra year wasn’t a sound choice when looking at my career path balanced with finances. I took a few days to consider but told them I’ll be leaving when my program starts. COVID then threw things into confusion for a few months (online school for summer? fall? the whole year?), but I just got the news that my program will be able to start on time.

{ 21 comments… read them below }

  1. Jaybeetee*

    LW1 I’m glad it worked out. A long time ago I was also a manager at a workplace with young employees (students/recent grads, even a couple of high-schoolers who worked weekends). One employee had to be fired. Prior to him, firings were rare and our disciplinary/coaching processes were lackadaisical – at the same time, there was a serious micromanaging culture that meant people sometimes caught hell for minor issues. After him, we learned we had to take a more structured approach, and the micromanagement slowly ceased as that structure took form.

    That said, the “don’t tell anyone this person has been fired thing” can get weird. We were told that with our person, even though he had basically been perp-walked out past a bunch of people.

    1. merp*

      I had the same thought – when you know everyone else is just going to be guessing, I don’t think it makes a lot of sense to not give the information. But I’m glad it resolved well!

    2. charo*

      Often in Q&A columns, even non-work ones, I think that the best advice is:

      Bring up the issue right when it happens, don’t wait. So if she’s very late or a no-show often enough to get your attention, when you see her tell her calmly that this behavior can be treated very severely. A pattern of it could be a firing offense.
      That doesn’t say she’s fired now but plants the seed that it’s serious. Let her be the one to ask how often would get her fired, don’t spell that out.
      If someone does something inappropriate over and over, coworker or your employee, you can say, “THAT! You’re doing that inappropriate thing again, and it’s not OK.” When you stop them in their tracks, even if a group is laughing at a bigoted joke, you make it clear exactly what the issue is.

      “I know you think this is funny / cute / etc., but it’s not OK in this office. Because it’s bigoted / sexist / racist / childish / etc.” Don’t micromanage, but catching someone in the act is good if what they’re doing is just wrong.

      If they want to argue about it you can have a civil discussion and explain it to them. But if they get pushy, be the boss. Or tell their boss.

  2. Lauren*

    Management-tear-filled meeting?

    Can we please have leadership stop making our lay-offs about their feelings?!? I had a SVP constantly talking how those days are just so difficult for HIM. Suck-it-up buttercup!!!

    Here is a good script:
    – I’m sorry to tell you this, but your job is being eliminated.
    – You are classified as a lay-off and will be able to apply for unemployment.
    – Your severance will be X. Sign this now in order to receive your severance or send it to us within 3 days and it will be mailed to you.
    – Your health insurance is paid and active through X date. After that, your options are cobra, state exchange, etc.
    – Everything I just said is in this packet.
    – If you have questions, your contact will be Joe in HR.
    – Your manager, Sansa, Tyrion, Bronn have each offered to be references for you.
    – Do you have any immediate questions?
    – After you leave today, the office will be told 1 hr from then. We ask that you wait to contact anyone in the office until after that time so that we can tell everyone at once.
    – Why don’t you grab your laptop and remove anything personal from it. Delete your browser if necessary for any saved passwords. Send any unfinished docs to your manager.
    – Any more questions?

    1. OhBehave*

      Yes to the management crying thing! I was laid off and told how it was such a hard decision and it’s ok for me to cry. Umm – I know it’s ok for me to cry! I had gotten a heads up from my manager prior to this. I had worked there 20 years and was extremely close to everyone. Ultimately they shut their doors. I was one of the first to get tossed. But my team was treated very well and compensated very well with severance. Others not so much.

    2. Chronic Overthinker*

      I am in complete agreement with you. Management has no reason to be tear-filled. They aren’t losing a job/benefits/pay/et cetera. They are really only losing out on productivity. So stop with the crocodile tears and be matter-of-fact, explain why the termination is happening and what the next steps will be in the process.

    3. The Man, Becky Lynch*

      100% agree with the fact management needs to suck it up and stick to the scripts.

      This isn’t about YOU and YOUR feelings. It’s about a painfully personal procedure that needs to be done in a compassionate way.

      Go sob afterwards and talk to your other management friends about your struggles, like the rest of us adults who have had to give really shitty awful life changing news to people we do very much care about. Circle of grief, mo-fos.

    4. Sola Lingua Bona Lingua Mortua Est*

      I’d prefer you ask me for questions right after “Your departure is classified as a lay-off.” That way I can process some of the stuff at my own pace and in my own order.

      Other than that, I think that’s a great script.

      1. The Man, Becky Lynch*

        Part of why most people ask at the end is because they have more to say, so your questions may be answered in the next part of the script. Because a lot of times “you’ve been laid off, you’ll be eligible for unemployment.” the next question is “Will there be a severance?” “How fast do I have to leave?” kind of things, which is cleared up in the original script.

        But honestly, I always open up conversations making sure people know they’re not there just to listen, ask questions as you see fit. And I of course ask at the end if they have anything else to ask, along with making sure they have everyone’s proper contact information because questions often come up later after we’ve left the meeting.

