My First, a Suicide, and a Whole Office
Three Terminations that Changed My Life
#1: My First
You never forget your first. Mine sent me to therapy.
My first termination was also my first direct report. I wasn’t HR yet. I was a young manager and I felt fully responsible for it not working out. I had hired her, trained her, and managed her for over a year. Now I had to terminate her.
It had been discussed, it had been decided, and ultimately I agreed with the decision. But for reasons I can’t recall, it wasn’t going to happen for weeks. It was agony. I couldn’t eat, sleep, or work. I ruminated and practiced the conversation hundreds of times. I went to bed filled with dread and woke up sick to my stomach.
Welcome to being a manager. Welcome to knowing too much and trying to act like you don’t. I had no idea that managers knew for days/weeks/months prior to someone being let go. I was astounded that it was ‘business as usual’ right up to the minute you impacted someone’s life forever.
Now I know this: you treat everyone with the same respect, every day, regardless of their standing. I used to think that required dissonance, now I know it’s care.
The day inevitably arrived. What is the appropriate attire for a termination? I remember my outfit, the long commute in, and the long walk down the hall to the office. I don’t remember the delivery exactly--I honestly think I blacked out as the words came out of my mouth.
What I remember clearly is the unexpected sense of relief that washed over me as I could see the news sinking in for her. My attention turned from breaking the news to the support she now needed and the steps that would follow.
The dread was never as bad again. I don’t look forward to them, but I do know that I can make a termination go as well as possible. Not just from experience and good protocols, but by leaning into my humanity and my emotions. Yes, it’s a business decision. But that doesn’t mean I must be cold and closed off. It’s a tough situation that deserves empathy and dignity.
#2: A SUICIDE
Years into my HR career I had to terminate an employee who struggled with drug abuse and who was selling drugs to fellow employees. It was a difficult situation, but I could never have imagined the outcome.
It was a very tight-knit group of employees. I was a relative newcomer. There were countless wonderful things about that community: the closeness, camaraderie and care that everyone had for one another. But there was a dark side too. Drugs had been tolerated for a long time, and it was now my job to help address it.
There was one person at the center of it, who was also dealing drugs. We intervened several times, issued warnings, and genuinely tried to get him help. Ultimately, we could no longer enable him. We had to make the tough decision to let him go, in order to protect other employees.
Nine days later, he committed suicide. It was a tragic shock and the group was shattered. I didn’t have time to process. I went into immediate crisis mode. There was family to inform. Friends to console. Grief counselors to bring on site. We made the necessary arrangements. It was only later, when I learned how he’d died, that I experienced my own shock and deep remorse. He hadn’t overdosed, as I’d assumed. He shot himself in the head.
I know I wasn’t responsible. But it took months and months of therapy to really know that. To know that while I, (Britta, HR), made a difficult decision, I (Britta, the person) wasn’t to blame. I still have to remind myself that I did everything I could.
I do wish that I’d had known more. After he killed himself, more details came out of the woodwork. Warning signs. Red flags. Peers and colleagues always know more about what’s going on than HR or managers do, no matter how much you investigate.
Now we train teams to look out for each other and not to be passive bystanders--whether that’s to prevent abuse/harassment, or to get people help when they need it. As HR, you have to be aware of your role, take care of confidentiality, and not label or accuse. But I will always let it be known that I am there to help, will use my knowledge for good, and encourage the same in others.
#3: Closing an Office
Nearly 10 years into my HR career, I joined a large global company who frequently acquired smaller companies. Two weeks into my role, I was informed I would need to fly to California and close an office full of people that I’d never met.
I had terminated my share of individuals at this point, but I’d never encountered the degree of exposure, law, and paperwork that this one entailed. I was on the phone with an employment lawyer hourly. I flew across the continent with folders of termination paperwork in my suitcase.
It was one thing to terminate someone with care and dignity, when you knew them. But to do that for person after person who didn’t know you from Adam? On the one hand, it was a horrible notion. I was the executioner. On the other hand, it was less personal. I was anonymous. It would be the ultimate test of my HR abilities.
I realized... I could still be kind. I could still act ‘normal.’ I would still be empathetic, without apologizing. I would still safeguard the individuals, and advocate for them. I would still follow up in the days weeks that follow (COBRA ending or severance being processed is a great reason to check in.)
It was a whirlwind, but a strangely proud career moment. I was able to make connections. And answer questions. And clarify. People did open up. Some were relieved, some were pissed, none were truly surprised. They were appreciative of the respect and care I took in the process. It’s an odd thing to be “thanked” by someone being terminated, and to be commended by your boss for it. But it shouldn’t be strange. Because terminations can be done well.
The first termination is always going to be the hardest, and they should never be easy. I learned (tragically) that you will inevitably impact people’s lives. You cannot force people to change, or protect everyone--but you can try. And you can take great care, and even a little pride, in letting them go well.
If you or someone you know is thinking about suicide, please contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline or call 1-800-273-8255
For more information about mental health at work, please visit Made of Millions.
For more information on termination protocols and best practices, email firstname.lastname@example.org
For Good and Not Evil: If I’d known more about the office and the players, I could have influenced the decisions. That’s why I love the under 100 person company.
Don’t Clone Yourself. Many of us joke about it...we’d love to clone ourselves. But hiring someone just like you is a pretty terrible idea. Here’s why.