The Corporate Shrink

How to cope with the guilt of firing a coworker?

By Kerry J. Sulkowicz
Featured on FastCompany

The hardest part of my job as a senior executive is having to let someone go. I know no one likes doing this, but it’s getting to me. Lately, I’ve been having nightmares with beheadings in Iraq and planes crashing. Is my reaction extreme? (issue 89, page 40)

Not at all. I suspect you’re not the only one who dreams or thinks about such things while executing (sorry) this most difficult task. Your expression “letting someone go” itself hints at the pain involved in firing someone: We use benign phrases because we’re conflicted about the harsh reality.

Dreams reveal what’s going on below the surface, employing symbolic imagery (sometimes borrowed from current events) to express feelings that would be far more threatening to contemplate in waking life. In your nightmares, you’re on the front lines of horrific, violent acts. Firing an employee isn’t quite as extreme (or as irreversible) as chopping someone’s head off, but the dream reflects your horror at your role nonetheless: You see yourself as a murderer.

The traumatic part of firing an employee is the guilt you feel over causing pain to a colleague, which can be even worse if, consciously or not, you feel responsible. Some managers lose sight of an employee’s own role in the firing (his work, perhaps, was less than stellar), or of external circumstances – dropping profits, or a corporate takeover – that may be driving the decision. Unwittingly, we put ourselves in the shoes of our “victims,” and out of guilt, imagine going down in flames with them (which might explain your plane crash dream).

It’s natural to feel bad about this – and those like you, with particularly punitive consciences, have the roughest time. The trick is to distinguish between the harsh reality of firing someone and how it appears in your mind’s eye. In the end, though, I’d rather have a boss like you than one who claims to feel nothing at all.

A manager who reports to me has a temporary assistant. Despite the temp’s erratic performance and poor attendance, the manager doesn’t want to replace her and has even suggested hiring her permanently. She insists this woman shouldn’t be held accountable since she has numerous personal problems. But her excuses go beyond charity – even though we’re a nonprofit. How can I get her to focus on the heart of the problem?

Speaking of letting someone go . . . This temp needs to be shown the door – permanently. It may be that your manager’s guilt about causing further pain to someone already burdened by personal problems keeps her from firing the assistant. But an employee, temporary or not, who consistently underperforms should be terminated. It’s not charitable to the employee or to your organization to string her along. She can’t be too happy there either.

Since you’re the manager’s boss, your role is to make sure she sees the seriousness of the problem and acts accordingly. Talk it over with her, and explain what you think must be done. If she can’t comply, then you need to find out why. The heart of the problem may turn out to be the manager rather than the temp. But since morale and performance have already suffered, the ultimate responsibility for a solution is yours.

Dr. Kerry J. Sulkowicz, a psychiatrist, psychoanalyst, and founder of The Boswell Group LLC, advises executives on leadership, management, and governance. Send him your questions about the psychology of business (