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Deborah Nixon Headshot

Lose Your Job, Lose Your Lifeboat

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Being thrust out into the world, jobless, is like losing your lifeboat. You are floating in a vast sea of nothingness with no sense of direction, wondering if you'll be rescued or you will drown alone. What is the process like? Let me describe it to you. You are called into a meeting room with no warning. Your boss is waiting for you, with a rep from HR. The minute you see these two people, you get a sick feeling in the pit of your stomach. Your mind starts racing; you know this is going to be bad news.

Your manager tells you that you are being let go; usually they use the words restructuring. You have no idea what that means or why this restructuring means the life that you knew has suddenly drastically changed. The HR rep gives you a letter that is a few pages long, outlining what your severance package consists of and lots of legal language.

You don't hear much; there is a pounding in your head as your mind races, thinking of your family and your future. What will happen to them? Will you be able to survive financially? How will you find another job; will you find another job?

Often, the termination meeting goes smoothly for the manager and for the HR rep. The meeting is short and to the point and because the employee is in shock and hasn't absorbed the message, they don't react. As with other shocking events, the emotional fall-out comes later. So the employer may get the impression that the employee is fine and needs little to no support.

I have attended many termination meetings and have coached people through the difficult weeks and months following this traumatic upheaval. Once I enter the scene, people feel freer to express their emotions. Usually these emotions are sadness, disbelief, fear and confusion. Sometimes people are numb and are going through the motions; following my voice and any direction I have to give them. It's when I check in later in the day and for the next few days that the full impact of what has happened to them kicks in.

Terminating an employee without providing ongoing support ignores the mental health aspect of such a major life change. Losing your job is like losing part of your life. Your job is a place you go to connect with others, make friends, find structure to your day and feel a sense of belonging. Even those people who don't like their jobs are devastated when they are terminated. Imagine going home after you've been terminated and not knowing what to do next. Whom do you call? What do you say? How do you find another job? How do you answer these questions, especially if you've haven't looked for a job in over 10 years?

In my role as a career transition coach, I have spent hours listening to people talk to me about their lives post-termination. I hear about the worry, the fear and the shame. They tell me about their embarrassment and humiliation about the one being chosen for termination. They struggle in wondering what was wrong with them; how had they failed? Why me?

I wonder what happens to those who don't have somebody like me to support them through this transition. Who encourages them? Who helps them to process their shame? Who helps them to feel worthy and worthwhile?

How an organization exits its employees is a demonstration of whether it lives its values or not. Integrity is what you do when nobody is looking. Integrity is also how you treat employees who are no longer part of your organization. Providing career transition support demonstrates that you value the contribution employees made to your organization during their time with you. It also sends a message to your remaining employees that you value them and you care about their well-being and their mental health.

My appeal is for employers to not view career transition support as an unnecessary cost but as an investment in all employees' futures. There is no downside; your current and future employees are watching.

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