Worked Up At Work

How to handle sticky office situations

Grief in Termination is Real

Termination is tough for both employers and employees. Sometimes, very tough.

Unfortunately, you sometimes have to terminate someone. It’s also unfortunate that this sometimes doesn’t go well. That results in significant stress and related problems on both sides.

Fortunately, an awareness of the emotional impact of termination can help you work with the soon-to-be terminated employee to make parting, and any negotiations related to it, go more smoothly.

A good book on the subject is Elisa Kubler-Ross', On Death and Dying, which includes the five stages associated with accepting death. I find that her work can apply to helping people accept the death of their jobs. How many stages people go through and how quickly is determined by their personality and the situation. As the situation changes, so can the progress through the stages. I had a case where knowing the stages was extremely helpful.

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In a recent case, the person causing the problem was a police chief alleging sexual harassment by a deputy, the grandson of the town’s mayor. Despite spotty evidence, the deputy resigned and found employment elsewhere. The mayor hired me to do a civil investigation of the sexual harassment allegation. Long story short, the chief and the captain were guilty and had set the deputy up to protect themselves from serious mistakes they had made. The goal was to terminate both without litigation. It was not easy because of the situation and the ego of the two “defendants.”

Kubler-Ross describes the first stage of grief as denial, a conscious or unconscious refusal to accept facts and information or reality relating to the situation. It's a defense mechanism and perfectly natural. Some people can become locked in this stage when dealing with traumatic change, such as termination. This is where the police chief was sitting—total denial.

The second stage Kubler-Ross labels as anger, and it was the most challenging for me in this case. During this stage, the chief and his captain were especially threatening and defiant. Remember that these people carry guns, are not afraid of using them and are used to running over the law. In their world, power trumps good judgment, fairness or being right. This stage called for me to be stronger and more aggressive than the chief or the captain but I have found that a more passive style works better than “one-upsmanship.” This is not a time to be bigger or stronger; it’s time to be firmer and smarter. They need to realize they were “caught” and be calm as they enter stages three through five.

The third stage is bargaining. Whether a person is an introvert or an extrovert, the bargaining stage is about trying to get a better deal. I had to convince two extroverts that their “blue wall” had crumbled and they were no longer in charge. The strength play from stage two worked, and I was able to get them to listen and understand the seriousness of the situation and the benefit to them of voluntary resignation.

Stage four is depression. It's natural to feel sadness, regret, fear and uncertainty. It shows that the person has begun to accept reality. The chief and the captain were not happy at this point. They were fully aware of the possible consequences of their actions—the loss of their jobs and careers.

The final stage is acceptance. In Kubler-Ross’ world, this when the individual is ready to die. In my world, this is where the individual is ready to sign the agreement, accept the settlement and move on. The chief and the captain voluntarily resigned and signed hold-harmless agreements. The deputy came back and was promoted to permanent chief in three months.

The moral of the story? Knowing the stages of grief as they apply to termination can give you a perspective to help keep you from a lose-lose situation, especially in complicated situations where civics or boards are involved.

Steve M. Cohen, Ed.D., C.M.C., is the president of Labor Management Advisory Group and HR Solutions: On-Call, and the author of Mess Management: Lessons From a Corporate Hit Man.

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