Every employee dreads the email, call or calendar invite to an HR meeting, especially the surprise one, the one you did not schedule. You may receive this notification a few minutes before the meeting or the morning you arrive at work. If you are a part of a company wide layoff, you may be called into one conference room while others gather in another room for the layoff announcement. But if you are the only one being terminated, even under the guise of a larger reduction in force, you are likely to be in a meeting, alone with your manager, your HR representative, and maybe even legal.
So, here are a few things you need to do to prepare for the meeting:
- Take a deep breath: You cannot think straight if you are panicking or scared or feeling out of control. Remember that feeling of being called to the principal’s office, you are going to feel it again. Your breath may be faster, your heart beat racing, your face feeling hot, and of course, the butterflies in your belly. The deep breaths will take these feelings and help you control your nerves. You are going to need your wits about you over the new few days and initially, you are going to be going through this alone. So, take two minutes to take some deep breaths; it sounds silly but it is the most important thing you will do all day. This is especially important if the meeting is taking place soon and you were just notified about it.
- Take Inventory: Now that you are clear headed, take a quick inventory of the events and discussions of the past few days, weeks and months. Assume the worst, that you are being put on a performance improvement plan or fired, and take stock of things that you have done, said, or emailed over the past few weeks and months. Think about issues that you have raised, complaints made, disagreements with supervisors or co-workers about company actions or policy. Sometimes, the performance or termination discussion is just that, about your performance, and the need for improvement or termination. And sometimes, it is something else. It is for those times that you need to be prepared with your wits about you. You are taking stock of these issues but you are not going to share them with anyone, yet.
- Be a listener: Go into the meeting prepared to listen and play your cards close to your vest. This means that you need to be present in the meeting, take in the words being spoken, watching body language, looks exchanged between those present in the room, and answers given to your questions. If you wish, you can ask questions like why is this happening, who else is being laid off, what is my severance. These questions won’t matter and know that nothing you say in that room will change their minds so don’t say anything that could be construed as you admitting wrongdoing or fault. And most importantly, remember your deep breaths and stay calm. If you lose your cool or become angry and abusive, your actions will justify your termination even if the previously stated reasons do not.
- Don’t Sign Anything: I repeat, do not sign anything. The company cannot tell you that they need your signature in that meeting or within 24 hours. You must be given at least 21 days to review the Agreement being presented to you. If you are being presented with a performance improvement plan, you can sign the document acknowledging that it has been presented to you but do not sign anything that states that you agree with the contents of the document. Even if the items listed contain some truth, you will likely find that you disagree with most of it or the characterization of certain events as being your fault. Even if you agree with 100% of the contents, recognize that you are scared, stressed and not thinking clearly and that you should review this document and get back to them at a later date.
- Don’t Be an Ostrich: As unpleasant as this situation is, you cannot stick your head in the sand. You must take action, either to consult a lawyer, address the performance improvement plan, negotiate a better severance package or take some other action. Take a day to process what has happened and then take action. Just because you don’t think about it, doesn’t mean that the situation will just go away. This is true in termination situations but even more so in situations where you believe you have been unfairly treated in a performance improvement plan. You can and must protect yourself against the inevitable.
The Bottomline: Stay calm and stay in control. While it may not feel like it, you have power in this situation and need to make sure that you are not giving it up with rash or erratic behavior.