From time to time, I will get a call from a client to confidentially discuss an internal employee. The context of the discussion is that the person just doesn’t seem to be working out well or is not a good cultural-fit for the organization. They would like our recruiting assistance in finding a replacement, but recognize the awkwardness of the situation. Even with big companies in large industries, there is a small-town feel in which everyone kind of knows each other.
The human resources person or hiring manager desperately wants to avoid me calling someone about the job that Bob currently holds, and the guy tells his friend Bob that he’s being replaced. Invariably, Bob finds out and angrily storms into his boss’ office demanding to know what is going on. By the way, this totally happens! This is why my articles are so cool and important, I take you behind the scenes to share stuff that you intuitively thought was happening, but not entirely sure.
I won’t bore you with the details of how I manage the confidential search, but will gladly help you look for the signs that your boss might be actively seeking to replace you.
- The relationship suddenly turns cold and too professional.
You may not have had the best rapport with your supervisor, but it was cordial and pleasant enough. You exchanged pleasantries in the morning. You two had the Games of Thrones geek-out talks Monday morning. In your heart, you probably know that it’s all superficial, but at least you felt a slight sense of camaraderie.
One cold fall morning, the skies are a little grayer, the wind is blowing a little colder, and you walk into a frosty office. Your boss gives you a curt good morning, avoids eye contact, and doesn’t even mention the crazy thing that happened to Khaleesi’s dragon on Game of Thrones. You were actually looking forward to the conversation.
Later in the day, you pass him in the hall, think you will have the GoT talk, and he briskly walks by without even a head nod acknowledgement. Now, this alone does not mean that you are on your way out. It is, however, a sign that you need to be alert and vigilant for other signals.
- The first talk.
You had some personal stuff going on. A couple of late nights without a lot of sleep. It did creep a little into your work–nothing big. You were just a little foggy-minded for a while. Extra coffee helped, but it did make you a little jittery. Also, your annoying coworker has been out due to some bogus mystery ailment – really probably just a cold – and you have been doing her work, as well as your own for the past week. She kept terrible files and you quickly realized that she really didn’t get anything done.
Your boss feels the stress too and has been short and snappy with you. Today, he said something that you didn’t quite catch because it took you by surprise. But it sounded like “I’d make sure that the report was done in time if I were you.” The sentence has replayed in your mind about 35 times. You confer with your friends and recruit them to help analyze its meaning. Your BFF said your boss probably said, “I wish I was you because you’re so awesome.” That’s why you love her, but deep down you know the truth. He was a little ticked off and surly. You hope he’s in one of his moods and it passes over.
- A couple of weeks pass and you are forced to have ‘The Talk’.
The annoying colleague turned into a jerky ghost and never returned to work. Through the grapevine, you heard that she got a new job somewhere else and all her work was unceremoniously dumped on your desk. The report you were tasked with wasn’t done in time, since you were doing her old work and your boss was majorly pissed. It didn’t help that you took a sick day – the first all year- and missed an important meeting, which left the supervisor in the lurch.
He sternly asked you to meet him in a conference room. You try to tell him about the extra work, lack of help, and outside issues that you are dealing with to no avail. You sneak in a GoT reference to see if you can change the trajectory of the talk, but it fails miserably. It was a tense conversation, in which he detailed how much you suck at your job. Not really, it was more of a laundry list of tasks that he expected you to do that didn’t get done to his satisfaction. In fact, you notice nothing measures up to his impossible standards and that’s probably why Jane got that mysterious cold that turned into a new job.
- The follow-up email documenting ‘The Talk’.
A couple of days passed and you think that things are better. You exchanged icy, but relatively human comments in the hallway with the boss. There was that uncomfortable elevator ride you coincidentally shared with him without any exchange of words. Going up 30 floors without talking is cruel and unusual punishment. Nevertheless, you think everything is relatively okay, or at least not terrible.
Then, you received the email. The ping sound on your computer made your heart skip a beat and, instinctively, feel the pins and needles in your stomach. The uncomfortable conversation, in which he gave a soliloquy about your horribleness, was turned into a very professional terse email documenting all your failings as a human being. The email clearly documents what you need to do or else. The “or else” is vague and disconcerting.
- You are given a barrage of work to do.
After the email, comes a torrent of work to do with restrictive deadlines. The tasks require reporting back to the hiring manager at a prescribed time period. It feels like you are on double-secret probation.
The boss is highly-critical of the work. There are no suggestions for improvement, only criticism. No constructive criticism is conveyed. It feels that he is setting you up for failure. He is checking off boxes, citing your incompetence that you just know will be used against you in the future. No matter how hard you try, it doesn’t matter.
- Meanwhile the real work is taken away.
There is a new hire for the sick woman, Jane, who now works somewhere else. She approaches your desk. You smile politely and start writing down your coffee order (well, since she’s the new person, its sort-of her job, right?). Awkward, she isn’t making a Starbucks run. The new woman tells you that your boss just asked her to relieve you of some of your workload. The new person will also take the lead on your pet project– the one that was going to catapult you back into the good graces of your boss. Although you want to puke all over her, somehow you remain in control of your body and hand over the files to her. With your unlucky streak continued, you knock over some other files, sending the papers flying everywhere. Of course, everyone else nearby noticed, even though the pretend they didn’t. The guy two cubicles over definitely snickered. Damn, how much you hate him, and of course he goes to lunch with your boss every day.
