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The Titanic Syndrome

Personnel Vignettes will be a regular column in future issues. Submitted by various personnel executives on our board of advisors, this series appears without attribution to the authors at their request.

Over the years in our large bank, we came to recognize what we eventually dubbed the "Titanic Syndrome." This syndrome has occasionally been evident among some of the people we had to fire.

The reason for the name "Titanic Syndrome" is this: as the great "unsinkable ship" went to its grim destiny in the bottom of the Atlantic, some of the doomed lined its rails holding on tightly rather than trying to swim away.

As the ship sank, it pulled them down with it into the sea and to their deaths.

Granted that their chances of survival may have been slim in the frigid waters in which the Titanic sank. But some of them may have survived if they had swum away, perhaps to find a lifeboat or piece of flotsam to hold onto, until they could have been rescued.

In the same way, some people who are "in over their heads" in their jobs often cling with increasing desperation to their work. They refuse to face their inability to keep up to the level of proficiency demanded of them in their jobs.

They strain valiantly but with little effect to measure up to what, for them, is an impossible level of performance.

Then, when judgment comes and they must at last be terminated, an obvious sense of relief sweeps over them.

In the process of their termination, someone else has pried their fingers off the rail and set them free to swim away and save themselves.

In one such case, a teller sobbed in uncontrollable relief and profusely thanked me when I fired her. We had done the thing she had been unable to do in separating her from a job she knew she could not handle.

Unhappy in her job, she could not admit failure or even the fact that she was misfit to the type of work she was doing.

Being fired-or firing someone-is a difficult and traumatic experience...or at least it is supposed to be.

In "Titanic Syndrome" (and they are not all that common) the person fired is parted from an impossible burden and is actually liberated.

The personnel officer who has to do the firing may feel that he or she has not only just resolved a problem for the company but has also actually been a constructive force in that employee's life-a force that will have a positive influence on that person's future career.

These are rare cases but, when they do occur, the personnel officer doing the firing is given an unusual experience to treasure.

Copyright © 1990 Bankers' Hotline. Originally appeared in Bankers' Hotline, Vol. 1, No. 6, 7/90

First published on 07/01/1990

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