You're fired: how to dismiss someone with decency

Last week's Cabinet reshuffle featured some surprising promotions, some less surprising demotions, and a notably lengthy ‘discussion’ between the prime minister and his (now former) foreign secretary. 

Anyone who has been on the receiving end of unwanted notice will identify with the inevitable frictions involved. Redundancies and dismissals can lead to feelings of rejection, anger and anxiety, and need to be handled with care.

We’ve shared some tips from our forthcoming Guide to Business Etiquette on how to make the process as pain-free as possible:

  1. Always deliver the news in person in the first instance. It's not OK to inform someone in writing before you have spoken face-to-face.
  2. Give a clear reason for the dismissal or redundancy, but be humane about it: avoid recriminations.
  3. Try to keep the interview as short as possible. Don’t be drawn into an argument or a lengthy discussion of terms - allow the other person to absorb the bad news and beat a hasty retreat.
  4. Express your support and sympathy, and thank the individual for their contribution to the company.
  5. Be discreet - ensure the employee in question is the first to hear the bad news, and keep it to yourself until it becomes absolutely necessary to share it with others.

Stiff Upper Lip

The British Empire was built on deadpan humour, the clenched jaw, the occasional polite smile. Adversity was something to be confronted with stoicism and sang-froid – there are numerous apocryphal tales of the phlegmatic reaction of Britons to disaster.

The imperturbable refusal to react histrionically to tragedy and disaster came into its own at times of national crisis – the terrible losses of the Great War, the devastation of the Blitz. But the sun has set on the British Empire, and it would seem that in doing so it has melted the famously stereotypical 'stiff upper lip'.

Nowadays, it is thought to be psychologically more healthy to admit to vulnerability and freely acknowledge emotion. As we watch Team GB’s achievements at the Olympic Games in Tokyo, we have witnessed bucketloads of raw emotion, from tears of frustration and despair, to ecstatic joy, frenzied excitement and triumphal celebrations. Athletes have spoken freely about their personal traumas and difficulties and the emotional impact of competing in the world arena.

But would it be a mistake to assume the pendulum has swung completely in the opposite direction? The stiff upper lip is deeply ingrained in the British psyche, and despite the media’s endless focus on sharing feelings and emotions, the underlying sang-froid of the British still runs deep. This national characteristic is a great asset when things go wrong: when athletes see so-nearly-attained medals slipping from their grasp, when trains are postponed or cancelled, when the British summer once again falls short, and the sun disappears behind a blanket of relentless grey cloud.

And when the cards are really down (pandemic, natural disaster, terrorist attack), the British are still capable of putting their newly-discovered feelings to one side and demonstrating an implacable tendency to keep calm and carry on.

Here Comes the Sun...?

British summers can be brief and disappointing, with the sun in short supply.  Hot, sticky days alternate with periods of lowering grey skies, stiff breezes and torrential rainfall.  Some of the more hardy amongst us continue to behave as if it was a balmy summer’s day, strolling around in shorts, taking bracing dips in the churning sea.  Our steadfast refusal to acknowledge the grim reality is a good example of the stiff upper lip; in the face of challenging circumstances, we doggedly carry on.

It is scarcely surprising, therefore, that a warm, sunny day is met with an almost hysterical lack of inhibition. All over British towns and cities people strip off: builders labour in short shorts, men strip to the waists and office workers litter the parks in states of undress. Everywhere you will see signs of over-exposure to the sun – red strap marks, burnt noses and peeling skin.

Beaches are packed with sun-worshippers, revelling in the unusual experience of enjoying the seaside without having to wrap up all-weather gear and cower behind a windbreak, armed with a warming flask of tea.

Keep your space

Wherever you choose to soak up the sun’s rays, respect other people’s space – especially as we come out of lockdown – and allow a generous buffer zone between beach or park encampments. Remember that not everyone will enjoy your exuberant antics, so keep music down and restrict beach games to empty, open spaces. If you’re indulging in a beach barbecue, make sure that you’re well away from fellow sunbathers – choking smoke and paraffin fumes is pervasive and will spoil everybody’s day out.

