What to Consider If an Employee Gets a Termination Decision By Mistake

Coping When Mistakenly Given Information About a Pending Employment Termination

Employee has information by mistake that she didn't want to know and she disagrees with senior leadership's conclusion.
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Reader Question

Our newly hired HR Director accidentally sent me a text meant for a recruiter. Normally that wouldn't be a big deal, except it was asking the recruiter if she knew anyone who could fill a very specific role. The HR director realized her error and apologized to me, but also explained that the person in the role is going to be fired.

I, naturally, feel very uncomfortable for two reasons: One, I should not have received this text at all, as it puts me in a terrible position, and two, I think this targeted person is doing a great job.

If she's doing a great job and getting fired, who is next? The HR Director has already ruffled feathers, and now this!

Human Resources Response

Yikes. This is a mistake and a big one at that. How very embarrassing for your new HR Director. It's one thing to make a mistake like this after you have 10 years in the business and everyone knows and trusts you. It's quite another to make a mistake at the beginning of your tenure. So, everyone is agreed that she messed up, so where does that put you?

Well, in an uncomfortable position, for sure, but you probably don't need to do anything nor should you. She apologized to you and admitted her mistake, and there's not much more she can do at this point. She undoubtedly feels terrible about it, and that's that.

But you bring up a second issue: The person targeted is, in your opinion a good performer, which makes you feel as if every job is at risk. Here are some things you need to consider.

How Do You Know Your CoWorker Is Doing a Great Job?

This is a serious question. You see what your coworkers do, of course. You can judge whether they are reliable on projects where you work together. You can judge if they are nice or mean. But, what you can't judge is if, overall, the person is doing a great job.

Why not? Because it's unlikely that you see the whole puzzle.

People may seem extremely competent and hard working from one angle, but from another, they are in completely over their heads and struggling. As a coworker and not a manager, you probably don't know all of the things that she is supposed to contribute, nor do you know how good she is at accomplishing these activities and goals.

Managers generally know better than coworkers how an employee is performing. That doesn't mean your opinion isn't valuable, but it does mean that you don't have the full picture.

Your CoWorker May Be Fabulous, But Not What Your Employer Needs

Not every termination is for poor performance or bad behavior. Terminations can happen because the incumbent lacks a skill that your employer needs or will need for the future. This is especially relevant when the skill is not something that is easily obtainable. Sure, if your coworker is a fabulous social worker but needs better Excel skills, she can take a class.

That's an easier solution than terminating her and hiring a replacement. But, what if your coworker is a fabulous social worker, but your employer wants to change the position's responsibilities to include family counseling, and she's not licensed for that?

Holding the position while she goes back to school and passes tests for the proper licensing isn't practical.

Job functions change all of the time. Your coworker is fabulous performing the current job but the job is changing and they need someone with a different skill set.

It's Probably Not the HR Director's Fault

HR gets the blame for a lot of things, and firing people is one of those things. However, as a general rule, it's not the HR manager's decision. She advises, and she might suggest, but ultimately, it's the manager's decision.

This is a new HR director, so your employer may have had a backlog of problems that she needed to fix when she was hired. Instead of seeing this as the HR director helping management fix things up, you're seeing it as a new person coming in and changing everything.

Instead, consider that she's doing exactly what senior management has asked her to do—change everything.

Feel Free to Bring Up Your Concerns, but Privately

Do not, under any circumstances talk about this with other coworkers and especially not the targeted person. You may feel it is a kindness to let her know what is coming, but it's not your job and could make things worse. She may already know, as well.

Since the HR director has already apologized to you, there's no need to discuss it with her again. What you can do is go to your boss and ask for a check-up on how things are going with you. There's no need to mention your coworker or the errant text.

Just go ahead and ask about your own performance. If and when your coworker is terminated, it's okay to go to your boss and say, “I'm concerned that Jane was terminated, as I thought she was doing a great job. I want to make sure that my performance is up to par in your opinion.”

New HR Directors Will Ruffle Feathers

Any new senior person will cause employees to wonder and worry. When people fill junior roles, they often look for someone who will do the job in the same way that the previous person did the job. When they look to fill senior roles, they often look for someone who will do things differently. Different is always hard, even when it's ultimately better.