Sometimes people are blindsided when they are fired. But often there are clear warning signs. They just don't know how to handle the threat.
Blogger Alison Green is in some ways is the Dear Abby of the office with her Ask a Manager website, fielding questions that sometimes offer a startling look at dysfunctional workplaces. She advises that when those signals come, you had better take control of the situation rather than freeze in panic or bury your head in the sand.
"I marvel at how often people block out the message," she said in an interview from her office in Washington, D.C.
When you hear phrases such as "We're not getting what we need from you," or "We have serious concerns," or "We have to make changes," be alert. She said that only bad managers use vague phrases. Good managers will be starkly clear. But whatever kind of manager you have, when you sense your job is in jeopardy, you should try to help manage the situation.
"You don't need to just sit and wait. You can take some control over the situation by having a candid conversation with your manager," she wrote recently on Intuit's Fast Track blog .
She recommends having a serious conversation with your boss intended to reverse the career trajectory. But first, she said in the interview, you have to consider what kind of boss you have. The last thing you want is to have that conversation turn into an abrupt termination.
"If the boss is volatile, a jerk, or looking for an opportunity to get rid of you, don't try it. But if the boss is calm, sensible, and wanting the best for people, sit down with him or her," she said. That doesn't mean the boss doesn't fire people. But it's important to be sure that your boss wants the best for the people who report to him.
Clear your head of angry impulses. Don't go into the meeting focused on defending yourself. If so, you'll likely miss important information. Tell your manager you know he has been unhappy with your performance and would like advice on how to improve.
Whether you think your manager's assessment is correct, the reality is that his assessment will be key to you staying on: "Once you know his view, ask yourself: Can you do what's being asked?"
Perhaps just as importantly: Do you want to do what's being asked? "There's no shame in deciding you can't or don't want to. The key is to be honest with yourself about it," she wrote in the blog article.
Even if the boss's demands seem unrealistic, Ms. Green said it's great information to have. "You want to do something about it now rather than be fired in three months," she said in the interview.
The direct approach can sometimes disarm the boss's ego, even if it's huge. Your conversation is not a challenge, but a sign of respect. It may help restore your relationship somewhat.
When your career has deteriorated to the point of needing this last-ditch chat, it is usually too late to turn things around. But she stresses it's not impossible. She has seen it happen in a few cases. But that will require you to drop your own ego and defences, and be willing to implement major changes in how you perform. If you think that's possible, the next step, with your boss, is to figure out how to improve. At the same time, she advises starting to look for a new job since there's no way to predict how events will unwind.
But if it seems unrealistic for you to make the major changes required – the strengths your boss wants will never be your strengths, for example – Ms. Green recommends saying, "I appreciate your candour. Can we look at how I can transition out?"
Or, more likely, you will take some time to reflect on the conversation, and then after acknowledging the situation is irreversible, return to your boss to admit you will have to leave.
On the blog, Ms. Green recommends using statements such as these: "I appreciate you being candid with me about your concerns. I'm going to continue to do my best, but it sounds like we should be realistic about the possibility this won't work out. I wonder if we can make arrangements now to plan for a transition that will be as smooth as possible for both of us. Would you be willing to work with me while I conduct a job search? That will help me, and it will give you time to search for a replacement and have a smooth transition, and I can be as involved as you'd like in bringing the new person up to speed."
Even if approaching your boss doesn't salvage your career, Ms. Green argues that it's better than ignoring the situation and hoping for the best.
"It's better to have a say in how it will play out, rather than be told to clear out your desk one day."
Harvey Schachter is a Battersea, Ont.-based writer specializing in management issues. He writes Monday Morning Manager and management book reviews for the print edition of Report on Business and an online work-life column Balance. E-mail Harvey Schachter