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Nuts + Bolts #17: The Dismissal Luncheon (or Breakfast)

If your boss asks you to join him or her for breakfast or lunch during a period of uncertainty and there is no specific agenda, beware. Something is afoot. He or she may want to drop the boom and do the deed in a controlled setting away from the prying eyes of the office staff.

By Stanley Stark, FAIA, LEED AP
May 3, 2018

Editor’s note: This is the 17th installment of Nuts+Bolts, an exclusive ArchNewsNow series to provide A/E professionals with practical tips for a more successful, profitable practice.



Order light. This meal is not about the meal and you will not have time to consume anything that is heavy or requires involved preparation.


These sessions always begin indirectly with conversation and chatter about neutral topics or topics you have raised. This idling isn’t done to lull you or put you at ease. Your boss is buying time to summon the courage to issue the dreaded words “We are letting you go.”


The dismissal talk is never extemporaneous or spontaneous. It is always tightly scripted. There are four stages:


-- First, the hard fact is delivered fast – “You’re through!”

-- Second, sympathy or more frequently empathy, is offered – “I know this is hard and what you must be feeling.”

-- Third, a rationale is offered. There are a few variations. “It’s your fault. We have discussed your performance previously and we see no improvement.” Generally you should see this one coming. If it takes a dismissal meal to let you know they don’t love you anymore, then you haven’t been paying attention. Or, “The business climate is at fault.” “We can’t support you.” Or, “We’ve had to make some hard choices.” Anyway, it’s not linked to your performance. The Gods of Risk are responsible. But it is evident that some other qualitative factors have come into play. They don’t love you enough to take the risk of continuing with you. The door to their creativity has slammed shut. The last big variation is offered as the result of a grand strategic re-evaluation. You no longer fit into their plans. The next time an MLB team manager is fired, you will hear a dramatic reading of the script by the GM or the owner.


While this performance is being enacted the natural response is to go into a shocked, dissociative state. Denial takes hold. “I can’t believe this is happening!” Resist the impulse.


The whole purpose of the process up until now has been to mute you, to shock you into silence, to blunt your emotions so your boss can get through this distasteful ritual quickly with a minimum of discomfort. He or she wants to avoid an emotional scene. They aren’t into grief counseling. Positioning you into a state where you are dazed and paralyzed is a good thing from their viewpoint, but is definitely not in your interests. No matter what you imagined entering the restaurant, you and your boss are no longer aligned. Rather, you are adversaries.


Your obligation at the moment the boom drops is to put your feelings aside, look your boss in the eye, pause then ask a few questions. It is helpful to remind him or her that you are still conscious and thinking:


-- How long do I have? When is my last day?

-- What is my severance?

-- Who do I speak with about the details of severing from the firm – healthcare insurance, COBRA, 401K rollover, accrued vacation time, outstanding expenses, and examples of my work? These are all important, but what is most important is to have someone identified who you can talk to.

--  How do you want to conduct the transition of my responsibilities?

-- Who else knows about the decision to sever me?

-- You may have an instinctive feeling about how you want to share the news internally that you will be leaving. Decide if you want your boss’s agreement to keep this quiet or if you don’t want any restrictions. If you are unsure don’t ask the question.

-- Will there be any help in out-placement provided?

-- Can I use you as a reference?


All of these are important, but under the stress of the situation it may not be possible to respond with an extensive agenda of queries. How long you have, what your severance is, and who is designated to help you with your transition out of the firm are the critical questions at the moment. Reserve the opportunity for a follow-up meeting as you “&hellipconsider the implications of your situation.”


Respond quietly. Don’t show signs of hostility. Ask your questions slowly and give him or her the chance to provide answers. Your boss definitely has answers for most, if not all, of these questions. Ask if there are possibilities for negotiation on any of the issues – end date, severance, etc. If you exercise some poise under fire, a degree of control may shift back to you. They are relieved and appreciative that you seem to be taking this well (they don’t have any idea of how you are really feeling), so they may be more open to your requests.


Keep the questions short and bring this discussion to a close. Don’t linger and do not draw your boss into a debate about how unfair this is. Don’t waste time trying to refute the decision to let you go. You just want a few answers and you want to buy some time. Glance at your watch. State that you have an appointment or an errand to run (shoe repair, open heart surgery – just don’t explain!). Deflect any offer to walk back to the office together. State that you will call your boss later in the day to set up an appointment to go through your other questions. Then, depart.


