For the last three months, I’ve worked at a small company doing a job I love. But there’s been some weirdness lately that makes me worry about my position. Here’s what’s going on: Multiple people were fired in a three-month period. They were all “not good fits” for various reasons that upper management told us about. But I don’t think these people had any clue they were about to be fired given their messages leading up to and on the day of the firing. Things like “hey guys, just letting you know I’ll be out on Tuesday” on a Friday afternoon, and then hours later we get the “she no longer works with us” announcement. After the fact, we’re usually told what happened, and I can see where upper management is coming from. So far I think that each of the people who were let go did deserve it based on their performance. But it’s still scary, especially since I’m only a few months into the job! I do not believe any of this is malicious, and I think all of it is done in an attempt to be more “transparent,” but it doesn’t feel that way.
For instance, I recently took over a new data entry task from the financial department. A month later, the CFO messaged an open Slack channel to say the task wasn’t being done right and in future should be done differently. This was the first time I had received negative feedback on that task. Should I consider this a warning sign that I could be let go, too? Or a first strike or something?
I’m told I’m doing amazing by co-workers, but every once in a while, there’s a random message in a shared channel where management tells everyone that my job duties are being done wrong instead of addressing me directly. I’m early in my career. There’s no HR and no internal review structure that I’m aware of, and I’m not sure how to delicately bring up adding a bit more structure to reviewing our job performance when they’ve been so trigger-happy with firing lately. Any advice?
It’s possible your company just fires people without warning, but it’s just as possible there were warnings behind the scenes you weren’t privy to.
The way it should work (but doesn’t always) is this: A manager has concerns about an employee’s performance and shares those concerns with the employee. That employee has some time to incorporate that feedback into their work and improve. If the concerns aren’t resolved, the manager initiates another conversation — this time, a more serious one. If things reach the point where the employee could lose their job if they don’t improve, the manager should explain that so the employee understands the severity of the problem and the potential consequences. In other words, there’s an ongoing conversation about the issues and where things stand. Many companies formalize this process by using what’s often called “progressive discipline,” a series of increasingly serious warnings accompanied by a formal improvement plan that spells out what must change, by when, and the consequences if that doesn’t happen. (Generally, within these systems, there are especially egregious acts that could result in immediate firing without warning, like punching a client or embezzling money.)
Not every company operates this way, of course. Typically, the larger the company, the more likely you are to see a formal process with warnings at each stage, though lots of small employers have a similar process. But there are badly managed companies — and bad individual managers — who fire people without first warning them and giving them the chance to improve.
Still, though, even with managers who don’t give explicit warnings before letting someone go, it’s pretty unusual to be fired out of the blue. Not unheard of, but much of the time, you’ll see signs that things aren’t going well, like getting a lot of criticism of your work, being cut out of meetings you used to be included in, or having your manager seem increasingly displeased with you. (That’s not to say that method of doing things is acceptable — it’s definitely not. Managers have a fundamental responsibility to give clear feedback and warn someone when their performance is falling short. You don’t want to work for someone who won’t do that.)
In any case, it doesn’t sound as though your employer has been particularly clear with you about how they handle performance issues behind the scenes, and asking might give you some peace of mind. It’s fine to say to your boss, “The recent firings have me wondering about how work concerns are handled and what kinds of signs I’d have if my own job were ever in jeopardy. Is it typically a surprise to the person who’s let go, or are there conversations and warnings before it gets to that point?” You can also say, “I really value honest feedback and would want to know if anyone had serious concerns about my work so I could have the opportunity to try to improve.”
You should also ask how things are going in general. If your manager isn’t giving you feedback on a regular basis, try asking things like, “Could we talk about how things are going overall? I’d really like to get your feedback on how I’m doing big picture and whether there’s anything you’d like me to do differently.” You can ask for feedback on specific projects too: “Could we talk about how that meeting went? I wasn’t sure how to respond to X.”
You mentioned that you’re rattled by those occasional messages from management addressed to everyone that call out a mistake you’ve made. I can’t tell whether those messages mention you by name (“Jane, the X report has errors in it”) or whether it’s more general than that (“The X report has errors in it; can that get fixed?”). The former isn’t a great management practice; you deserve to hear corrections in private, not have them blasted out to everyone. But if it’s the latter, it’s possible your management doesn’t know who handles X and is just putting out a general call to get it fixed (also not ideal but not terribly uncommon in a small office).
Unless these errors are serious ones and happening repeatedly, I wouldn’t take occasional corrections as warning signs your job is in jeopardy — but it’s okay to ask your manager about that too. You could say, “How concerned should I be about the message in Slack this morning about the X report? I’ll of course make sure I do it the way she requested from now on, but should I be worried she had to flag it, and is there anything else I should do to take care of it?”
You can never fully inoculate yourself against the possibility of a bad manager firing people out of the blue without warning, but ensuring you have an open dialogue about your work and asking for regular feedback should give you a lot more peace of mind about where you stand.
Find even more career advice from Alison Green on her website, Ask a Manager. Got a question for her? Email firstname.lastname@example.org. Her advice column appears here every other Tuesday.