Tidy as you go

At the end of the day, ensure that you have picked up all your rubbish and take it away with you – if seaside bins are overflowing take it home, or deposit in an empty bin on the way home; never leave it to pile up next to a full bin, where it will be prey to sea breezes and seagulls.

Be prepared

Above all, take it steady and go armed with plentiful supplies of hats, water and sun cream (which you should generously share with all companions). Keep a watchful eye on friends and family and politely warn them if you think they’re beginning to burn, or tactfully offer to top up their sun protection.

It was not always like this: up until the 20th century the British liked their skin pale, and went to considerable lengths to achieve this. Sunburnt skin was stigmatised as a sign of outdoor work and lower social status. But now, in the days of mass tourism, a suntan is highly desirable and, for sun-deprived Britons, exposure to the sun is a great mood-enhancer.

In the words of Noel Coward, ‘mad dogs and Englishmen go out in the midday sun’. British summers are a notorious rollercoaster, and there is no doubt that months of sun-deprivation turn many people’s heads.

The Road to Freedom

As we contemplate finally emerging from the world of Covid regulations, we are told that we are now accountable for our own actions, which will no longer be subject to Government legislation.

This emphasis on individual responsibility means that our behaviour is now being moderated by our own notions of common sense and common courtesy. Now, more than ever, we must rely on good manners to ensure that nobody feels attacked, vulnerable, or repressed.

Over the last 18 months we have all become aware that there is a huge spectrum of responses to Covid, from the extremely anxious to the bullishly self-confident, with most of us probably somewhere in between. How are we going to ensure that everybody’s idea of freedom is respected?

Ask Before You Act

The simplest solution to these dilemmas is to be explicit about them and to make polite enquiries. By now, we will all be aware that some people are still alarmed by the prospect of hugging and handshaking, and a red letter day on a calendar will probably not change their minds. So, if you are naturally tactile, and do not fear the consequences, pause for thought before going in for a hug, and ask if it is acceptable.

By the same token, people who still do not want physical contact on greeting may well avoid embarrassment by jumping in first, with an explanatory ‘I’m sorry, I’m still feeling a bit nervous about hugging’.

Be Hyper-Aware

Good manners are all about being aware of other people and doing your utmost to make them feel comfortable. While you may be desperate to cast off your mask, it might be advisable to keep one to hand; if you find yourself in a crowded situation, for example a train, and surrounded by nervous mask-wearers, it might be tactful to go with the collective mood and mask up.

Don’t be a Vaccine Bore

Swaggering around declaring ‘I don’t care – I’m double vaccinated’ won’t win you many friends. Many younger people are still waiting for their second vaccines, and won’t appreciate your insouciance.

If, on the other hand, you are seeking to reassure a nervous person about your physical proximity, you can always confide that you have had both vaccines, which might put their mind at rest.

Make Polite Enquiries

If you are a nervous host, tentatively embarking on re-establishing your social life after the long drought, it is quite acceptable for you to politely seek reassurance from potential guests about their vaccination status or contact with potential Covid-carriers. Accompany such enquiries with an apologetic explanation about your anxiety, and then nobody should take offence.

'Tis The Season

This week saw the return of Wimbledon, an erstwhile garden-party tournament, which began in 1877 and is one of the world’s favourite sporting events. With its immaculate grass tennis courts, smartly dressed crowds and marquees dispensing quintessential British summer treats such as Pimms and strawberries, Wimbledon is a genteel reminder of everything we have missed over the last year.

The return of some of the key events of the traditional British Season is a sure sign that we are slowly, and cautiously, returning to normality. Covid restrictions (and unpredictable British weather) notwithstanding, the Season is an opportunity to dress up, see and be seen, and enjoy the undoubted glamour of these long-standing events.

A History of The Season

The traditional Season was defined by the movements of the royal family, who were in residence in the capital from April to July and from October until Christmas. During these months, the aristocracy and members of the ruling classes made it their custom to reside in London.

