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I work in a company that has an easy hire easy fire approach. The rate at which people are fired is over 15% of the workforce each year. The worst part is that an explanation is not given for those that are fired: it is not known how well they were performing, why they were fired, etc. All those that get fired are easily in top 2% of the population in terms of intelligence.

All of this leads me to become paranoid of being fired, even though my performance is rated extremely highly. I love to work at the company and would hate to have to get another job if I was fired.

I don't have such anxiety in any other part of my life: this is directly related to the work environment and the company hiring/firing approach. It is a feeling shared by some of my colleagues so is not an idiosyncrasy of my psychology but seems to be caused by the environment. So I don't think this is a question of therapy but a specific Workplace problem.

What strategies can I use to deal with this? Leaving is not an option since the work is too good and it is not likely there is another position that offers the same type of work (it is highly niche and brutally competitive in terms of massive supply/demand ratio). I just want to be able to enjoy the work without the stress of worrying about being fired all the time.

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@enderland Every 3 months or so. But I have seen guys where management will speak highly of them then the next minute they get fired. –  Gerard Mar 26 at 18:30
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If Leaving is not an Option, Dont Worry. What Happens Happens. Feeling Paranoid inst going to help things much, and Lower the performance. Then one gets fired. –  cytasos Mar 26 at 18:31
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this question requires medical expertise to be answered authoritatively –  gnat Mar 26 at 18:56
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The work doesn't sound too god to me. Having to constantly worry about something like that, I'd jump ship at the first opportunity. It isn't worth it. Also, if this is the UK, the company must specify a reason. –  Joe Mar 26 at 19:46

6 Answers 6

Recognize that you're worrying over something you have no control over. Either this company randomly fires people to make everyone afraid of their job or they reduce their pay-roll periodically for cash-flow or financial juggling reasons.

Hopefully, there are people in the industry who are aware that this company fires good people for no reason. They may be less likely to hold this against you if you get fired and apply for other jobs.

You could also ask around. Not sure where you came up with the 15%. Most companies that have this type of secretive behavior certainly don't publish these kinds of numbers.

Keep your skills and your resume up to date. Constantly look for new openings. You may want to take an interview periodically to maintain that skill as well. Arbitrary firings is a good reason to look elsewhere.

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+1 for "keep your resume up to date". With a company like this, you're likely to need it sooner rather than later - and at a time you're totally not expecting it. –  Adam V Mar 26 at 19:57

To answer the question I propose an imaginary situation:

You work at a place that never randomly fires people. Suddenly one day some catastrophic natural disaster wipes out so much of the customers or production capabilities that you are out of a job.

Moral of the story: Always keep your resume and your contacts in good shape, and keep an emergency fund in case you have to go without a check for a period of time.

Don't let this worry effect you by being prepared for the things you aren't worried about too.

After all, most of the time when people worry they worry about the thing that doesn't happen, and the thing that does happen they never thought to worry about.

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In the US in many states you can fire people without stating a reason and that is often what companies do because there is less possibility that the person can complain legally of an unfair firing if a reason is not given. Nor should a company ever tell the other employees why someone is fired. That is confidential and frankly none of their business. Their intelligence is likely irrelevant to why they were fired, don't dwell on that.

You know your company fires easily and you want to stay there. What are the strategies? First you need to make sure your performance is great. No major mistakes and as few minor ones as possible. Double check everything.

Next you need to make sure your boss is aware that your performance is great. You need to play the office politics game at a place like this and you need to play it well. You need to have allies in higher bosses and other departments so that people want to make sure you stay. You really need to read some books on this.

Additionally, you should always be ready to leave and start making contacts in the local community for your profession. If you do get fired, you want to maximize your chances of getting another job right away by making friends in other places and it helps to contribute to local user groups or events where you will work with others of your profession on a volunteer basis. And stay in touch if you can with some of the folks who were fired. The places where they work now obviously were willing to overlook the firing.

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I'm looking for responses from people who have worked in such an environment but have learned to regulate the psychological consequences.

I've been where you are, and I'm lucky enough to not be there anymore, but I'll tell you what I would tell then myself if my now self could go back and talk to me.

