Contrary to the reality show adage, “I’m not here to make friends,” it’s perfectly normal to go into a new, perhaps competitive, workplace seeking a confidant.
In fact, there are heaps of data that suggest that workplace friendships can enhance your professional life, taking a job from tolerable to enjoyable. And studies show that those benefits extend to employers who will see their employees take fewer sick days, stick around for much longer and show more enthusiasm for the work they’re doing.
But what if the person you’re closest to in the office suddenly gets fired?
“It feels like a gross violation of trust when your best friend is let go,” says Dr. Ron Friedman, a social psychologist specializing in human motivation and the author of The Best Place To Work: The Art and Science of Creating an Extraordinary Workplace. “And that can be really demotivating for a number of reasons.”
As Friedman explains, the first person to get blamed is usually the figure of authority who did the firing, which he characterizes as a “display of power.” But before you go barging into your boss’ office demanding an explanation, Friedman suggests taking a step back.
“Recognize that it may not be about your friend,” says Friedman. “There are some things in an organization that you may not know about simply because of the level you’re at and because of the work you’re exposed to.”
In other words, your boss usually has a boss, too, and the situation may be more complicated than you realize. Or perhaps, your friend’s actions weren’t on the up and up, and you weren’t aware of those details. Instead of digging through the murky details, Friedman suggests searching for lessons and being realistic about “what behaviors didn’t serve your colleague well that you can improve on for your performance.” After all, when a coworker gets fired it can feel like you may be up next on the chopping block. And finally, Friedman says it’s important to accept your negative emotions about the situation.
It’s equally important for employers to realize that their staff may be feeling a bit demoralized in the wake of a firing, especially if many of them were close with their former coworker.
“Any time you have a display of power in the workplace, that increases the distance between [employees] and the people in a position of authority,” says Friedman. “So, from an employer perspective, it’s really critical when this happens to be open about why it happened and be specific in identifying the behaviors that caused you to have to let go of this person.”
If you can legally do so, tell your employees why you let their coworker go. Otherwise, a lack of understanding on their part only perpetuates the negative emotions they’re already dealing with.
And in the aftermath of a firing, employers should think of ways to make their team stronger and actively encourage the formation of new friendships. For instance, if you bring in a replacement soon after the firing, Friedman suggests introducing new employees as people, not walking resumes. “When you have someone join your organization, don’t just introduce them by their professional experience and their resume,” says Friedman. “Talk a little bit about what their interests are outside of work.” Current employees will be able to quickly identify commonalities with their new coworker and hopefully, form a friendship with them down the road.
As for your now unfortunately unemployed friend, just because you don’t work together anymore doesn’t mean you can’t maintain the relationship. But Friedman suggests that you avoid venting with them about your former shared workplace. Instead, if you feel comfortable and the reason for their firing wasn’t too egregious, see if you can assist them with their job hunt, referring them to others in your network or writing a recommendation.
And now that your friendship can grow outside of the office, your conversations can expand beyond work woes.