New boss, new problems, can warnings lead to termination

Let’s imagine that you have been working as a sales representative for your employer for 13 years. About eight months ago you got a new boss. Last week you were pulled into a meeting at the end of which your boss gave you a letter which said:
To summarize our discussion, there must be immediate and sustained improvement with respect to your sales performance. I have asked that you keep a daily log of all sales activities involving customer or client of any kind. I am going to meet with you on a weekly basis to review those logs and your results. As a courtesy, I would advise you that if you do not achieve significant and sustained improvement with respect to those results, it may lead to the termination of your employment without notice.
Suddenly, what you’ve been doing and how you’ve been doing it for the last 13 years isn’t good enough. You are behind in your sales quota but that’s because the new boss significantly increased it or there are market factors beyond your control.
What’s going on?
The usual answer is that your boss really doesn’t have any intention of terminating you but she thinks threatening you with termination is the best way to get results. This is her idea of leadership and motivational management. In these circumstances you may have heard of other people getting similar letters. If this is the situation you should meticulously keep the sales log, attend the weekly meetings, do your best and hope that she gets bored with you and turns her incredible management skills on someone else.
The next alternative is that she really does intend to terminate your employment if sales don’t improve. There is a weak human resources department and nobody around to tell her that unless you kill somebody or steal something, she can write letters until the cows come home and they are still going to have to give you a severance package.  The killing somebody or stealing something is a bit of an exaggeration but not much.  Establishing just cause for a 13-year employee such that you would not have to pay a severance package is extremely difficult.  Either you would have to do something completely egregious and almost criminal or engage in blatant willful misconduct despite clear warnings.  Not making your sales quota is never going to cut the mustard.   Do your best and at least be comforted by the fact that if they do terminate the relationship, you are going to get a severance package and be eligible for EI if you need it, regardless of what they put on the employment record.
The last alternative is that your boss does intend to terminate you if things don’t improve and knows perfectly well that they owe you a severance package.  She’s just hoping that you’re too stupid to know it and will not spend a couple of hundred dollars to speak to an employment lawyer. Or she is hoping you are so psyched out that if they make you a piddling offer or no offer of severance you’ll just walk away and never bother speaking to a lawyer.
Living through these situations and waiting for the axe to fall can be very stressful. The employer may be hoping that if they grind you hard enough you will simply quit in frustration and they’re off scot-free. Never quit, wait to get fired, you get more.
Remember, they can only get to you if you let them. Start looking for other employment. Even if you don’t get any offers, the act of looking will make you feel empowered and not like a chicken in the coop waiting for the farmer to wake up.
Accept that it was a good situation for many years, you met some good people and did work you liked. Now it’s over. You are still a good person and a good employee whether the new boss knows it or not. Empower yourself. Have the last word. Make them write the cheque.
As published in The Hamilton Spectator, June 25, 2012