        1. Sola Lingua Bona Lingua Mortua Est*

          I’m the rare bird that would appreciate the severance, but my initial thoughts would go to “how do we transition my responsibilities cleanly so I don’t get my friends fired in the process.” Because at that point, they wouldn’t really be coworkers as much as friends.

          1. The Man, Becky Lynch*

            You are rare indeed and very kind hearted!

            I think it’s because most places who are laying people off aren’t really expecting you to be thinking of them any longer and it’s all in survival mode of yourself.

            At the stage where someone is laid off, effective immediately, the supervising team members have already decided what to do with their duties/tasks/projects. That’s usually all the behinds the scenes, lead up to a formal layoff :(

            1. Sola Lingua Bona Lingua Mortua Est*

              That all makes sense.

              I have been laid off in the past,* and my thoughts quickly turned to “I have all the time in the world to think of myself starting tomorrow, or even tonight.” I’ve also seen people’s documentation get thrown out or shredded when someone cleans out the desk of another who was laid off. Spite might lead one to not care if the company gets burned by a project I was working on failing or a client I serviced leaving, but it’s certainly unfair to Jane, Joaquin and James, my friends who will go through the failure and deal with the fallout, and it’s not going to help my morale to see them at the unemployment office in the same line I’m.**

              Wrap up the loose ends first. Then I can go tell my carboy of cidre the bad news.

              *I went into said boss’ office to let him know I wanted to take a half-day the next day. I wasn’t intending to tell him it was for a job interview, but decided to after being told of the layoff. I think it helped his morale.
              **Figuratively speaking, of course.

    5. pcake*

      Lauren, great script. It answers many questions that are often not answered or not answered clearly. Having it on paper is a nice bonus. I particularly like letting the person know who to ask for references, how long health insurance will be active through and that you’d let the person know up front that they’re eligible for unemployment. Very nice.

      I also agree about managers making the layoffs about their feelings. I’m 100% sure it’s harder for the person who just lost their job, so I’d think being supportive and informative would be immeasurably better than having the manager telling the person who was laid off how hard it for the manager.

    6. Seeking Second Childhood*

      Brilliant. The only thing I would add? “You are eligible for rehire in the future.”

  3. licoricepencil*

    LW1, your (original and update) letter reminded me of a good piece of advice my dad gave me a while back that his boss had shared with him: “If you ever stop feeling guilty or bad about firing someone, you need to quit or get out of management ASAP.” I hope I can follow your and his example of compassion if I ever become a manager!

    1. The Man, Becky Lynch*

      This is solid advice, I’m glad it’s been passed down!

      You cannot lose sight of the individuality involved either. If I ever treat someone like a number, put me out to pasture and tell me to get.

  4. Tiny_Strawberries*

    LW1 made me think about the different student jobs I held. Only one really offered any kind of feedback, and it had the best employee retention despite being (in my opinion) the most boring. I just wanted to say that I think providing that kind of support should be required by schools for jobs that are advertised to students, especially because often the students are giving up time studying, or being with friends, and they are also often required to have a job through a work-study program.
    This is really just to say kudos to you and your fellow managers. You probably made a huge impact for your student employees.

  5. Altair*

    I remember reading the first letter, one of the first articles I read here, and how much it changed my perspective. Prior to that I had thought most managers enjoyed or at least didn’t care about firing people. It’s a major way to make someone unhappy, after all, and a lot of people in this world enjoy making people unhappy, or at least don’t care whatsoever about making people unhappy. Realizing that many managers actively dislike firing people and are willing to work with employees to avoid firing them really helped assuage my persistent anxiety that anything and everything I ever did wrong would get me fired, and inspired me to be more proactive about speaking with my managers when I’d made a mistake about how i planned to prevent such mistakes in the future. I know that wasn’t why you wrote in, LW #1 (heh) but I thought I would mention, atop how I admire your methods for teaching student employees to be better employees, how you helped me become a better employee by asking your question.

  6. Analytical Tree Hugger*

    LW1, thank you for the work you and your management team did to prepare students for professional work. The student employee context is helpful when re-reading the letter.

    LW2, eek, that does sound like a dysfunctional iceberg. Glad you and you coworkers were able to spin-off to your own company; hopefully, you can apply these “How not to run a business” lessons.

  7. sacados*

    Slight side note, but I just have to say that going back to reread LW1’s original letter, seeing the date stamp and realizing that 2011 is “nearly a decade ago” is definitely making me feel some kind of way…

  8. One More Person Looking for the High Road*

    Very good to read these mostly-no-drama updates … We could all use some good news, and I like knowing that things worked out for all of you. :)

    OP #1 – You sound like a very compassionate and caring person who’s made a real difference in the lives of your employees over the years. Blessings on you. (And I’m glad you were able to process your initial sadness about having to fire the unsuccessful student worker.)

    OP #2 – The “management-tears-filled meeting” sounds annoying AF and the rest of it could not have been the least bit fun. Good on you for moving on so successfully!

    OP #3 – Excellent news! I’m glad neither your previous employer nor the pandemic is keeping you from pursuing your dreams. Best of luck in grad school and beyond.

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