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Tales from the trenches: That awful first firing

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in Leaders & Managers,Leadership Skills

Two hours. That’s how much sleep Jill got the night before she had to fire Les. As Monday progressed toward the awful three o’clock sit-down, she could feel the tension grow in her neck, her chest, even her hands. No conversation she had that day really registered, no task she half-completed seemed doable.

There were about a dozen scratch-outs on the index card on which she’d written her script, and she hastily made one more just a few seconds before Les knocked on her door. He flashed his trademark smile, making things 10 times worse. “Terminations aren’t personal,” Jill’s HR director had once told her—words that were laughably meaningless now.

Even Les’s simple “How’s it going?” felt like a body blow. What was she supposed to say to that? "Dandy, I just bought a new thermos"? She morphed it into a rhetorical question by moving directly to “Have a seat.” It felt like a tropical storm had struck her mind and she was just hanging on for dear life.

And then it happened—some desperate trigger kicked in and took over, booting her carefully prepared script right out of her memory bank, and instead of leading off with her precious “foundation” sentences as she’d been advised by some Internet sage, she fast-forwarded right to “Sorry, Les, we’re letting you go.” It was as if her subsconscious were under such duress that it had shoved her deep into the conversation just to get it over with 30 seconds sooner.

The smashed glass approach worked. As soon as that first sentence was out it got easier, because now that the moment had begun she was ensnared in it and just had to roll with it. Les didn’t fight back, thank goodness, but he did stare daggers and become eerily silent, red-faced.

It was all over in less than three minutes. Crying seemed like a most excellent option at that point, but Jill wouldn’t let herself.

When Les was gone, she rose shakily from her desk and walked right out of the office, breaking free into the sunlight. Knowing that the rest of the day was a total wash, she thought she may as well seize whatever tiny pleasures it had to offer. A venti latte, maybe, and then an hour in the park by the duck pond. It’s over, Jill told herself again and again. It’s over.

In a strange way, her first firing had become about her. Les would find another job and move on, but she would never lose the feeling that she had been deliberately cruel to someone, and earned an enemy forever. She had been forced to become something she was not, and that was sad. But she’d also learned a valuable tip: Fire with no fanfare.

Now, she thought, I need to make good things happen in that building. And she would start tomorrow at 8 a.m.

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