Three Clues You’re About to Lose Your Job

Learn the signs that your job is at risk before you lose it. (Image winnond)

The firing process is God awful. (No matter how gleefully Mitt Romney extolled its virtues on the campaign trail.) People hate to cause pain, so there’s major stress involved with letting someone go for underperformance. Of course this doesn’t even come close to the anguish of the person being fired. Can’t this whole process be avoided?

Both sides may wonder how it ever came to this. Managers question why people don’t see the writing on the wall and voluntarily exit a company. Employees feel blindsided.

I was in this exact conversation last week with a coaching client, who had an employee on a serious development plan. My client’s strong desire was that this person would self-select out rather than having to go through a messy termination process. However, there was no evidence that this was the case.

I’ll admit that as a manager I’ve been in that hopeful-wait-and-see place. And then dismayed when people don’t leave on their own. (You know you’re ready for a person to go when their frequent absences make you happy since that hopefully means interviewing.) My coaching work puts me in different conversations, and I now see the confusion many employees feel.

Most people would leave if they knew they were about to be fired.

The message is usually not nearly as clear as the manager believes it to be. For one, when we have to deliver negative feedback we often soft pedal to the point of being downright confusing. Second, there are a lot of mixed messages leading to a termination with the required documentation, performance feedback, and remediation time. It’s human nature to believe what we want to believe — and often it’s that being fired could never happen to us. Performance issues can take many elusive forms, with firing usually due to a cultural or personality mismatch.

Being fired is so traumatic people never fully recover from it, and it leaves an aftermath of pain and risk at companies as well. It’s far better for everyone if the employee finds a path to leave on his own accord.

Yes, some employees may think it’s smart to hold on because there could be a golden exit package waiting on the other side of a termination. In my experience, the amount rarely justifies the damage to one’s ego and career that comes from being fired with cause. By that point, the manager is generally so fed up that she’s in no mood to be generous. At best, you’re being paid to not cause trouble.

So in an attempt to clarify an opaque process, here’s what’s happening behind the scenes when someone is in the process of losing a job. See these signs, and it may be best to get moving to your next opportunity while you still have control. It’s a sad event to lose your job, but a disaster if you had no idea it was coming.

1. You start receiving a significant increase in written feedback.

Understand that any performance management process is governed by HR and legal, both of whom are motivated to mitigate risk. When a manager goes to them about an underperforming employee, the first question is “what’s your documentation?” Usually, there isn’t much. So all of a sudden they start, and they make sure it’s written so there’s a record.

Now some of you may already get written feedback routinely, and that’s the norm. The hint here is that the amount increases or it changes, for example from oral to written. This means a case is being made, so take it seriously.

2. You stop getting feedback altogether.

This can be extremely confusing because after having an inordinate amount of feedback, and likely one-on-one coaching meetings too, the attention wanes. The employee may want to believe the best — they’ve addressed all concerns and the remediation process is successful. Unless you’ve gotten a gold star for turning things around, it’s generally the opposite.

When a company is certain to fire someone, legal will advise to stop communicating so nothing that’s said can be used against the company. (Personally, I’ve always felt this was horrible advice, but I’ve gotten it from legal many times.) Silence or ostracism may actually be a corporate shout that they’ve given up on you.

3. Expectations for your work go down or disappear.

This is a softer take on the last point, so it’s easy to overlook. If the accountability level for your job seems to have fallen, your boss checks in less, and you feel a lightening workload, that’s not a good sign. It’s the rare company who can afford to carry those who don’t contribute at a high level –a full plate is the safest plate. And yours may just be in jeopardy. Companies may also backfill or shift work to others, in an attempt to lessen the blow when you’re gone.

Now of course, being on a performance plan doesn’t always mean you’re going to lose your job. Good people who need to up their game can also be put on plans in the hope that they rise to the occasion. That’s why deciphering where you stand can be difficult.

My advice: if in doubt, ask. Be blatant. “Is my job in danger?’ is a good one. If the answer is anything other than a firm NO!, prepare yourself to move on, even if it’s just as a backup strategy. Keep yourself in the driver’s seat; it’s your life after all.

Have a perspective on this topic to share? Comment here or @kristihedges.

Kristi Hedges is a leadership coach, speaker, and author of The Power of Presence: Unlock Your Potential to Influence and Engage Others.


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About kristihedges
Executive coach, leadership development consultant, Forbes.com blogger, Entrepreneur.com contributor, author of Power of Presence (AMACOM).

3 Responses to Three Clues You’re About to Lose Your Job

  1. Mike Shushan says:

    Great advice!

  2. I fully agree with #1 and #3. I think #2 is the reason a lot of people get fired. I truly believe that more times than not, it is the failure of the manager to give the appropriate feedback that causes someone to get fired. For a lot of employees the first indication they get that their boss is not happy with them is when they get fired. I think a lot of companies have started using “layoffs” as a convenient way to get rid of low performers. It is sad because the ones they need to be looking at are the managers that are failing to give the feedback in the first place. Great post!

  3. PM Hut says:

    I agree on all the 3 points:

    As a manager, I once told the owner about an underperforming employee, and that I think her quality of work is deteriorating, and that if she continues working she will do more harm than good. The first thing he told me was to send her a warning email, detailing the things that she’s doing. The email ended with something “We will do our best to protect our company’s interests” – it was harsh…

    As an employee (back in the early 2000’s), I experienced the other two. The feedback stopped altogether and I got assigned the trivial tasks. Even though I haven’t read your article, I knew it, but hey, the pay was good, until I got shown the door…

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