The Economic Violence of “You’re Fired!”

“You’re FIRED!”

We’ve all heard the Donald say it; it’s his favorite (and defining) tag line. He said it to a Mar-a-Lago employee during an on camera press conference when the sound system glitched. People once tuned in to watch him say it on his never-Emmy-winning show, “The Apprentice.” He said it to FBI Director James Comey when he felt that Comey was not “loyal” enough to stop investigating his ties to Russian meddling. Even when deployed in the most serious of circumstances, however, the line “You’re Fired!” has become just another phrase in the American vernacular, like “Kiss my grits!,” or “Word.” or “That’s what she said” or “it is what it is.” Or “meh.” Meh.

But “You’re Fired!” is distinctly different: it is an act of verbal violence of the economic kind–i.e., the kind that leaves marks deeper and uglier than any bruise.

WORK is the glue that holds people’s lives together. When people lose their jobs (for any reason–e.g., layoff, discrimination, retaliation), their lives fall apart. With most people living paycheck-to-paycheck, they first blow through their savings, their “hope chests.” Then, they lose their lifestyles, the activities that made their lives fun. And then things get bad: they lose their homes. Financial pressures widen cracks in even the most stable relationships; they lose their anchors, their marriages and families. They lose their confidence. Sometimes they lose their sobriety. And sometimes they lose the will to live. Suicide is nine times more common among the long-term unemployed in an economic downturn than in the general population.

Work lies at the core of our self-esteem. Work gives us all an opportunity to not simply survive, but to thrive, to be good at something. Work gives us something to DO–activity is an antidote to despair. Work empowers us; for many, it gives meaning and structure to our days, even our lives. As an employment lawyer for 20 years, I’m increasingly convinced that people would rather lose a finger or leg than their JOBS.

Maybe for that reason, “You’re Fired!” feels like an act of betrayal, apart from its practical consequences. “You’re Fired” is a bomb that destroys lives. It hurts people; therefore, it is violence. The Donald, however, has cheapened “You’re Fired,” minimizing the aftermath of a violent act, like showing all the bullets on TV but none of the blood. And though terminations seldom involve blood, they ALWAYS involve pain.

“You’re Fired!” deepens divides between workers and owners. Whereas as successful employers build on employee engagement with their work, most employers are like Trump Industries and use the threat of economic violence to cow their employees into constant insecurity and resigned submission. Business owners and their favored spawn (i.e., The Trumps) have never lived with the insecurity of being one capricious asshole away from financial ruin with two simple words “You’re Fired!” Indeed, “You’re Fired” is the nagging, nameless dread of schmucks who rely on WORK (not inherited WEALTH) to survive. “You’re Fired!” weakens trust between owners and employees, jeopardizing the inherent symbiosis between workers and owners upon which our economy depends. After all, from a talent management perspective, the opposite of “You’re Fired!” is “Fuck You!” or more delicately stated, “Take This Job and Shove It.”

Let’s start recognizing “You’re Fired!” for what it is: an act of economic violence against working people. And let’s recognize that we’ve been conditioned to believe that “You’re Fired!” is perfectly acceptable, perfectly normal in a democratic society. We’ve been co-opted into accepting that if you are poor or struggling (e.g., due to medical bills, educational debts, discrimination, automation), it’s YOUR FAULT, certainly not the systemic inequities that keep people poor and struggling. Our acceptance of “You’re Fired!” and of a candidate who embraces “You’re Fired!” as a leadership style shows just how passively complicit we’ve become in an economic system that undermines and jeopardizes our financial security.

MSA, July 17, 2017