Getting Through a Stressful Termination or Discharge
March 16, 2012 7:22 AM   Subscribe

How to get through a stressful long-term discharge or termination from work?

I have a non-tenure-track faculty position at a state university. A couple months ago, I was told told they wanted me to "make other plans" by the end of the semester or that they could "reduce my job security" (I interpreted this to mean quit-or-get-fired). She said that should would "Like to help me make other plans in that time," but said, "If not, we're prepared to take steps to reduce your job security." [The "or else" was more specific than that, but I'm redacting identifying information]. There is quite a lot of job security given my classification, so it would be quite a pain to get rid of me, administratively and bureaucratically. The Vice Director that delivered the news (my best friend in the office, but higher ranked than me) (by phone, ahem), apologizing. The main thing I kept saying during the phone call were, "Why didn't you TELL me?" (meaning about any concerns). I volunteered to do anything to improve (even though in perspective bizarre minor complaints seem pretextual), volunteering to work with other faculty or take classes to improve in any areas of concern. These pleas were met with, "The decision has already been made." The complaints were vague and strange and minor. Ultimately, she just kept repeating that I'm "not a good long-term fit." I did ask (more gently) if they thought they'd be able to get someone better than me in the position. She said, "Yes, she has more of a long-term interest in XXX work..." That sort of seemed to indicate that they already had my replacement picked out. The Vice Director says would check back in in a couple weeks to "find out my plans."

Seven weeks go by. She does not say "good morning" to or look me in the eyes (even though we work next to one another), much lest initiate a conversation with me about my plans. No one mentions the termination-ish-conversation.

In the meanwhile, I hire an employment lawyer (namely because the termination-ish-conversation came out of nowhere). When the Vice Director and the department HR person realize the lawyer's requested my personnel file, I get a Friday-morning email asking if I could meet in a few hours with the Director, the Vice Director, and the HR person for an "informational meeting" It wasn't a good day for me so I declined and suggested the following Wednesday. I got a long and detailed response from the HR person sort of outlining a version of what the Vice Director told her she said to me about two months ago, and saying I'm getting my position changed from a permanent one to a renewable contract based on unspecified "ongoing performance issues." They still haven't really articulated anything that looks like ongoing performance issues -- just small, strange allusions that amount to people not liking me. I'm not sure who doesn't like me. I think I'm generally likeable, and I've never argued with anyone. My performance reviews have all been good. My personnel file is all good except a memo to file from the day the Vice Director quasi-threatened-to-fire me.

Then, first thing Monday they demand a meeting. I say, "Ok, I'd rather get more notice for a personnel meeting, but sure." Then they cancel the meeting and reschedule it for Thursday.

So I ended up meeting with the HR person and Vice Director, and they wanted to make a single point: They are not terminating me, they are replacing my position with another position that does not have the job security that my current position has. It is not a termination, or dismissal. Why didn't they do all the things they are supposed to do under the policies before they dismiss someone for performance issues (you know, telling the person there is a problem, trying to work with the person, etc. etc.)? Oh, because they aren't terminating me. They are simply "reducing my job security."

The lawyer is supposed to write some sort of letter, something akin to proposing a separation? Of course, he's not as quick and responsive and in touch as I'd prefer, but he's doing ok, this is just a really slow process it seems.

My question is less legal (although if you've got something to contribute, I'd love to hear it) or sociological (again, any insight into this welcome, as I'm boggled).

MOST IMPORTANTLY I more so want to know how to handle the ongoing stress and uncertainty of the situation. I do not know if I'm getting fired, they want me to continue working there after having "reduced my job security," my lawyer is supposed to be getting something together now, and it's extremely uncomfortable at work especially with the Vice Director icing me all the time. I am consumed with the situation, and do not want to be. I don't want to overburden my partner with repetitive/redundant analyses.

I would like to know what I need to do to get through between three months and two years of real awkwardness at my place of employment. Are there mental tricks I should be using? Practices that I should be engaging in? Things I should be recording?

I do exercise and eat healthy, and have a strong mind, generally, so I am surprised this is taking the emotional toll on me that it is. I do have a therapist who I keep updated, and I do have some Lorazepam if it gets bad. I have a supportive and loving partner but hate to dominate conversations with this. Please advise on how I might get through this in the most mentally healthy way possible.

Thank you for your MeFite wisdom. This one is a bit of a doozy for me.
posted by anonymous to Work & Money (10 answers total)
Before you record any conversations, consult with your lawyer about the legality of it in your state. If you live in a two-party consent state, the other party can decline to be recorded.
posted by Hollywood Upstairs Medical College at 7:32 AM on March 16, 2012

You seem to be pretty cogent on this matter. Thoughts:

1) Your level of control in this situation seems low. They are 'telling you how it is' so to speak. Thus, it doesn't sound like you can do much about the situation. Obviously some level of self-awareness is always helpful, however don't internalise this process. Again, these are decisions being made outside your sphere of influence. Best not to stress about what cannot be controlled.

2) To reduce stress, it doesn't sound like any of this is personal. As far as the admin who won't look at you, perhaps a nice heart-to-heart over a coffee or something. Let them know you aren't taking it personally, obviously it's a bit stressful, and you appreciate that it's not much easier on their end.

3) As far as practices to engage in, perhaps a good meditation practice will help you control your negative emotions better. You may see results in as little as a week. The other practice that might be prudent is saving money. Look at this situation very realistically and dispassionately. Make a plan that you feel secure with, and spend the next three months executing that plan. Point being, is to control what you can control.

