Unfortunately, sometimes you have to terminate someone. And, also unfortunately, sometimes it doesn’t go well with significant stress and related problems on both sides. Fortunately, an awareness of the emotional impact of termination can help you work with the soon-to-be terminated employee to make parting and any negotiations related to it go more smoothly.
A good book on the subject is Elisa Kubler-Ross’s, On Death and Dying, which includes the five stages associated with accepting death. I find that her work can apply to helping people accept the death of their jobs. How many stages people go through and how quickly is determined by their personality and the situation. As the situation changes, so can the progress through the stages. I had a case where knowing the stages was extremely helpful.
In this case, the person causing the problem was a police chief alleging sexual harassment by a deputy, the grandson of the town’s mayor. Even though the deputy resigned despite spotty evidence and found employment elsewhere, the mayor hired me to do a civil investigation of a sexual harassment allegation. Long story short, the chief and the captain, the only two ranking higher than the deputy, were guilty and had set the deputy up to protect their own skins from serious mistakes they had made. The goal was to terminate both without litigation. Not an easy job considering the situation and the ego of the two “defendants.”
The first stage in what Kubler-Ross describes as the grief cycle is denial, a conscious or unconscious refusal to accept facts and information or reality relating to the situation. It’s a defense mechanism and perfectly natural. Some people can become locked in this stage when dealing with traumatic change, such as termination. This is where the police chief was sitting—total denial.
The second stage Kubler-Ross labels as anger, and it was the most challenging for me in my role in this case. It was during this stage that the chief and his captain were the most threatening and defiant. Remember that these people carry guns, are not afraid of using them and are used to running over the law. They come from an environment where power from the chain of command trumps good judgment, fairness or being right. This stage intuitively called for me to be stronger and more aggressive than the chief or the captain. In situations like this, I have found that strength exhibited in a “one down” style works better than “one-upsmanship.” This is not a time to be bigger or stronger. This is the time to be firmer and smarter. They would need to realize they were “caught” and be calm as they were about to experience stages three through five.
The third stage is bargaining. Whether a person is an introvert or an extrovert, the bargaining stage is about trying to get a better deal. I had to convince two extroverts that their “blue wall” had crumbled and they were no longer in charge. The strength play from stage two worked, and I was able to get them to listen and understand the seriousness of the situation and the benefit to them of voluntary resignation.
Stage four is depression. In Kubler-Ross’ work, this could be a dress rehearsal or a practice run simulating death. It’s natural to feel sadness, regret, fear, and uncertainty. It shows that the person has begun to accept reality. The chief and the captain obviously were not happy campers at this point. They were now fully aware of the possible consequences for their actions and the heavy weight they would bear with the loss of their jobs and careers. One could say that while they were unhappy, they were also fully mindful of their position.
The final stage is acceptance. In Kubler-Ross’ world, this is the stage when the individual is ready to die. In my world, this is where the individual is ready to sign the agreement, accept the settlement and move on. The chief and the captain voluntarily resigned and signed hold harmless agreements, and the deputy came back and was promoted to permanent chief in three months.
The moral of the story? Knowing the stages of grief as they apply to termination can give you a perspective to help keep you from a lose-lose situation, especially in complicated situations where civics or boards are involved.