Notes for employees on what to do if you think you might be fired.

Sometimes, as a lawyer, it’s easy to get caught up in statutory language, burdens of proof, and legal frameworks. Today I want to take a step back from that and offer some thoughts on how to handle one of the most basic employment-related fears: What do I do if I think I’m going to be terminated?

We get this question all the time. And understandably so! For most people, a job is a big deal. It can be a means to feed your children or pay your rent. It can be a source of pride or a piece of your self-identity. It can be a way that you challenge yourself or interact with others outside of your family or community. So when you think that your job is on the line, it’s only natural to worry about how you can fend off a termination. Whether you’re facing a layoff, reorganization, performance based termination, or even just a flat-out unjustified (and potentially unlawful) firing, there are some steps you can take to protect yourself before that termination actually takes place.

  1. Keep Performing

This first idea may seem obvious, but it’s worth noting regardless. Sometimes when an employee senses that a termination is near, there is an impulse to throw in the towel or to phone it in. It’s understandable. If you’re feeling abandoned by your employer, why would you keep working hard and giving the company your energy and loyalty? But it’s important to avoid that impulse. Don’t stop performing! Show up on time. Get your tasks done. Respond to emails and voice messages. Do everything you can to meet reasonable expectations – even if you think your boss has unreasonable expectations. Why? For several reasons:

First, you could be wrong. What you have perceived as the writing on the wall may just be a bad week or two for your boss. There could be pressure from upper management, changes in performance review processes, or other new policies or focuses company-wide that are impacting everyone in your department and not just you. So it may make sense to keep your cool for a bit, get your work done, impress your superiors, and see if you can ride out the rocky times.

Second, even if you’re right that the company has been considering terminating you, it could be helpful to show your employer what a strong, consistent, and valuable part of the time you are. Really shining in your role may make it harder for your supervisor to justify a termination decision to the higher-ups or may make a company facing layoffs think twice about how they have decided on who they are going to let go.

Third, if there is any unlawful motive behind the potential termination (think discrimination or retaliation, for instance), you want to avoid giving the company a legitimate lawful reason to terminate you. So just keep getting your work done.

  1. Think About Getting HR Involved

Next, it may be useful to talk to your Human Resources or Employee Relations representative about what is going on. If you think that what is happening is unfair or unjustified, HR may be able to help you communicate your concerns to your supervisor and work out a plan to try to improve the relationship. If you think what is happening is unlawful or discriminatory, making a complaint to HR should initiate an investigation and may help protect your job.

While I recognize that HR does not always fix an uncomfortable work situation, if you really think you’re going to be fired it may be worth a try. Sometimes it is useful solely for the purpose of making sure that adverse employment decisions aren’t being made in a vacuum and that another opinion (outside of your boss’s) is being considered in finalizing a plan to terminate.

If you have been to HR already, you don’t have a good relationship with HR, or your company is small enough that it simply doesn’t have a designated HR representative, you may want to speak, instead, with a mentor, member of management, or other higher level employee with whom you have a good professional relationship. Again, bringing in another person at the company may help you to mediate a difficult relationship with your boss or to come up with a solution other than termination. If that person is a trusted or long-term member of the company’s leadership who can vouch for the value that you add, their opinion may help protect your job.

  1. Consider Talking to a Lawyer

Finally, you might want to think about speaking with an attorney. Depending upon the kinds of performance allegations being made about you – and whether those allegations are false and/or unjustified – you may have legal claims which you can pursue. Often, addressing those claims head on, before you have been fired, can lead to a more favorable outcome for an employee than just letting the termination take place. Legal counseling can assist you in identifying unlawful conduct, helping you to draft internal complaints, negotiating a separation, or even just giving you piece of mind as you navigate this uncomfortable process.

There is no right way to approach the uncomfortable feeling that you may be fired. But thinking ahead and being proactive can help. Now, if you’re in the unfortunate position of having already been terminated, the things you need to think about and the steps you may want to consider taking are a little different. To address those ideas, I’ll be back in a few weeks to answer the related question: What do I do if I’ve been fired?