The word “fired,” meant as a colloquial term for dismissing someone from employment, comes with such emotional implications that it can often leave people who have separated from their jobs feeling ashamed and unwanted.
Patty McCord, Netflix’s former chief talent officer, told Fast Company she’d prefer it if the word was removed from HR talk altogether: “Why do we call it ‘getting fired’? Are we shooting people?”
McCord, who now works as a consultant and advises companies like Warby Parker and HubSpot on leadership and culture, would rather call it “moving on.” And moving on from a company, whether it was originally the employer’s or the employee’s idea, isn’t necessarily a bad thing, yet the word “fired” can often make it seem so.
But if we want to change the way we think about someone leaving a company, we need to change the way we think about work. In the book, The Alliance: Managing Talent in the Networked Age, LinkedIn cofounder Reid Hoffman, along with coauthors Chris Yeh and Ben Casnocha, say relationships between employers and employees should be viewed as an alliance where employers are upfront and honest with new hires about their “tour of duty,” and how long each mission will take. That way, it takes away the unrealistic expectation that either, or both, parties can have about the relationship being lifelong, where nothing ever changes.
“The metaphor that people typically use [when thinking about work] is that it is a family relationship,” says Yeh, an entrepreneur and writer, but the family metaphor becomes erroneous when people are asked to leave a company, because “we’re not allowed to fire our family members.”
Instead, “the alliance says there are two independent parties that are coming together around certain mutual goals,” says Yeh. “They are going to be very specific about how they work together, really spelling this out and managing expectations, so they’re able to be more honest with each other and build a greater sense of trust.”
That way, employers and employees have a clear sense of what they’re trying to get out of the other party from the beginning. Employees know their mission, and how it will benefit the company and their own career. Employers are able to admit—and be okay with—the knowledge that their employees won’t be there forever.
Yeh explains: “When you take the alliance approach, [an employee’s] time at the company is actually very structured. They have a tour of duty, and by the time that tour of duty is coming to an end, they can define their next tour of duty. So their career progression is always very clear to them. How their work at the company is enhancing their career is always very clear to them. And that actually allows you to retain people for a longer period of time.”
When both parties fully understand the specifications of a tour of duty, employees won’t feel as much of a need to jump ship whenever a new opportunity comes up. If they do, Yeh says they might take steps to make up for it, like work with their employer to bring in a successor or stay through the end of a mission. And the reason why is because a tour of duty isn’t as much of a contractual agreement, says Yeh, but “a moral and ethical commitment” to one another.
The duration for each mission is typically one to three years, and once that time is up, the manager and employee should work together to come up with a new tour of duty, depending on how to best progress the employee’s career. This kind of mind-set can also prevent people from wanting to jump ship, usually at around three years, when their learning curve pretty much flattens out. It also allows both the employer and employee to continuously redefine jobs and roles—something needed in a time when adaptability and entrepreneurship are attributes that keep companies afloat.
But being so honest with an employer or employee when you’re not used to doing so isn’t an easy culture change. Most employers who are afraid of being so honest fear that they are giving employees permission to leave if they discuss the possibility that they might work somewhere else.
Yeh says this is a terrible approach to take.
“The worry about granting permission to leave is foolish, because it’s not your permission to give,” he says. “Employees are free individuals.”
If companies want employees with an entrepreneurial mind-set, they’re going to have to think about the employee-employer relationship differently. And that is the only way we can start thinking about people moving on or leaving a job differently.