Stealth firing is a term used to describe the cold, unexpected firing of employees by their managers and/or individuals from human resources (HR) departments – sometimes without the manager’s awareness and even after years of loyalty for some. The Bureau of Labor Statistics cannot adequately track this statistic because its definition lacks precision, but it is not uncommon in certain practice areas, such as law, tech, and financial firms. The health industry is not immune to stealth layoffs given economic and other downturns and the fact that most health providers are employed, and the trend toward employment over private practice is growing.
Brittany Pietsch worked as an account executive at Cloudfire, a provider of cloud-based networking and cyber-security services.. Several months after starting her job, Pietsch was suddenly contacted by email by someone from HR and asked to join a conference call. Pietsch had a hunch that her job might be on the line because another coworker was recently fired under similar hastily arranged circumstances.
In anticipation of losing her job, Pietsch videotaped the conference call and posted it on TikTok. Within days, the viewership amount of the post and reposts added up to nearly 6 million social media users. Pietsch told the Wall Street Journal that she has no regrets about sharing her video because it has brought a flood of support. Whereas getting laid off was once a private matter, it has increasingly become fodder for social media content, according to the WSJ.
The New York Post wrote about the incident under the headline “I got laid off — my know-nothing bosses blamed my performance, but I fought back and won.” The fact is, Pietsch lost. Her termination was not rescinded. On her LinkedIn account, Pietsch wrote that her contentious exchange with HR resulted from an attempt to understand the reason behind her firing – she defended her performance, which the HR team and a company spokesperson said was subpar.
The reaction on TikTok and LinkedIn was quite mixed, with internet views expressing sympathy with Pietsch, to views that said in essence she should suck it up, learn from the experience, and move on. Many people felt it was a bad idea for Pietsch to post the video in the first place, that it could harm her reputation and chances of obtaining another job lest she be seen as some sort of trouble-maker or loose cannon. Others questioned Pietsch’s decision to record the video, seemingly without the awareness or permission of the two HR participants.
Pietsch said that she felt as though she were in the “twilight zone” during the call. And that is probably the one thing everyone agreed on, especially those who have been targets of a stealth firing. It’s happened to me twice, and I can attest to the surreal experience. However, getting laid off could be an opportunity in disguise and a catalyst to making a positive change in your career, as it did to mine.
Still, it begs the question: What do you do when you are the subject of a stealth firing, and how do you compose yourself in the moment? What should you do when you come under attack? Surrender – or fight back like Pietsch?
The whole purpose of a stealth firing is to disarm and dehumanize you. When your time comes – and make no mistake for whom the bell tolls, it tolls for thee – the company has already determined that you are dispensable and must go, without exception. The best you can do is act professional regardless of the circumstances and fulfill your remaining responsibilities to the best of your abilities. (Some individuals who are fired stealthily may be granted a short time to stay with the company and even given a severance package.)
You must act quickly as you are being fired and document everything during the meeting, especially all the interactions, decisions, or changes that you find suspicious or that contribute to your firing. Note the people involved in terminating you and the reason for dismissal. Clarify any confusion or misconceptions. Ask for clear explanations and expectations if they are not provided.
Seek advice from a labor attorney if you believe you’re being unfairly treated or discriminated or retaliated against. Lawyers can provide advice based on employment laws in your area. Remember, in most circumstances, your employment is “at will,” meaning you can be dismissed by an employer for any reason (that is, without having to establish “just cause” for termination), and without warning.
Update your resume and begin your job search right away. Reach out to colleagues, mentors, and others in your industry. They may be able to provide support, advice, or job leads. Remember, it’s important to stay calm and composed during this difficult time. Reacting impulsively may harm your professional standing or future job prospects.
Pietsch received an indirect response from Cloudfire CEO Matthew Prince, but surely not one she had hoped for. Prince wrote on X (formerly Twitter) that Pietsch’s video was “painful” for him to watch. It was painful because he felt the company could have done a better job firing her. “We try to fire perfectly. In this case, clearly we were far from perfect,” he wrote.
Prince added: “No employee should ever actually be surprised they weren’t performing,” affirming what HR had told Pietsch, that in the company’s opinion, her performance did not measure up.
Finally, Prince wrote that Cloudfire’s mistake wasn’t letting go of someone who wasn’t performing well, but rather it was “not being more kind and humane” during the firing process.
Corporations are not meant to be kind. Don’t think for one minute that corporations care about you. Corporations exist to make money, whether they are publicly owned or not. There are only a handful of truly exceptional corporations that unabashedly value their employees and view them as their most important asset. You should be prepared to walk away from your employer faster than they can say: “You’re fired!”
Arthur Lazarus is a former Doximity Fellow, a member of the editorial board of the American Association for Physician Leadership, and an adjunct professor of psychiatry at the Lewis Katz School of Medicine at Temple University in Philadelphia, PA. He is the author of Every Story Counts: Exploring Contemporary Practice Through Narrative Medicine and Medicine on Fire: A Narrative Travelogue.