Stop Saying “Fired,” unless You Really Mean It

Long before I became HR, I picked up an HR pet peeve (1) from Britta: people saying ‘fired’ when they should say something else. This is not to euphemize or to be HR PC. Sometimes people should and do get FIRED. But most of the time, when people say someone “got fired” it’s just not accurate. More than likely, there’s a better term.

Language is powerful, and we’ve got strong opinions on the matter. Here’s a quick breakdown of terms and why it matters. 

“FIRED”

Britta always says, “fired means there was a fire.” Something flared up, alarms went off, something went seriously wrong, and it had to be exterminated immediately

In our book, people get “fired” when they’ve done something willfully wrong--either so egregiously or so persistently as to become urgent. “If you lie, steal, get violent, act abusively, constantly bully….or if you show up late the day after a warning??? Oh...I’ll fire your ass,” says one unnamed HR expert. But this simply isn’t the case, most of the time. 

People don’t realize it, but at least 95% of the time that someone’s job ends, it was planned in advance. Just as people rarely ‘walk out’ on a job, it’s rare that someone gets ‘fired’ in haste. There is always a list (2). Before that sit down happens, chances are there have been days, weeks (even months!) of discussing, planning, or postponing it. If that’s the case, then there’s no fire. It’s probably a termination.  

“TERMINATED”

At It’s Britta HR, we say “terminated” a lot--especially when we’re speaking generally or in the abstract. It’s official. It’s accurate. It’s neutral. 

Terminations can be conduct related, performance based, or for business reasons. There’s a black and white procedure to them, and a soft skilled art to them. We go over “Termination Protocols” with our clients and we even wrote a “Terminations Playbook” to help non-HR folks handle them properly while safeguarding everyone involved. 

But let’s be honest. In speaking terms, if we refer to someone being “terminated” (versus “laid off” or “let go”)...as in “I terminated that individual in 2010….” then it was probably for very good, very specific reasons, that we probably can’t tell you. 

“LAID OFF”

This term gets thrown around euphemistically, but the meaning is precise. A person is “laid off” for purely fiscal reasons. 

Generally, this happens in “rounds” or during a “restructuring,” when a group of people are laid off at the same time based on financial reasons. (Although, ‘laid off’ can be accurate for individuals too, if a single position is eliminated). This means that good employees get “laid off” all the time for no fault of their own.(3)

If you’ve been through layoffs as an employee (departing or surviving), you know it can be brutal. If you’ve been through layoffs as HR, you know what goes on behind closed doors. The biggest surprise for most is:

a) how long in advance layoffs are planned

b) how often the date changes leading up to it

c) how often “the list” of people changes and 

d) how much orchestration is required on the day. 

When that’s the case, you have no choice but to take it in stride. You’re not running from a fire, you’re engineering a demolition.   

“LET GO”

If you’re looking for the most humane and human way to say it, then say “they were let go.” It’s kinder. It’s gentler. And like the other terms, it can also be accurate. At least, when it’s done right. 

Here’s the thing. Most of the time, when someone inaccurately says they themselves or someone else was ‘fired,’ the truth is, it just wasn’t the right match.(3) Yes, we’ve met a few extremes--tyrant bosses and inept ingrates. But everything is relative. A rockstar at one company can be a terrible hire at another, and vice versa. And just as celebrities can ‘consciously uncouple’ sometimes ending a working relationship is the best thing for both parties.

Britta says, “It’s possible to let someone go with dignity and respect, regardless of the reason leading up to it. I always strive for making it as empathetic, positive and dignified as it can be. People are often relieved. They are rarely truly surprised as they weren’t happy and feel better to have answers. Now they can move on. I often get a hug at the end.”  

This ability didn’t come overnight for Britta. It took years of terminations, and that’s a lot of lives affected. Which is exactly why we’re set on getting the terms right. 

For more information about our services and playbooks, please contact me at katie@itsbritta.com

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Footnotes:

  1. I’ve picked up more than one pet peeve from Britta over the years, as well as a lot of HR tips and philosophies. It’s why I (and others who know her) always ask ourselves ‘WWBD’ in tough situations.

  2. The list that every company has (formally, or informally):

    1. The people you want to keep at any cost

    2. The people who are earning their keep

    3. The people that would be the first to go

  3. Great employees do get laid off. But employers often use “layoffs” to let go of challenging or low-performing employees.

  4. Sometimes bosses unfairly and unnecessarily ‘fire’ employees in a way that isn’t appropriate to the issue or reason at hand. If someone feels ‘fired’ it probably wasn’t handled with empathy and respect.

Katie CowdenComment