‘I had to fire my friend’ and other termination tales

March 17, 2011, 2:59 PM UTC

Whether you’re on the delivering or receiving end, layoffs and firings are a messy office enterprise. Here are four readers’ stories from the front lines.

The following four readers’ tales of firing and being fired — the first round of the You Can’t Fire Everyone series — speak to the dread, anger, and, yes, humor enmeshed in this most unnerving office ritual.

Weigh in with your own firing experiences. Leave a comment below. And check out the next round’s question below and share your story.

Not so friendly fire

A few years back, I was managing a group of marketing folks. There was an

opening that fit the background of a colleague from 15 years prior whom I knew was underemployed at the time. She didn’t interview particularly well, but we hired her anyway primarily because we lacked competing candidates.

When we had worked together 15 years ago, she demonstrated terrific work ethic. So while she wasn’t exactly scintillating in the personality department, I had no worries about her ability to do a great job.

Unfortunately, 15 years can breed a lot of bad habits. She was habitually late (not minutes, more along the lines of hours) with no explanation. She missed deadlines. She would disappear for hours in the middle of the day with no explanation, and she’d watch TV on a small window on her monitor while “working.”

She survived several layoffs because very few people in the job market had her skills. Then, an unexpected client loss sent her to the top of the layoff list.

Even though I was not her direct supervisor — I managed her supervisor — the “powers that be” determined that I needed to do the deed.

It was extremely painful on several fronts. I wasn’t concerned with what people thought of me. After all, I did not personally hire her. It was simply disappointing that someone who had once been a key contributor was acting like a receptionist with a bad attitude, and blaming everything on others — never taking responsibility for anything, never offering an explanation for any egregious or unprofessional behavior.

Her defiance after I told her that her position had been eliminated and knowing that a friendship of many years was definitely coming to an end was also very painful.

Lastly, that management felt that I should be the one to deliver the message, when I didn’t do so for any other individuals from my department — that one really stung on a professional level.

The thing that was even more frustrating through this whole process? She had a death in the family, and came into a sizeable amount of money after the second-to-last layoff, and had gone out and purchased a $60,000 vehicle with some of it, with the thinking being that she was “safe” after surviving that layoff. That was hubris — be an awful employee, think you’re safe, and blow your wad of cash on a car?! Though I will say it made it much easier to be unemotional about firing her.

–Frances, Salt Lake City U.T.

Empathy just makes it worse

I remember when my company, a very large corporation, was conducting layoffs and I was instructed to let one of my new team members go. He was fresh from college — I had visited his university to recruit, and he was a smart go-getter. I was dreading having to let him go, but all of my colleagues were letting people go, and it was just the way of the world.

I was so nervous. We were trained, even given scripts. I met him in the lobby conference room of a hotel. He thought we were meeting for a business update, though I was evasive when I asked to get together.

After delivering the news, he was completely quiet. Then he said to me, “Rebecca, that must have been really hard for you.”

After that, I don’t remember anything either of us said, but I remember his first words to me. His empathy made me feel even worse.

I no longer work for that company, and he was the only person I ever had to let go. I don’t know what happened to him. I hope he is well.

–Rebecca, Princeton N.J.

‘But I worked so hard!’

I was managing a group of writers at a graduate school. One of them was doing fine by the time she got to her three month review, but at her six month review, the last before she became permanent, she had not progressed.

I had worked closely with her, coaching her, editing her work, and expected that she would have picked up some of the slightly more advanced skills, such as creating an argument. She had not.

When I told her that she really wasn’t a good fit with us and would undoubtedly be happier somewhere else, she burst into tears and said “But I love the work. And I work so hard! I’ve put so much time into this!”

That has stayed with me for almost a dozen years now — no one cares how hard you’re working or how much you love the job if you’re not producing.

–Ann, Branford C.T.

A botched coup

I’ve been in the corporate world for 20+ years now, so I’ve seen my share of firing. I’ve been fired, and it is painful.

My favorite experience (really, but only now that it is in the distant past) was when I was a financial analyst for a division of a Fortune 500 data processor.

The president had made his way up the ladder via the sales organization. While he was quite a salesman, he was clearly in over his head as president.

The CIO of the company was secretly making a play for the corner office, and was using some pretty basic facts to make his case, getting some of his facts from me. (Who am I to say no to a legitimate request from an SVP for information?)

After being embarrassed in a meeting with these facts, the president came into my office after hours when nobody else was around. He fumed, cursed, stomped his feet and repeatedly told me how badly he wanted to knock my “f***ing head off.”

After a few minutes of this, I stood up and told him that we had two choices: we could continue the conversation as long as it was a professional one or we could take it out to the parking lot. I said it was his choice, either one would be fine with me, but that he should choose carefully because one of the choices would have him ending up with no teeth.

He walked out of my office without saying a word. I reported the incident to HR, my boss, and the CFO. They all supported him, and a week later I was offered a generous severance package and asked to leave.

I often wonder if any of the thousands of corporate bullies and lackeys that enable them will not eventually reside in the 9th Circle of Hell. I also wonder what my life would be like today had we gone to the parking lot.

–Andrew, Omaha N.E.

Editor’s note: Fortune has verified the identities of all of the contributing authors. Some of the authors have requested to use aliases to protect their identities.


You Can’t Fire Everyone – Job jumping:

Are you a job hopper yourself or dealing with staffers who can’t fight the itch to switch? Tell us your stories. Email us at fired@fortune.com. We’ll highlight the most interesting and instructional ones.