Go somewhere else to sit, think, and start making a plan. Don’t start to process what has just happened. This is not a good time or place. There’s not much time but here are a few important tasks for your plan to move forward:


-- What is your script? What can you tell people about why you are leaving?

-- Who do you need to contact and in what order? Amongst those, is there anyone who can offer help, guidance, a prospective new situation?

--  Are there any clients you wish to notify quietly?

-- What is the likely inventory of work examples you want to take?

--  Decide whether you can share news of your situation with anyone within the firm. If the decision about your departure is closely held, you may not want to share the news until your questions and your plan is sorted out.

-- This is not the time for openness and honesty. You are now in stealth mode.


Return to the office with a purposeful air, as if nothing is different. Deflect questions about the meeting with your boss with bromides and dissimulation. Portray it as a chance to discuss some of the initiatives you are engaged in. Clear out chunks of time in your schedule. You will need them. Consider how to start assembling and cleaning up in an unobtrusive way.


It is now two plus hours since you sat down to dine with your boss – which has up-ended your world. Whatever your other firm obligations might be, you are now driven by the singular objective of acquiring your next job, the next step in your career. You are your only advocate, both leader, manager, and staff. You are It! Act accordingly.


In a cyclic, episodic profession like architecture and design dismissals and periodic career downfalls are endemic risks. Understanding what you are facing and how to respond, situations which are not well covered in firm employee manuals and school, are important to your professional health.


Stanley Stark, FAIA, is an architect in New York and serves as the Books Editor for Oculus, AIANY's quarterly publication.


Also by S. Stark:


Nuts + Bolts #10: Charting a Course from Career Bewilderment to Career Betterment 
Be curious, be adventurous and, when necessary, be assertive.


See also:


Nuts + Bolts #16: What's in a Name?

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Nuts + Bolts #15: From Adversary to Partner: Managing Relationships in Construction Projects
Three core practices to help keep the peace while keeping a project moving forward.
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Nuts + Bolts #14: Start Me Up: Taking Cultural Cues From Our Tech Sector Clients
Why can't the rules (or lack thereof) of start-up culture apply to an AEC firm?
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Nuts + Bolts #13: Safe Harbors: A Case Study on End-game Strategies

A new way of dealing with ownership transition that can benefit some principals who face difficulties in achieving successful exits.

By Peter Piven, FAIA


Nuts + Bolts #12: Hiring Interns for the Summer? What You Need to Know
Architecture and engineering firms engaging unpaid interns can avoid liability in connection with their internship programs by meeting six specific requirements.
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Nuts + Bolts #11: CAPitalizing on Culture Change 
How candor, authenticity, and provocation (CAP) can create a firm culture that drives thoughtful, positive, and creative change.
By James Crispino, AIA, NCARB


Nuts + Bolts #10: Charting a Course from Career Bewilderment to Career Betterment 
Be curious, be adventurous and, when necessary, be assertive.
By Stanley Stark, FAIA, LEED AP


Nuts + Bolts #9: The 80/20 Architect: How to Spend Wisely by Investing in Your Clients

Focusing on your top clients can increase your confidence, stability, and profitability.

By Steve Whitehorn


Nuts + Bolts #8: Best Friends Don't Make the Best Partners 
For the successful partnership, it's all a matter of balance.
By Michael M. Samuelian, AIA, AICP


Nuts + Bolts #7: Leveraging Your Passion 
Principals already know what they love to do. It is learning to let go of the other, more mundane tasks that they find difficult.
By Steve Whitehorn 


Nuts + Bolts #6: Changing Habits: The Secret to Successful Time Management 
Some practical steps to make time for business development when you've been avoiding it or aren't sure how to fit it into your day-to-day practice.
By Donna Maltzan


Nuts + Bolts #5: Why Mid-Sized Design Firms Should Hire a Director of Operations 
Hiring a DOO has the potential to significantly increase revenues while creating an environment where designers design, not manage!
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Nuts + Bolts #4: Spring into Growth Mode: Organize Your Process to Maximize Your Potential 
Internal organization, clearly defined workflows, and a focused approach to the things you do best will put you on the right track to long-term growth.

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Nuts + Bolts #3: Focus on the Future: Keys to Steady Growth in a Slow Recovery 
Business forecasts are looking brighter, but steady, measured growth is still your best strategy for success.
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Nuts + Bolts #2: You Can't SELL If You Can't TELL 
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By Tami D. Hausman, Ph.D.


Nuts + Bolts #1: Mission Possible: Increase Your Value Without Lowering Your Fees 
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(click on pictures to enlarge)

Johnathan Ward