The lightening of your load has an ominous overtone. Your important assignments are being allocated to other employees. You recognize that your boss does not think you are ably-equipped to handle the responsibilities successfully.
It slowly dawns on you that the big stuff is being taken away, so that, when you are gone, the work has already been seamlessly transferred over to someone else.
- You are not invited to important meetings.
The new person, who you desperately want to hate, but is sort-of nice, asks if you would like to accompany her to the big meeting. You weren’t invited, so you make up some stupid excuse why you won’t be there. Your stomach churns, as you don’t know what to do and the office seems to be spinning.
Usually, you hate meetings. Well, you hate the boring droning talk of doing things that never materialize. You hate the guy who just talks endlessly trying to curry brownie points with management. You did like meetings for the opportunity to daydream and practice some meditation techniques. Now, it’s different. By not being there, you know that the writing is on the wall. You’re doomed. What you would give to be in that stuffy room right now with everyone you despise; it would be great. It’s weird that they’re all working on a project without you. Your manager must have already decided that you will be out before the project ends so there is no need to have you there snoozing away while everyone is working hard. It is irritating that some of the people you considered friends didn’t tell you what is going on. Now you know what it’s like to be the “dead man walking” person (if you are not familiar with the reference, it is primarily used to describe a condemned prisoner walking to a death chamber or other place of execution).
- There are a lot of closed door meetings.
There has been a stream of well-dressed, clean-cut, new-suit-wearing people showing up to your offices. These freshly groomed people are slightly nervous, smiling a lot, and dash in and out of a conference room next to your boss’s office. A couple of them are shown around and given a tour. Interestingly, the tour doesn’t stop by you. In fact, your cube is purposefully avoided. One of the sharply -dressed people peeked over to you, made eye contact, and then looked guilty and turned away.
You arrive one morning to find your manager escorting a new guy around the office and making introductions. Huh, they didn’t have a chance to stop by your desk? Whatever! You are relieved that maybe another person could help with the work load. A couple of your friends walk over to tell you that they like him and say that you should meet him and say “hello.”
- Hey, we need to talk.
It’s been uneventful for a while. You think you dodged a bullet. Then, you check your voicemail and there is a request from your manager to meet him in a conference room on another floor. You swallow hard and your heart races. You were busy and didn’t check the voicemail when you got into work that day. The meeting is in about five minutes. You race to the elevator and, of course, it’s not coming. You bolt up five floors and arrive at the room sweating and disheveled. When you open the door your boss in there, along with several others. One you recognize is a human resources professional; the other, you think, is your boss’s boss.
Everyone looks super serious. There is a lot of corporate jargon tossed around. Someone pontificates that we are in difficult financial times and top young new talent cannot be added without eliminating headcount. As he is talking, you can’t help thinking that he looks like and sounds like a cartoon character. His tie/ shirt/ shoes/suit combination doesn’t work and the boss’s boss needs a more fashionable haircut and glasses that are not from the late-80’s. What hurt most is he didn’t even try to give the “it’s us and not you” speech. He rambled on about the meetings with your supervisor, the email, and your lack of improvement. Also, he wasn’t a fan of your catnaps during meetings. So, you’re done. Toast. Fired. Gone. Separated from payroll. Dismissed. Axed. Terminated. Laid off. Riffed. Fired. Don’t let the door hit you in the behind.
And that’s it. You’re done. The security glares at you and uncomfortably watches you pack your stuff, as if you are a common criminal. You hold back crying so that they don’t get that satisfaction and leave the building. The whole thing is a blur.
So, in summary, putting the exercise in creative writing aside, here is what you need to look out for to see if you are being targeted for a firing:
- Your once cordial, polite, and encouraging relationship with your boss goes cold
- The first talk in which your boss indicates that you have several deficiencies that need to be rectified
- Now it’s the second talk where the realization hits hard that your supervisor is unhappy with you and your work, and is not asking, but demanding changes; or else
- An official email or memo is provided to codify that you are sucking at your job, and is really a paper trail to protect the firm if you ever want to sue
- Tasks and assignments are given to you, which are designed for you to fail– further protecting the company if you make any claims of discrimination against them
- Real important work is taken away from you and you are left with the crumbs of work that nobody else wants
- You are not invited to important meetings and they don’t even bother to apologize or make excuses
- You notice an increase in closed door meetings with new people showing up every day
- The “Hey, we need to talk” meeting is called with human resources
Please understand that I’m trying to be lighthearted and not cavalier about the situation. It is imperative to pay attention to the not-so-subtle cues to avoid a big problem. If you do see these signs, immediately embark upon a course of action to improve your situation. Also, remember to always have your resume and LinkedIn profile up-to-date, just in case.