Fired or let go? How to see through the lies

My girlfriend dumped me. Not recently, about twenty years ago, long before I met my wife. It was painful. It was stressful. I hated it. However, I had another reaction that was even stronger: curiosity. Why? What had I done wrong? Was it really over? I asked, then I asked again. Then I called late at night after a few drinks and asked again. The answer was always the same. Insert cliché here: “We’re just different people.” “We’re in different places right now.” “I need to work on myself.” None of these would satisfy. I knew I wasn’t hearing the truth.

A few years later the shoe was on the other foot. I was the dumper. And guess what, I pulled out all the same clichés. I just couldn’t bring myself to tell her the truth, at least not the whole truth. She was already being dumped. Did I need to add insult to injury? What if she got really angry? Every man fears the angry ex-girlfriend. So I read my lines from the cliché handbook and went on my way.

I had been so critical when my then-girlfriend refused to share the real reason she was breaking up with me. Yet I followed suit when I was in her position. I was disappointed in myself. I had such an easy time being honest with people, but in that situation I couldn’t do it. I figured it was a phenomenon unique to romantic relationships.

But when managers fire employees it’s not that different. They want it to end well. They don’t want retribution. So, they lie. Or at least conceal the truth: “You have tremendous talent, but I don’t think you can take advantage of that here.” As some executives put it, you “counsel them out,” convince them that they can do better elsewhere. In the movie Up In The Air, George Clooney’s character is a master at this: “How much did this company pay you to give up on your dreams?” “Anybody who ever built an empire or changed the world sat where you are now.” Under no circumstances do you say, “You leeched off other people’s work, left a mess in the kitchen, annoyed your co-workers, and your resumé and skill set have nothing in common.”

If you were let go in a layoff, you might assume it was simply because the company needed to downsize and reduce expenses. In other words, it wasn’t your fault. Maybe. But why did you make it onto the let-go list. Why was your position “no longer available.” There was a reason. You just didn’t get to hear what it was.

The same dynamic plays out in business partnerships. Venture capital and private equity investors constantly receive proposals from business owners looking to grow. The savvy investors know it’s important not to offend any of these would-be partners. Denials are carefully crafted.

Consultants suffer the same treatment. About ten years ago my team and I were responding to a big RFP that we received from a Silicon Valley technology company. We were highly motivated and brought our “A game.” We did everything we thought possible to wow the client. We lost. We asked for an explanation. They thanked us profusely but said that another bidder was a “better fit” and understood their needs better. The answer frustrated us. There was no substance. We challenged the decision but got nowhere.

 Some of you are reading this and thinking, “Why can’t people just be honest? I can handle it!” Here’s the thing: you probably can’t. Most of us hate rejection in any form. It doesn’t matter if it’s a job, a relationship, or having our Facebook friend request ignored. When we experience it, we feel anger. It’s a visceral reaction, and no one is exempt. The people on the other side of the table have evolved to mitigate that reaction. Even if that means resorting to tired, overused platitudes that no one believes.

So what is the solution? If you get dumped, fired, let go or otherwise discarded, how should you handle it? Leave with your head high, your chin up, and…blah blah blah. We’re back to the clichés. You should see it as an opportunity to…ugh, still stuck in the clichés.

The bottom line is that you want direct answers, but you can’t get them. In some cases there is no way to know. However, there is often one way to shed some light on your situation. Recall the interactions that took place before you were rejected.

After we lost our RFP bid, we reflected on what we had done, said, and not said. Did we really understand what was important? Were we listening? During a presentation, the client inquired about who else we represented, most likely looking for a conflict of interest. I don’t recall our exact answer, but we did not address the issue head-on. They also asked about our resources in certain countries—countries where we were weak. Again, we deflected. Those were two big clues.

If you were denied funding by a venture capitalist, think about the questions that were asked during your pitch. What doubts were expressed? Were you willing to consider someone’s dissenting opinion, or did you simply disagree? These are the keys to the roadmap of your denial.

At your old job, think back to the times when things were still good. Reflect on those conversations. Employers are honest when they’re invested in you. Not only about what they like but also their concerns. They genuinely want to solve problems—your problems. When they decide you’re no longer wanted, the honesty ends and the cliché handbook is pulled from the shelf.

Here’s an idea: Think about the job or relationships you have now. Is anyone sharing concerns?