I was railing to my buddy Lawrence about how ridiculous it is for companies to get rid of employees around the holidays when he told me I should check out "Up in the Air," a movie starring George Clooney as Ryan Bingham-a human capital consultant who fires people at companies looking to reduce headcount, I did—complete with a $4.50 20-ounce fountain drink and $5.00 regular popcorn (glad to see movie theaters are adapting their business model to compete with the growing threat of video on demand—but I digress).
Snack prices excluded, I thought the movie was great. But the thing that really stood out for me was the stories of the people he fired. The raw emotions—anger, sadness, disbelief, and fear that were evident in their faces and from their responses when hearing the news that their "position was no longer available." The reason their responses seemed so real is because they were real—they were non-actors that director Jason Reitman asked to share what they said, or wanted to say, when they were recently terminated. "What will I tell my kids?" "How will I pay my mortgage?" "I’m 57 years old, how am I going to start over?" Which leads me to my first point—as a manager, you should have been fired at least once before you are able to fire someone else.
Knowing how it feels to lose your job can help you become a better manager. Instead of using termination as a first resort (which surprisingly some people do), by understanding how devastating the move will be for your employee, you are more likely to explore every possible option before getting rid of them. You’ll be more likely to work with them to create a personal development plan to address any deficiencies.
Surviving a layoff or termination helps you appreciate what you have. After a few years in the same job, it’s easy to take things for granted. You start to assume that your position will always be there. You forget that a downturn in the economy, a dip in your performance, or a hot shot boss looking to clean house so he or she can build their own team could cost you a regular paycheck, your ability to make your mortgage payment, your career progression and your close friends if you’re forced to relocate to find work.
Losing your job can force you to make a career move—when you’re stuck in a rut but you have a steady paycheck, it’s a move you might not otherwise make. In the movie, Clooney’s character tries to console someone whom he fired. Searching for answers as to how he’ll now be able to support his kids, Clooney suggests he consider being a chef, something he had listed on his resume that he studied years ago as an undergraduate. If he hadn’t been terminated, he might have spent another 10 years in the same role without transitioning to something he loved.
In a race to cut costs or even if you’re just a hot shot manager hell bent on empire building, it’s easy to forget that you’re playing with peoples lives—and that’s something that should be taken very seriously. If you haven’t yourself been fired before, I suggest you watch "Up in the Air" before you decide to get rid of someone on your team. And if you’re someone who recently lost your job, you might find the shared experiences of those who were let go in the movie will give you a voice—especially if you weren’t able to say what you wanted to say when you were let go.
Shawn Graham is Director of MBA Career Services at the University of Pittsburgh and author of Courting Your Career: Match Yourself with the Perfect Job (www.courtingyourcareer.com).