By the late 18th century the Social Season had become firmly anchored in the marriage market for the upper echelons of society. Well-bred girls became ‘debutantes’ when they were launched into society at the age of 17 or 18 with a formal introduction to the monarch and a debut at the high-profile ball, followed by a whirlwind six months of parties, dances and special events. Gradually these events – which ranged from balls and concerts to sporting events and horseracing – became milestones in the British social calendar, a socially circumscribed ritual that changed very little until the middle of the 20th century.

What is The Season?

Today, the traditional Season, with its trappings of debutantes, Court presentations, balls and parties, has all but disappeared. What remains, however, is a well-loved round of events that are still regarded as highlights of the British social calendar. Many of them have returned in 2021, so brush up on your dress codes, dust down your picnic hamper, and get ready for a truly social summer.

Highlights of the Season

The remaining highlight of the flat racing season is Glorious Goodwood (Royal Ascot and the Epsom Derby have been and gone). This prestigious racing festival (27–31 July) is attended by the racing aristocracy and celebrities, and the emphasis is on smart clothes, flamboyant hats, champagne and picnic hampers.

As an island nation we are preoccupied by the sea, and the joy of sailing has become enshrined in our social calendar with historic events such as Cowes and Dartmouth Royal Regatta (26–28 August). These tests of sailing skills originate in the early 19th century, when gentlemen of leisure began to take an active interest in yachting.

One of the most historic yachting events, and a firm fixture on the calendar of the social season, is Cowes Week (31 July–7 August), which dates back to 1826. We also enjoy a venerable tradition of competitive rowing in the UK, which was seen as a suitable sport for gentlemen amateurs. In 1829 a rowing race challenge was held between teams representing Oxford and Cambridge at Henley-on-Thames. While the university boat race moved to a course nearer London in 1839, competitive rowing continued at Henley, and another milestone in the English social season, the Henley Royal Regatta (29 June–4 July), was born.

The Golden Rules of Sportsmanship

As a season of summer sports gets underway, fans are enjoying a wealth of choice; Euros football, Wimbledon, Test cricket, the Olympic Games. Whatever your particular sporting passion, you no doubt watch these events in a spirit of nail-biting partisanship, flaunting your own allegiances and denigrating your opponents. Passionate loyalty to a team or player is the essence of being a sports fan, but when does winning at all costs become problematic?

In days gone by, generations of British schoolchildren were taught that, while they should always have a highly developed sense of competition, they should never let competitiveness debase their conduct.

It’s not all about winning the game, it’s about playing well. This means being magnanimous in victory and gracious in defeat. Sportsmanship is no more than good manners: congratulating your opponents on effective play, accepting the decisions of the referee/umpire with good grace – absolutely no whining, arguing, sulking or triumphal strutting.

Gamesmanship can be defined as the art of winning unfairly at sport without actually cheating. Profiting from an unfair advantage, covering up an unjust act, or intimidating opponents by words or body language are all prime examples of gamesmanship, which is the antithesis of good sportsmanship.

Unfortunately, histrionic questioning of line calls, hectoring and haranguing referees and umpires, and taunting and goading opponents permeate all levels of professional sport, from tennis to football. This behaviour is increasingly tolerated because it is seen as a justifiable manifestation of extreme competitiveness. It is scarcely surprising, therefore, that amateurs are aping the hyper-competitive attitudes of the professionals, and bending the rules in order to win.

Refrain from any temptation to employ these tactics. Good manners in sport are paramount, as in other aspects of life. Even if this means you lose again and again, at least you will be doing it gracefully. And if your only engagement with sport is from a position on the sidelines, remember that you are there for the love of sport. Applaud and admire skill, finesse and breathtaking talent wherever you encounter it, even if it’s from the opposition.

Golden Rules for Hosts

Our lives continue to be restricted by Covid and large parties are not on the horizon for the next few weeks. So we need to really enjoy and exploit the social opportunities that are available to us – small gatherings in the garden, dinner parties and overnight stays.

