Career Control in a Crisis

By Jeremy Solomons, Co-Chair, IAC Global Committee; President/Owner, JSA Consulting (Rwanda) 

(This is an edited version of  the fourth in a series of “Leading in a Crisis” columns that was printed in the New Times newspaper of Rwanda.)

For many leaders, one of the toughest decisions can be whether to fire a direct report or not.

And an even tougher decision can be whether to “fire themselves” by seeking a different job with their current employer, taking another job elsewhere, launching their own enterprise, taking a completely different direction with their career or even taking a sabbatical and touring around the world.

These actions can be hard enough to take during “normal” times when distraction and compassion might well save the job of someone, who is seriously underperforming. Or at least delay the dreaded day.

And under regular circumstances, leaders might also be too occupied with the “busyness” of their day-to-day work and frequent travel to take time to stop, breathe, reflect and act on an underlying sense of restlessness, envy or desire for something better or new in their own career and life outside.

But everything is different now as the COVID-19 pandemic has already forced many people to abandon their offices, work from home, shelve big projects and spend a lot more time with the very people who are most impacted by their career choices.

And there is another bitter consequence of this particularly sudden and brutal global crisis. Because we have no idea how long the crisis will last and we cannot predict what the longer-term impact will be on the world of work, some good employees will have to be let go or at least furloughed.

This is not because they did anything wrong. It may just be because their job is not as important as others during this difficult time. Or even because they were the most recent hire.

It is clearly not fair or easy to fire a solid performer but if so, accountable leaders must:

  1. Identify potential targets as soon as possible, in consultation with other trusted advisors
  2. Make the decision quickly before any e-gossip might start
  3. Talk to the affected employee right away (preferably by phone in this time of physical distancing)
  4. Explain the reason behind the painful decision
  5. Show sincere empathy during this difficult conversation
  6. Avoid empty platitudes but show specific appreciation for the job they have done
  7. Avoid raising false hopes, such as offering to rehire the employee if and when things get back to “normal”, which may never happen
  8. Try to soften the blow by extending certain payments or insurance coverage and offering a stellar recommendation, if asked

And what if it is the other way and you are on the receiving end of such a shocking call from your executive director, CEO or board chair?

How would you react in such a sudden personal career crisis? And how would you react even if it was just your FEAR (Fantasized Experience Appearing Real) of it happening?

Many people might think of Elisabeth Kubler-Ross’s famous “Five Stages of Grief” but U.S. writer Dylan Buckley suggests in a recent article that the older, four-stage grief model of UK psychologists John Bowlby and Colin Parkes might be more appropriate in this case:

  1. Shock and numbness (the loss doesn’t seem real)
  2. Yearning and searching (for the things we have lost)
  3. Despair and disorganization (bringing anger, depression and hopelessness)
  4. Re-organization and recovery (which can bring renewal)

Clearly, the first three stages need to be acknowledged and worked through for as long as it takes, so that you can then move onto the more hopeful fourth and final stage.

Dylan writes: “in this phase your faith in life starts to be restored. You establish new goals and patterns of day-to-day life. Slowly you start to rebuild, and you come to realize that your life can still be positive, even after the loss. Your trust is slowly restored. Your grief does not go away nor is it fully resolved but the loss recedes and shifts to a hidden section of the brain where it continues to influence us but is not at the forefront of the mind.”

In this way, you can empower yourself to regain control of both your career and your life and relaunch yourself with a new sense of optimism, purpose and dynamism.

So, losing your job might not be the end of your world after all. It could actually be a golden chance to boldly venture into a new universe.

(The next blog in this series will help leaders examine where they are in their careers right now and where they could be in the future and then begin developing a concrete action plan that can help them survive in the short term and come out much stronger in the longer term. 

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