Reader Question: When a Coworker is Unexpectedly Fired

A reader asks:

My coworker just got fired. One day he was here, and the next he was gone. I didn’t see any signs that this was coming, and no one I’ve talked to knows why it happened. I’m anxious about my own job security now, and wondering if I could be fired out of the blue someday too. Is this something I should ask my manager about? I’m really rattled by it.

Before you panic, keep in mind that just because the firing came as a surprise to you, it probably didn’t come as a surprise to your coworker. It’s rare for someone to be fired without any warning (except in particularly egregious cases, like embezzling or, say, punching someone). In most cases, a fired employee has had numerous conversations with their manager about the problem and what needs to change. And if the employer is at all responsible, the employee has also been explicitly told they could lose their job if the problems aren’t fixed.

Remember, too, that no matter what you hear from a coworker who was fired, there’s probably another side to the story. And people rarely share information that makes them look bad. People who are fired often find it easier to tell coworkers that it happened because the boss is a jerk, rather than acknowledge that they were struggling in the job. (After all, how often do you hear a colleague say, “I’m really having trouble working up to par here”?) Plus, the person’s manager isn’t going to be broadcasting the person’s struggles (hopefully), so you’re unlikely to hear that side.

If you do hear from your coworker that the firing was unwarranted, look back on your own experience with your manager. In your experience, has your manager seemed reasonable and fair?  Or like a tyrant who seems like she’d fire people without cause or warning? Generally, your own experience is going to be your most reliable guide.

And last, if you’re feeling uneasy, you can always ask your manager for feedback. Ask how you’re doing overall and what you could do better. This is a good idea to do periodically anyway, and in a situation like this, it will probably end up putting you at ease.

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  • sully

    Do you really know if the co-worker was fired? Maybe the co-worker quit, and the boss is saying s/he was fired because the boss is an ego maniac. Happened to me before & several other employees before I quit.

    • Or the co-worker’s “position was eliminated”. That happened to me. New manager, new team, what I did didn’t fit their “vision”. A few months later they said “Please log out and don’t contact anyone. You get two months severance”. Poof, I was gone.

  • A.

    I wish this was true in my experience… I was fired last year, and had no idea it was coming. The hiring manager did it – not the manager I worked with. (She had scheduled a meeting during that time – I was asked to leave immediatley, so I never saw her again.)

    I’d been there for two months when my coworker gave notice and moved away. He was the one who had been training me, and I was now the most senior admin assistant in the office. Because the job duties were seasonal, every new project was something I’d never seen before. Everything took longer because there was no one to ask, so I had to call people in other departments to figure out how to do things. I was full of enthusiasm, though, and I really loved my job.

    My manager didn’t have the answers – she was also a professor, served on a board, was writing a book, and was very very busy. She was in the office for four hours or less each day, and had started within the year. I took it in stride, and tried to be as independent as I could. I also was supporting two other academics. It was the busiest time of the year, with a complicated project that was my responsibility. I admit, it was a lot to take on, but each day I learned more and more, and I thought I was making good headway. I loved the challenge, and I had faith I’d understand it all – everyone in the office kept saying “You’re doing great! We just have to get through the next few weeks, and it’ll be easier, once the busy season is over!”

    My manager and I had a great relationship – I thought. I respected her a great deal. She was extremely smart, funny, and handled her multitude of responsibilities with poise. I tried to check in often and see if there was anything she needed. A week before I was fired, she and I were talking about something silly, and she joked, “I think this was meant to be!” – motioning between her and me.

    I’d received a stellar review three weeks before I was fired, and my mistake was to then put my head down and work as hard as I could, instead of checking in with my boss more. In retrospect, I should have asked for MORE feedback, the busier things got. I probably wasn’t prioritizing the right things. It was my first real job, so I’m sure I made some mistakes along the way. This, I think, was my blind spot. I wish so much that my boss had given me some kind of warning, though.

    The weird thing was that I was fired four days after a maintenance person had hung up some art I had selected. (I’d asked permission – other people were hanging art – and they said, “Yes, by all means! Make an appointment with maintenance!”). I guess it was a last-minute decision. Everything seemed to be going so well.

    Then one day, my hiring manager (not my manager) called me into her office to talk, and told me that it wasn’t working out. I was shocked. I asked, “Does (Manager) know?” She said, “This was (Manager)’s decision.”

