According to the Labor Department, the economy lost 651,000 jobs in February as unemployment crossed the 8 percent mark, the highest since 1983. Amid all the debate about economic policy, the only consensus seems to be that things are going to get worse before they get better.
So it's not surprising that the relatively elemental question, "How should you fire someone?", became the subject of a web column in the New York Times. It's a perfect match of topic and venue: supervisors and managers are getting lots of experience answering that question these days, and the Times never met a simple problem it couldn't complicate.
As with so much writing today of a counseling nature, one is alternately touched by the idea that people are thinking about how to treat one another better and dumbfounded at how mind-numbingly obvious the advice tends to be. That's because while firing someone is hardly more complex, at least in human (as opposed to legal) terms, than it was several generations ago, our attitudes toward it have become engulfed in theories about stress and psychological trauma. Accordingly, the Times column dispenses advice from "experts" who talk about the event in language not immediately distinguishable from the well-known stages of grief: "Be honest…Listen…Let them vent, if they must…Let them experience the whole range of emotions…Consider those who are left."
Unemployment does produce its share of horrific stories -- in January, a couple killed themselves and their five young children after losing their jobs at Kaiser Permanente Medical Center in West Los Angeles -- so such concerns can't be dismissed. And our culture in general has been transformed by the ever-lurking specter of the lone gunman bearing a grievance or a deranging sorrow. The therapeutic model for handling difficult events is deeply embedded in the culture by now, and those of us who find its methodologies oppressive have learned to live with them. Besides, the old days were no bargain. Getting fired in 2009, even in this climate, sure beats getting fired in 1929.
Certainly losing a job at any time is not pleasant, especially if one has dependents. For people at certain stages of their lives, it can be the hinge point pushing them over the edge into despair, up to and including the suicides that make the news. The American notion of pulling oneself up from the bootstraps doesn't always work with Newtonian reliability. Sometimes people feel they've run out of slack.
Still, other than being extra vigilant about employees who may have emotional problems or are in such difficult personal straits that breaking the news warrants some kind of special care, there really isn't much one can do beyond using his common sense and professional discretion and extending whatever personal decency he may possess. It's best to be somewhat British about it on both sides and maintain one's dignity.
When I lost a job seven years ago, I was grateful for how British the whole process was. That's because it was a British company, though my supervisor was American. He called me into his office and said with impressive economy, "Close the door, please," and I knew I was cooked. We went through the formalities, he gave me information on Cobra and unemployment benefits, and we shook hands. He made no attempt to acknowledge my feelings or project what they might be, which I appreciated, since they were mine. I didn't care much for the job and had expected the ax to fall for some time, as layoffs had been ongoing. I didn't have a family yet. So my experience was easier than most.
Still, even for the hardest cases, it's important to maintain some perspective. Losing a job really isn't like death; only death is. (Or as Bob Dylan put it more enigmatically: "There's no success like failure, and failure's no success at all.") Most of us will find some way forward. Wrapping a merely difficult event in therapeutic trappings patronizes the individual and reduces him to a stock character in a trauma that always has the same script. Now that, I'd think, might set somebody off.
As one might expect, the Times column is geared toward those who work in office settings, pitched to a readership already expert in tiptoeing around social life's ever-proliferating minefields. Yet even to such a self-conscious audience, the column feels compelled to dispense obvious advice like this: "Treating the person you are firing with respect is simple human courtesy." So obvious, you wonder why people need to be told.
Probably they don't; those stunning job-loss numbers tell us how many Americans are getting bad news these days, but they also indicate that layoffs and firings seem to be proceeding in orderly, if painful, fashion. At least by our standards on this side of the pond, Americans are keeping a stiff upper lip. As the British know, or once knew, stoicism can be a therapy of its own.
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