Having people to stay requires both preparation and adaptability. The visit will run much more smoothly if you think carefully about catering, outings and so on. But it is also vital to be relaxed and flexible, to respond to your guests’ moods and requirements, and to give them space to do their own thing.

Golden Rules for Hosts

Golden Rules for House Guests

Now that the lifting of lockdown restrictions has permitted us to throw open our doors, and our spare rooms, to friends and family, it is time to remind ourselves of the basic recommendations for staying overnight in other people’s houses.

Some people are the perfect house guests. They arrive on time, bearing carefully-chosen gifts, regale you with amusing anecdotes, wash up, make their own beds and leave early in the morning.

Others invite themselves, come late (or early), only remember to warn you of their food intolerances as you’re putting plates of lovingly-prepared but unsuitable food in front of them, loll nonchalantly – while drinking your best wine and boring on about their lives – as you clear up around them, and leave their room looking like a bomb site.

The difference between the paragon and the pest is that with the former, your only memory of their visit is of laughter and entertainment, and with the latter, you’re working to erase both the physical detritus and your feelings of irritation for days afterwards.

Follow our Golden Rules for House Guests for perfectly enjoyable guest experiences.

GOLDEN RULES FOR HOUSE GUESTS

If you are a visitor, follow an easy code of behaviour to avoid forever queering your pitch with hospitable friends.

The Crown & Tankard

Restrictions are lifting and finally the great British summer has arrived. Where better to salute the beginnings of normality than in a traditional English pub? As you settle down for that celebratory pint, you might like to ponder the origins of the pub’s name.

Traditional British pub names have long been intertwined with royalty and nobility, so to celebrate the return of a very British institution, here’s Debrett’s royal history of pub names in the UK.

ROYAL FAVOURITES: The Red Lion, The Crown
The Red Lion is the most common pub name in the UK. It rose in popularity following the union of the Scottish and English crowns in 1603 when King James I and VI of Scotland ordered that the heraldic red lion of Scotland be displayed on all buildings of importance. Canny publicans over the centuries have opted for the simpler The Crown, which shows loyalty but never needs changing – perhaps why it’s the second most common name.

BATTLE ROYAL: The Rose & Crown and Royal Oak
The Royal Oak, Britain’s third most common pub, honours of the future Charles II, who hid from pursuing Roundheads in an oak tree a short distance from Boscobel House in Staffordshire, after his defeat at the Battle of Worcester in 1651. The name Rose & Crown celebrates the end of the War the Roses when Henry Tudor married Elizabeth York.

OFF WITH HER HEAD: The King’s/Queen’s Head and King’s/Queen’s Arms
Pubs called The King’s/Queen’s Head are named not after grisly beheadings but their signs, loyally bearing a portrait of a monarch. The King’s/Queen’s Arms, meanwhile, are in reference to coats of arms rather than in homage to royal limbs. Modern protocol dictates reigning monarchs should not be depicted on pub signs during their lifetime so pubs named after queens are usually in honour of Elizabeth I or Victoria.

ROYAL SONS: The Prince of Wales and Duke of York
Prince of Wales and Duke of York, titles traditionally bestowed on the oldest and second sons of the monarch respectively, are common – the Prince of Wales is the most popular pub name in London. Most pubs named the Prince of Wales refer to Albert Edward, son of Victoria and later Edward VII. He served as Prince of Wales for almost 60 years before becoming King Edward VII in 1901.

UNOFFICIAL BUSINESS: Mrs Fitzherbert’s and the Nell Gwynne
It isn’t only members of the Royal family who get a nod from publicans but royal mistresses, too. Mrs Fitzherbert’s in Brighton is named after Maria Anne Fitzherbert, the Roman Catholic, twice-widowed long-time companion of George IV. The Nell of Old Drury and The Nell Gwynne Tavern in London bear the name of ‘pretty, witty’ actress Eleanor ‘Nell’ Gwynne, who grew up in the area around Covent Garden and worked as a fruit seller in the market before taking to the stage and catching the eye of King Charles II. The pair are said to have met up using a secret tunnel running from the Theatre Royal to the inn now known as The Nell of Old Drury.