    I tried to stay calm, but started crying. I asked why, but the most I got was “It wasn’t a good fit,” and “(Manager) had some concerns about your abilities.” I said, “Can you give me any more details about what happened? I just don’t understand.” She kept repeating, “It’s not a good fit.” She said I could take the time to pack up my desk, but I had to leave right then, and asked me to surrender my ID card.

    I asked if I had done anything egregious, and she said no. She kept repeating “It’s just not a good fit.”

    I don’t want to be defensive about it. I want to be better in my next position. I do think I could have done well in that position, though. I wish I had had a warning, or a chance to prove myself. From what you’ve written about managers, it seems that she could have given me more notice, but I think I’m just as responsible – I could have initiated more conversations with her, and asked her explicitly if I was performing up to par.

    I’ve been temping since then, and I just wish so much that I could prove myself in a new office. It’s difficult to explain what happened to potential interviewers, when I’m still not exactly sure about what happened. But from the way they acted, I doubt they want me to ask for more information about why I left. The last thing I want is to be inappropriate, emotional, or aggressive.

    Phew. Sorry to unload. This just struck a nerve…

    • I’m sorry that happened to you! It’s absolutely true that there are plenty of bad managers and bad employers out there who will handle this situation poorly, as yours clearly did. That’s one reason why — in the wake of a coworker’s firing — it’s helpful to look at what you know about the manager involved (her fairness, her transparency, her commitment to giving feedback, etc.).

    • That sounds rough! When strange things like this happen, consider it might have had nothing to do with you and your performance. It could have been some issue on their end that they didn’t want to admit to. “Not a good fit” tends to be kind of a catch-all excuse.

    • Rea

      This happened to me just 3 days ago. I’m an executive assistant helping 2 top level people and I’ve been with them 8 months. Everything seemed good and we even had a 3 month review and he made good suggestions that I did my best to improve on.

      I know I wasn’t perfect and definitely made mistakes but I was working really hard, waking up early to match time zones and monitors schedules etc. Near the end of the day one of my executives said he needed to speak with me brought me to a boardroom and my HR was sitting there. My executive turns to me and say ‘Me and (executive) made a decision to let you go, I’m sorry’ then he left. I wasn’t allowed back to my desk, and another HR rep had to get my things and I was escorted out.

      That’s all I got it, no explanation nothing. But I’m planning to write to my HR rep to ask my executive for feedback and I’m going to also ask why I got fired…I’ve been racking my brain and honestly it could be anything. I hope by know why I got fired I can improve and eliminate whatever it error for the future.

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  • This happened to me at a job I’d had in Florida, in a call center. I was in training a week, and on the floor for a week, and Friday that second week I (along with two others) were called in and told “It just isn’t working out.”

    No warnings, no coaching, no nothing. Our daily contact quota was 50 or so a day, and I was getting at least 70. All I can figure is two things: there’d been tons (6 weeks worth!) of foot-dragging regarding the start date after our hire, and later finding out the man who’d hired us was recently fired, or, because me and the co-workers also fired were always doing our own thing during lunch instead of sitting with the others.

  • Dave O’H

    Happened to me, too. A few years back, I was working for a fairly well-known PC software company. I was in the office late one evening, tidying a couple of loose ends up after a product release, and got a call from my wife, telling me that my manager’s manager (who’d been our boss for about a week) had called twice to talk to me. My wife had explained that I was at the office, Said manager did not call there. In retrospect, I should have realized something was up.

    Got home and moments later the phone rang. Manager’s manager, saying “Don’t come in tomorrow, we’ll send you your personal belongings.” Turns out they fired our department that night, with no notice, no comments, never a bad review, nada.

    Still rankles, years later…

  • J.

    In this economy, my experience is that more often than not, the employee has absolutely no idea that it’s coming. I work in a large company, and I have seen this on at least four different occasions within my own workgroup. Oftentimes the fare-thee-well message is delivered in the vein of “Well, this decision was made above my level, and I fought for you but…” I appreciate your articles but I think this one sailed wide right.

  • jwk

    I would monitor the situation, if they replace the person then it’s more of an issue with that particular employee. If they don’t replace the person and distrubute their work to other existing staff it could mean cost cutting and may mean future layoffs. If that happens i would sharpen up the resume and have an escape plan.