  1. Resist the urge to work like a maniac. Performing well will not save you in this situation (if it's like mine was). The expectations you are under are unrealistic, and everyone but you knows it. It's ok to fail, but what it's not ok to do is rock the boat.
  2. Be a team player. If you're a developer, you will likely be placed in a position sooner rather than later where people are pressuring you to do things that can't humanly done, and other people owe you resources such as graphics but are late. Resist the urge to push back on these people. If nobody else is worried that you're getting the graphics an hour before the project is due, remember point 1. If the business analyst adds 10 requirements in the middle of a sprint, remember point 1.
  3. Say yes a lot. Everyone around you is just as stressed as you are. They get more stressed if you tell them they can't have what they want, even though they already know they can't have it. You need to let them plausibly say yes to their own boss, and on up the chain. Nobody wants to hear what's actually going on, and they don't have time to fix the systemic problems anyway. Don't be the guy who points those problems out--you'll get fired. The problem will be there after you're gone, but you're at least not making yourself a target.
    If you must say no, try to make it sound like "yes." I have a coworker who has a gift of making the boss hear yes when he's saying no. I have the opposite gift--people hear no when I'm saying yes, so I can't really help you with this skill.
    If you really must say no, wrap it in an envelope that makes it hard for them to disagree with you within their own framework. "We already have a full 30 points for this sprint. If I'm going to add those 6 features, I need to drop out a total of 15 points. Can you move the features you don't want back into the backlog?"
  4. Be keenly aware of what people are saying about you. I was in the situation where the designer flat never met one deadline, yet I felt I was still held to mine. My attempts to get her to be on time and put the files together in such a way that what should have taken an hour took an hour instead of a week were seen as bullying. When I would come out of meetings with her, I'd see her go huddle with coworkers, gossiping, and I did nothing about it. In retrospect I should have taken her to lunch and hashed it out if possible, then let it go and not worried about my own deadlines.
  5. If your workplace offers flexible hours, take advantage of them. You look way more like a coding ninja if you roll in at 11 am. More importantly, if you leave at 4 because you got there at 7:30 am, people will think you're a slacker, whereas if you leave at 6 even if you got there at 11, that looks fine. Probably equally importantly, it is likely that the office turns over to socializing around 5 pm, and this will enable you to put more effort into point 4 and be more popular with your boss and the team. People who are well-liked are less likely to get fired.

In short, if you want to keep your job, you need to make sure people are more emotionally invested in keeping you than in firing you. Everyone is so busy that unless you are both popular and extremely productive at the same time, probably no one has a clue if you're productive or not.

My experience was that I went all-out to be productive, and was fired a few days before the deadline when we were feature-complete but hadn't implemented those last 10 features added at the last minute by the BA. Honestly, I was really relieved to be fired when it happened, as I was planning to resume my job search once we released version 1. That said, the experience I got during that time was extremely valuable, and I couldn't have gotten it any other way.

You may find that if you get fired it's not such a bad thing. I would suggest that if you can you should relocate to a technological hub such as Atlanta, Austin, or the Bay Area. That way getting fired is just another opportunity.

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I like this answer +1 especially for points 1 and 5. –  Pierre Arlaud Mar 27 at 9:04

"The worst part is that an explanation is not given for those that are fired, it is not known how well these people were performing (in general), why they were fired, etc."

I'm sure an explanation is given to the people fired. And each company has a rumour mill that usually knows what's going on. Rather than being worried, you need to find out the rumour mill.

All those that get fired are easily in top 2% of the population in terms of intelligence.

The problem is that these genius types have poor social skills. People are hired for how much they add to the bottom line, not how "smart" they are.

Now answering your direct question: How do you cope with it?

First thing is, stop worrying about it too much.

I have worked in a place I absolutely hated for a long time. It is possible if you are willing to use it as an excuse to build your skills and become a much better programmer. You need to be sure you are strong, so that you are confident you will find another job easily. Some time ago I wrote about this:

Next, start looking at how you can improve your skills. Because whatever problems you face now, you will carry them to the next job. Changing your environment will not change your situation. So that’s why I say, look to improve your skills, so you can move on to something better, not just more of the same crap.

My second advice is to keep a low profile. Do your work well and go home. Keep building your skills in the background, and keep your resume up to date. That way, even if you are fired, you can be confident you will find another job soon.

And the third is, don't think about it so much. You say you enjoy the work. So why not enjoy the time as well? Nothing lasts forever. Start saving money regularly, so that even if you are fired, you won't struggle financially.

Edited to add: After reading JeffO's answer and his point about the 15% figure not being accurate, another point came to mind. Your company might have a macho attitude (let me guess: Its a video games company?) In these macho companies, you are expected to just get on with it, with none of this sissy 2-way communication. So the company is taking decisions, but doesn't feel it necessary to communicate why to the engineers. Which makes me think people like you are assuming the worst and having panic attacks. If so, the best thing is to quietly keep working. It's a problem of communication, not random firings.

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If you are overly concerned with being fired then you will likely be fired in the near future. Emotional worries like that one tend to be self fulfilling.

What you need to do is realize that there are things you can control and things you can't. Do your best to control the things you can and flat out ignore everything else. For example, I can't control whether the airplane I fly out on is going to make it to its destination or not. However I can control whether my seat belt is properly buckled and (usually) that I'm sitting comfortably. I choose to ignore all of the possible things that might go wrong and instead focus on the book I brought or magazine they provide.

If I worried about all of those other details I'd likely never actually get on the plane to begin with and certainly wouldn't be able to enjoy my book.

In your situation you can control getting up in the morning, the clothes you wear and (usually) your ability to arrive at work on time. You can control the actions you take while there, presumably to do the tasks you were assigned. You can't directly control office politics, company planning, income, head counts, etc. So don't worry about it.

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