Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Real Talk With Rachel: A Firing Offense; Staying on the Wagon

by Rachel Kurzius

Dear Rachel,

I am the owner and manager of a 15-person company here in DC, and I think I am a good boss. Five months ago, I hired a candidate for a new position, though based on a few key changes that occurred, the job’s ultimate responsibilities changed. It became apparent that this employee couldn’t roll with the punches, and so I fired him two weeks ago with generous severance pay.

We don’t have a human resources person, because the company is so small. I tried to not make it a big deal around the office. While people obviously noticed his absence, I didn’t think I needed to send out an email or comment beyond “Jack is no longer with us” when asked. Now I can tell I screwed up, because people are acting strangely around me and seem angry.

How can I fix this?

In Charge But Not In Control

Dear In Charge But Not In Control,

Yep, In Charge, you screwed up. It’s not because you fired an employee. I am going to trust you that the employee proved unsuitable for the job. That's your call, after all.

You screwed up when you didn’t let people know about the decision, both because it prevented you from shaping a preemptive narrative and because it helped cultivate a sense of fear in the office. Perhaps you thought that you were protecting this Jack fellow by not broadcasting his departure. But you could remain respectful to Jack while giving your employees much-craved information.

Confusion breeds bizarre rumors. In lieu of a coherent reason for Jack’s firing, you had a whole lot of nothing. Your employees could be acting strange and angry because they think you fired Jack for naming his child after your first-born. Or, they might assume that your company is in financial trouble and their jobs are next on the chopping block.

Additionally, did any of your employees work directly with Jack? Those people in particular deserved a heads-up that their workload would increase during the transition into post-Jackdom. Now it’s time to clear the air. Do you have anyone in the office who acts as your eyes and ears? Someone who can gauge how much much harm you’ve done to workplace morale and your own trustworthiness? Start a genuine conversation about what occurred with Jack and how you could have better handled the situation.

Then, when you meet with your employees, individually or in groups for work-related meetings, you can start to tell them that you’re sorry you mishandled the Jack situation. Just say something along the lines of, “I was not forthcoming about the reasons Jack left the company a few weeks back. It had nothing to do with the solvency of the company. I should have alerted people sooner. I am sorry if I scared you.”

Listen, firing people and dealing with the inevitable discomfort that follows is part of being the boss. But handling those kinds of situations with grace will make your employees want to stay at their jobs.



Dear Rachel,

I am a guy who just turned 21, and my extended family will see me for the first time since my birthday at an upcoming anniversary party. My uncles have been joking that they can’t wait to get me wasted.

What they don’t know is that I was a heavy drinker in high school. I did stupid and destructive things. I did a pretty good job of hiding it for a while, but my twin sister knew and eventually helped me find help. My parents know that I go to AA meetings but haven’t told our extended family.

I am okay going to a party with alcohol. But I don’t really know what to say to my uncles when they try to get me to chug beers with them.

Don’t Want to Drink the Truth Serum

Dear Don’t Want to Drink the Truth Serum,

You have handled a difficult hand honorably, Don’t Want to Drink.Alcoholism is a condition that will continue to rear its ugly head throughout your life. Trying to prepare for these difficult moments, as you are doing, is the best way to get through.

Your uncles probably think that they’re being cool and playful. It’s fascinating how thoroughly an acceptance of alcohol and “getting wasted” permeate our culture. Your uncles cannot wait to engage in debauchery with you, in the hopes that it will somehow validate your transition into adulthood and growing relationship with them. They need to find a different way.

I think a firm “no” to your uncles’ entreaties to drink is a good starter. Hopefully, it’ll end there. But if they’re drinking as much as they’re offering you, such a quick solution is unlikely. How would you feel about telling them that you’ve struggled with drinking in the past? They’re going to notice over time that you always decline alcoholic beverages, so it might be worth just flat-out telling them you’re a member of AA and would appreciate their support.

It’s possible that they’ll scoff at your age and wonder “how you could know” you’re an alcoholic at such a young age. They don’t deserve an answer to that question. Just tell them that you’d be much more comfortable if they stopped shoving drinks in your face.

You are lucky to have such a strong support in your twin. Will she be at the party? Try and stick by her.



Rachel Kurzius revels in giving advice, and has provided counsel both as a columnist and a friend. She lives in Washington DC, where she works as a news producer. Real Talk with Rachel is published on All Life is Local and the Cleveland Park Listserv,, on Wednesdays. Need advice? You can write to Rachel via or at advice @


  1. I think your advice to In Charge But Not In Control was great and I can see employees reacting well to future conversations. The writer didn't mention whether, in the lead up to the firing, they had followed protocol in providing the employee with warnings. I run that same size company and, over 26 years, have fired 8 employees. It is traumatic and you and of course the employee will likely never forget it. They may apply for Workers' Compensation, which you end up paying. They can apply for this and receive considerable moneys if you don't have the proof in your files that you found fault, that they were warned, and sign that they received the warning. They should receive formal, written warnings and an opportunity to discuss the warnings with you before the final hammer comes down. There's lots of on-line information on this. Yes, it is the employer's right to fire an employee, but fairness, hurt feelings, friendships, resentment, and financial burdens are all part of the mix that come from being an employer. The owner should read basic manuals on human resources. Owners still have to perform the functions of a larger company until we are large enough to pay someone to do them. And even then we are still responsible for all the functions being carried out properly.

  2. In response to your advice to "Don't Want to Drink", I don't think he needs to tell anyone that he is a member of AA. That's why attendance is anonymous, so you don't have to let everyone know. I think that all he needs to tell his uncles is "Thank you! I'm very flattered that you want to buy me drinks, but I don't drink. I don't drink because it doesn't agree with me at all. So, how about a great meal out instead? I love a great gourmet dinner."

    That's all that needs to be said and DWTD can keep his AA meetings to himself.

    Oh, and if they persist, all he has to do after that first explanation is to say "remember, I don't drink ... not at all. Thank you."

  3. As a person who does not drink, I have become very used to telling people, "Thanks but I can't have alcohol." Most times when I say it, people are polite enough not to ask me any personal or medical questions. Occasionally, I encounter a nosy person who tries to find out why. I can say, "It's not something I discuss," or "I don't want to go into it." Uncles may feel they are entitled, as family members, to know...but they're not. It's good for a non-drinker to learn early how to cope with family and social pressure. It does become easier once you get used to doing it. But every now and then it does startle me how persistent (and rude) some people can be when you tell them you don't drink.