Let It Be: My First Layoff

I’ve recently had a first.  The first time I’ve ever had to look someone in the eye and tell them they no longer have a job. For real. Immediately.

This, my friends, sucks.

I’m not going to go into the details, whyfores and wherefores, out of respect for the person I had this conversation with. And also because that’s not my story to tell.  My story sits squarely on one side of that table with the HR manager and the signed redundancy notice.

I can’t remember the last time I’d been so physically, instinctually nervous.  Those that know me know I can usually handle tough shit with a reasonably even hand. Anything less than the toughest usually involved some swear words and a distinctly emotional yet practical Midwestern directness.  But this was tougher than the toughest and I was terrified. I had to rehearse the brief conversation 6 or 7 times with my friend, the HR manager. I could hardly breath.

In the UAE, when someone loses their job, they aren’t just losing their job. They’re losing the ability to live in the country.  They’re (potentially) losing their home, their kid’s place at school, their friends and neighbors. Not to mention their means of income and self esteem. So when I made this decision, I did not take it lightly.

I’ve dealt with a huge range of emotions and continue to deal with them. In true engineer/MBA fashion, I made a chart to illustrate the complexity.

A Terminating Manager’s Emotional Timeline


The biggest emotion I faced, by far, through the build up to the decision to act until the act of actually laying off was supreme frustration. The chart above has anger in there as the strongest, but this was really a side effect of frustration.  I am a manager who cares deeply about the work my team does, and the path on which I’m leading them. I place great emphasis on team coaching and leadership, and feel rewarded the most when I see my teams succeed.  As such, a situation such as this makes me feel like I’ve failed.

This leads to the guilt and anxiety at the fact that a situation where someone on my team no longer has a job happened on my watch. Was I not in control? Could I have done something different, something better? If not, clearly then I failed at the interview and hiring phase.  By God, I will mete out what part of this disaster is of my own creation, as surely it all is!!

But you see, sometimes people just aren’t on your wavelength, just can’t cope, or simply don’t possess that drive.  And sometimes the market tanks and the work just isn’t there, or the company’s strategy and priorities just can’t keep up with individual vision and ambition.  And maybe it is ok – it’s no one’s fault.  It just is.  And the sooner we admit it and move on, the sooner we can all move on to something else where everyone’s happy and functional (and profitable).

I’ll tell you what this felt like – and my emotion diagram could probably double exactly to this scenario. This felt like a breakup with someone you still care about.  It felt like I was breaking up with someone. Before meeting and marrying my hubs, I had my share of highly dysfunctional relationships.  The ones where I chose to end it felt pretty much the same as the layoff – where you worry and fret and negotiate and bargain and worry some more until you hit a moment of clarity where you just say “this a isn’t gonna work.  It just isn’t going to happen anymore.” And there’s a sense of calm, of acceptance.  It’s the sad, unfortunate, correct choice.  And no one else is going to do it for you.

And then there’s the relief and satisfaction (I’m being really honest here and not an ogre.  Hear me out.) You feel good that this thing, this action – you’ve slapped an expiration date on it. It will go away and there won’t be loss of life or limb.  And there’s that feeling of empowerment.  Of saying “you know what, I was able to make the hard decision – the right decision.”  We all bitch and moan about the hard decisions leaders- especially business leaders – don’t take or take far too late.  But I found some solace at the idea that I was able to do what needed to be done. My integrity is intact (if my ego and sense of responsibility are not).

But all in all, this was a bad day.  This person was a nice person, a decent person. A person I cared about and wish the best for.  And it’s going to be a long time until I can honestly say I’m at peace with it.

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