4) Someone else can comment on the issue of what to record and what not to record or legal matters. I would finally just like to remind you to be gentle with yourself, and appreciate yourself, regardless of this situation. It's an external thing. It would be better if it was not there, but it is. Thus, remember to congratulate yourself on the good parts of your life.

As far as partner goes, I think you're doing well not turning that relationship into a dumping ground (it's amazing how many people don't get that point!). Remember that greiving is a social process, and it will help to have someone you can discuss this situation with. Besides a therapist. You don't always have to spend time trying to solve a problem, rather some times it really helps to just recognise your stress and give it a voice. Not for a long time, just a little bit, so that you recognise and express it.

Anyway, stay up and don't let this get you down. It's a shit situation, and I don't envy whoever is having to make these decisions above you.
posted by nickrussell at 7:34 AM on March 16, 2012

MOST IMPORTANTLY I more so want to know how to handle the ongoing stress and uncertainty of the situation.

Get your CV in order and start looking for new positions today.

My position at my company has been extremely uncertain for the past year, and one of the things that has kept me sane is to constantly be on the lookout for new opportunities so that I will be as prepared as can be if I get laid off.

I wish luck in finding a new position where they won't play these horrible games with you and will treat you professionally. This lack of professionalism was one factor (of many) in why left academia.
posted by Tooty McTootsalot at 7:40 AM on March 16, 2012 [1 favorite]

My read on this is that, in this economy, it is totally possible to have an adjunct do what you're doing currently without the cost of benefits.

I also know that at a university, since it is so difficult to fire people, they have to go through a ton of steps to actually get someone out of a position. (I remember YEARS of documenting 'performance issues' when it was an issue of getting staff out of positions that due to technology changes, could be manned by students (computer labs = less people needed serious help because the general population was more savvy AND laptops were reducing need for labs... but yet there were these staff lifers... dozens of them... and you couldn't easily let them go even though they weren't needed...).)

I mention these to add to your and everyone's understanding of what possibly going on in this situation.

Maybe also focus on what you want out of this. Do you want to keep your job as is? Do you want the contract position?

And as far as your "friends" -- they're in an awkward position too. Their dual roles -- your friend and also doing their job -- make it tough for them too.

Good luck!
posted by k8t at 7:44 AM on March 16, 2012 [1 favorite]

I do exercise and eat healthy, and have a strong mind, generally, so I am surprised this is taking the emotional toll on me that it is.

Also, don't beat yourself up over how much this is affecting you. As an academic, I imagine a large part of your sense of self is tied up in your career, more so than with most people. Maybe taking a step back to center yourself and remembering that you are more than just your job may help.
posted by Tooty McTootsalot at 7:50 AM on March 16, 2012 [1 favorite]

What state are you in?
posted by Ironmouth at 8:07 AM on March 16, 2012

The folks I know who received adverse tenure decisions have gone on to find better jobs (both in status and in their happiness) elsewhere.

I'd go on the market.
posted by leahwrenn at 9:02 AM on March 16, 2012

The Vice Director is probably feeling really uncomfortable and doesn't know how to behave. I would have a friendly talk with her about how you can both stay comfortable in this situation. I am sure once you break the ice, that will at least take one item of discomfort off your list. The fewer discomforts you have, the more you can relax and focus on what you need to do next.
posted by Vaike at 9:14 AM on March 16, 2012

MOST IMPORTANTLY I more so want to know how to handle the ongoing stress and uncertainty of the situation.

I think you need to decide what you want. Not so much in a practical sense, but in a if-you-could-choose-the-outcome-yourself sense.

I say this because the way you describe this I wonder if the degree to which is is uncomfortable for you is a very deliberate one. They're unwilling/unable to terminate you but they're sending you every message - overtly - that they want a situation where they can do so more easily.

So my advice is to refuse to play along with making you uncomfortable. They are trying to steer you into a reaction that gets them what they want. Instead you should decide what you'd like and react accordingly - not how they want, or the opposite of what they want out of fear or contrariness.

You still have to deal with now knowing that they'd like you out of your job role. I'd say you should imagine how you'd react to this if you discovered this fact accidentally. Would you decide you didn't want to work there anymore and start looking? Would you not care and just go about your business?

If you discovered that a completely impersonal change in state law was altering your job classification, how would you react? Would you decide you liked the other things about it enough that you didn't mind the alterations in terms?

You can't ignore the realities of the situation; you either have some people who are indifferent to your needs/feeling or are outright hostile to them. But I think you'll feel a lot better if you reclaim some sense of your own agency here absent from the external pushing and emotional upset. Which doesn't mean it's going to be easy, but when we're beset by these sorts of things it goes a long way to slice stuff up into more manageable pieces.

Good luck. I've been in situations with some parallels and it blows. Just keep your eyes on the fact that it's just a job, it's not who you are and it's not even the most important thing about you - it's probably not in the top 10 things about yourself you'd preserve if you had to make a list of what you like best in your life and what you value about yourself.
posted by phearlez at 9:29 AM on March 16, 2012

I've had two friends go through horrible drawn out processes with their work that were different to yours, but similar enough. Both of them now say that even though they were 'right' and defending their rights, the toll on them was such that they wished they had just walked away (even though both of them got money out of the organisation). If you have the option to look for a new job, I recommend it. If not, some of the advice above will hopefully help.
posted by AnnaRat at 2:57 PM on March 16, 2012

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