“You’re fired!” These generally painful words became a fun catchphrase after reality TV’s The Apprentice.  Millions of viewers waited weekly for ‘the Donald’ and his execs to dismiss ambitious upstarts for failing at their assigned challenge. It was tense, exciting, over dramatic and 100% fake.

In reality, losing a job is never fun for anyone. Handing out a pink slip, asking for a resignation or letting someone go is far from a thrilling power trip. A new survey shows that the way a company handles dismissing people from work may cause irreparable damage to your executive team.

Why So Glum?

According to the latest BlueSteps Executive Satisfaction survey, more than 40% of senior executives currently report job dissatisfaction. The majority have seen a significant reduction in their organization’s revenue and staff changes as 90% of companies were affected by our recent recession. More than 20% of those surveyed saw dramatic cuts in their staffing levels.

What is most revealing is that 18% of unhappy senior executives report that their level of job dissatisfaction stems from “the way their company handled the layoffs that resulted from the recession.” This mishandling of dismissals could have many executives ready for a move.

Onto Greener Pastures

While most executives were concerned about job retention during the peak of the recession, a tipping point has been reached with economic improvement. 70% of surveyed executives are now seeking employment opportunities elsewhere.

BluesStep Director Della Giles stated: “While we all understand the dramatic effects of the financial crisis on the senior executive job market, it is particularly shocking to see how executive job satisfaction has been shaken over the past 18 months. While many were doing everything possible to keep their jobs during this difficult period, as the job market improves and new opportunities emerge, we will certainly see an increase in executive mobility as these leaders move into more desirable positions.”

The survey also asked respondents to rank the elements that bring the most satisfaction in an executive position. A challenging role (78%) and adequate compensation (70%) ranked highest. The opportunity for career progression (45%) and a good work-life balance (37%) also received high importance. Interestingly, despite the uncertainty of the recession, only 15% of executives rated job security as crucial to their job satisfaction. When you’ve got to go, you’ve got go.

Letting Go

Nobody wants to lose their job. Nobody wants to lose top executive talent. But in a recession, loss is inevitable to manage through financial tornadoes. I think most emplpyees understand that tough times often call for tough measures in order to keep our companies above water and ready for when the economy improves. We tell ourselves this as we decide who stays and who goes. Many employers had no choice but to downsize, however we all have a choice in how we handle necessary layoffs.

Every Senior HR or Talent Acquisition executive I speak with talks about the importance of a proper hiring process. A helpful, professional, and honestly handled employee exit process is no less important. The way a company and its managers treat an employee on the way out the door is important for maintaining a favorable reputation and positive brand image: Who knows where they’ll be tomorrow? Will they be a customer?  Will they head to a competitor? Do you want them back as the economy improves?

Keep in mind that the way you handle exiting employees also affects your brand with the employees that remain with the company. As the economy improves and more options surface for your remaining staff, don’t be surprised if you see a mass exodus because of a loss of loyalty that may have started with the way you treated their past co-workers.

When the times get tough, loyalty from your remaining staff can be strengthened or completely ruined by the way you let them go. I’m not sure that ‘the Donald’ is really the one to follow in the this area!