A few years ago, on an otherwise typical Wednesday morning, one of my company’s executives called a last-minute meeting. My co-workers and I, most of us looking bewildered, gathered around a table and learned Lisa (not her real name) would no longer be working at the company.
While it wasn’t exactly clear whether or not Lisa had been fired or let go, the one thing that was plain as day was that we weren’t to “gossip about it” among ourselves. That was, it seemed, more than anything else, the reason the meeting had been called.
Though we understood the reasoning behind the instruction, it was difficult not to say anything at all to one another and simply go about our day has though nothing had happened, as though this very senior person, whom most of us admired and valued, would be no longer a part of our workday.
But so it goes: One day you’re working side-by-side with Trevor, emailing him for the numbers you need and laughing with him over the annoying fire drill during one of the coldest days of the year—and the next, his desk is clean, and his chair is empty.
What are you supposed to do? How are you expected to react? Since I struggled with complying 100% with the VP’s recommendation that we not speculate about it, I decided to reach out to Melody Godfred, Muse Coach and founder of Write in Color, for her expert advice on how to handle a co-worker’s dismissal professionally, but also like a real, live human with feelings.
Though it may feel natural to analyze what’s happened when a co-worker loses his job, Godfred suggests reminding yourself where your primary responsibility lies: with your employer. She goes on to say that the “best thing to do is avoid engaging in any speculating, gossiping, or general conversation,” and that goes for both publicly and privately.
It should go without saying that talking smack about your employer—even if your work wife got canned—is ill-advised. Not only could it jeopardize your job, but it could “create a toxic culture that inhibits your own growth and the company's as well.” And, I’m sure in your hasty anger, saying that so-and-so should’ve gotten fired instead isn’t something you’d ever want to come back and haunt you.
As Godfred points out, “Culture is a big buzz word right now,” and though it can be over-emphasized, it has real meaning in a situation like this where “the vibe at work is almost as important to your happiness as the work that you're doing. If you kill that vibe by being negative and badmouthing your own employer, all you're accomplishing is making yourself and your colleagues miserable, and even potentially talking your way into getting fired.”
With that said, it’s nearly impossible to continue on as normal when this happens to a member of your team—especially when you don’t know all the details and when you genuinely liked the individual. It’s not crazy to wonder if you’re going to be the next to disappear. Your mind, inevitably reeling, starts to question your own security or lack thereof. Maybe you even begin questioning your performance. Is it possible that your job is on the line and you have no idea? Or, if you’re certain that your boss has no complaints about your work, you wonder: Is this the first sign of bigger lay-offs to come?
Regardless of whether you’re concerned about getting fired for performance or laid off due to company budget cuts or department restructurings, it won’t help you much to let the anxiety reach record proportions. Instead, schedule a frank conversation with your manager and speak candidly about your concerns. If beginning a frank conversation on the recent employee’s firing or lay off feels scary, then try working it lightly into the conversation, maybe even making a small joke if you have an easy and communicative relationship with your boss. You might say, “I was really sorry to hear about [Name of person]’s departure. I don’t expect to know all the details, but…hope I’m not next!”
Chances are, your boss will put your fears to rest right then and there. Or, the conversation may end up being an opportunity for you to get valuable feedback on ways you could improve yourself—not just to avoid getting fired, but to put yourself in the running for a promotion or a raise.
Once you’ve had any fears about your own job loss quelled, know that you don’t have to up and forget about what happened and bury yourself in your assignments. You should feel at liberty to reach out to the person who lost his or her job, but Godfred doesn’t recommend commenting specifically on the situation. Rather than saying, “‘It sucks that they did this to you,’ you can say ‘I'll miss you at the office.’”
If the person was a friend, of course “you can and should continue to be a friend to [him or her],” especially because “chances are they need a friend more than ever during this difficult time.”Godfred’s advice is spot-on. Even though I’m not guilty of bad-mouthing my company, a wiser me would have remained even more mum, for my own sake.
So, offer a shoulder or an ear, and let your pal know he’s missed, but avoid saying anything that you wouldn’t be comfortable having the CEO get wind of. Sure, you may think you know the whole story, but rarely is that the case with these complicated matters.
And, if other co-workers try to engage you in gossip and pointless chatter, shut it down. You’re not helping the person who lost his job by talking about him behind his back. You’re only instigating future problems—and, like Godfred said, putting your own position on the line.
Yes, this is a hard situation, but unfortunately it’s one that’ll probably rear its head a few times throughout your career. Learning how to handle it now will only help you in the future.