PUBS ON TOUR? The Devonshire Arms and Shrewsbury Arms
Derbyshire and Devon may be over 200 miles apart but there are three pubs named The Devonshire Arms within five miles of each other in Derbyshire. The reason? Chatsworth house, the family seat of the Duke of Devonshire, is near Bakewell in the county. The three Shrewsbury Arms within 30 miles of Chester are explained by the long connection of the Earls of Shrewsbury, regarded as the Premier Earl of England, with Cheshire, running back to the 2nd Earl who was Chief Justice of Chester in 1459.

HERALDRY: The White Hart, White Swan and White Horse
Many pubs are named in honour of royalty with reference to an element of their coats of arms. The White Hart was the badge of Richard II, The White Swan could be Henry IV, V or VI while The White Horse could be part of the Hanoverian coat of Arms.

THE NEXT GENERATION: The Cambridges
A pub named The Duchess of Cambridge opened in Windsor two months after the royal wedding in 2011 and the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge’s children all have pubs named after them: The Prince George in Milton Keynes, Buckinghamshire, The Princess Charlotte in Colchester, Essex, and The Prince Louis in Great Notley, Essex.

Thank You!

Thank you cards or letters – for gifts, hospitality, favours – are not optional, they are an absolute necessity. The silence that follows giving a present, or throwing a dinner party, becomes eloquent and ominous with significance. The unfortunate host or benefactor will naturally leap to the conclusion that their present or hospitality has been found severely wanting. The reality might be no more threatening than laziness or bad manners, but the damage is done…

So make it a golden rule that you always write to say thank you.  A substantial present, lavish hospitality, a weekend stay are all occasions that demand a fully-fledged thank you letter, which is devoid of clichés and replete with references to specifics (the absolute rightness of the present, the wonderful company and food at dinner, and so on).

There may be some exceptions. You might, for example, have received, opened and exclaimed over a present with such breathless enthusiasm that a follow-up letter seems de trop. Or you might feel that the casual supper party doesn’t warrant the formality of a handwritten thank you note – a quick call or text of thanks the next day seems perfectly adequate. But you can always do better than merely adequate. If you are in doubt, these are occasions when a thank you card, with a short personal note added, is entirely appropriate.

Whether you’re writing a thank you letter or a short note, ensure that your thanks are never dutiful and banal. Avoid clichéd phrases such as “Thank you for the xxxxxxx, it’s just what I always wanted”. The simple route to thank you success is to always zero in on the particular. If you’re thanking someone for a present, no matter how dull, find something specific to say about it. – “thank you so much for the socks – the grey will go really well with my work suit” – is a heroic effort to gloss over possibly the most boring present ever.

This principle should also be applied to thanks for hospitality. Don’t come up with the ‘we had a lovely time’ formula.  Comment, instead, on the deliciousness of the food, the beauty of the country walk, the excellent wine… If the weekend was a comically awful disaster, you might even be able to make a joke of it (“I thought we were all going to be incinerated when your flambéed sauce got out of control, but James was a real fire-fighting hero!”).

Always send a handwritten letter or note. Certainly, emails are preferable to no thank you at all, but they are a second-best option. Emails are graceless, bureaucratic, and carry the associations of work and businesslike despatch of duties. Handwritten notes, however, are deeply personal, tangible objects, and – above all – they look like you’ve actually gone to some trouble (penning the note, choosing appropriate stationery, locating a stamp, walking to the post box). The effort you have made will be seen as commensurate with your gratitude.

Finally, thank you notes and letters – like all good manners – should gloss over failures and disappointments. The fact that the present was a grotesque travesty, or the evening was a social disaster should never be reflected in your note. Part of the fun of being a good thanker is to always find something positive to say, no matter how severe the provocation…

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