Training Your Replacement Who Got You Terminated: ‘Terminator’ Time-Travel Logic?

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TERMINATION TIME TRAVELBeing forced to train your job replacement who got you terminated can understandably make you, as the booted employee, feel as though you’ve been sucked into the vortex of the bizarre and paradoxical time-travel loop in the Arnold Schwarzenegger “Terminator” series.

It would not be at all surprising if some of the furious and confused Southern California Edison IT workers recently forced to train their replacements—and foreign workers, to boot!—feel exactly like that.

Recall, in the “Terminator” series, future killer robots, human-protector robot and human resistance-fighter travel to the past and battle to change history by destroying the people and/or technology otherwise destined to obstruct or create that evil robot-dominated future.

But by destroying the future sinister technology itself and its irreplaceable Terminator robot control chip, the guardian robot in “Terminator 2: Judgment Day” (Arnold Schwarzenegger as the good chip off the old evil robot engine block) eliminates the preconditions for its own existence and the time-trip that made those changes possible, thereby not only failing to complete its mission, but also not existing in the first place in order to undertake it and get the job done. (No spoiler alert here, since everybody—except you, if you clicked on the link—saw it long ago.)

Can Bosses Also Dismiss “Terminator” Logic?

From the perspective of the employee being ousted, being replaced by a trainee you personally have to train must seem bizarre and paradoxical in almost precisely the same way: “So, I am being replaced by someone who got my job, because, although not qualified at the time (s)he replaces me, (s)he becomes qualified to do my job only after being hired, and only because I’ve trained and groomed him/her!”

That has got to feel like a dreadful combination of “Back to the Future” and “back to the wall” (or like the South Park episode about time-traveling job-seeking immigrants who, as the irate displaced local workers jeered, not only “took ‘er jobs!”, but also got to be trained by the South Park residents they replaced). [Note: As is always the case with South Park, viewer discretion is advised.]

There’s more: “Wait a minute!–I could not train someone to do my job if I were not capable of doing it better than (s)he at the time of hiring. And because the company knows no one can train my replacement better than I, my bosses have to agree with me. So, why are they letting me go?”

The way the employer sees it, it’s a fair question, but one with a ready set of possible and silencing replies:

1. THE “MR. MIYAGI” ARGUMENT: What is (rightly or wrongly) said of teachers—namely, “Those who can, do; those who cannot, teach”—can apply in specific cases of replacement by one’s trainee. It is entirely possible that a given employee can teach skills, standards, rules, regulations, procedures, processes, use of tools and infrastructure, etc., but simply can no longer apply them as effectively as a carefully selected, eventually well-trained fresh replacement.

This is the “passing the torch” or “Mr. Miyagi” argument used to trigger, legitimize or otherwise capitalize on forced or de facto retirement. “Mr. Miyagi” was the wise, wispy Japanese karate teacher in the original “Karate Kid” flick, who, although no longer energetic and young enough to fight in ferocious tournaments was experienced, knowledgeable and seasoned enough to train a scrawny, bullied kid to do precisely that (in a do-jo, and through “the way of the warrior”—bu-do [both pronounced “dough”, however]).

2. THE COST-EFFECTIVENESS ARGUMENT: Perhaps the most commonly cited rationale for forcing a sacked employee to train a replacement, this argument is also among the most compelling in citing and justifying a key factor: cost-effectiveness. Obviously, if the replacement trainee will within a reasonable time frame become as productive and efficient as the ousted employee and if the training costs (including temporary zero productivity) are acceptable, investing in the replacement is not only smart, but also not stupid—as would retaining the trainer in the “doer” job (at least from the employer perspective, however narrow).

However, the replacement worker doesn’t have to ever be as good as the replaced employee—if, in terms of cost-benefit analysis, inferior qualitative performance can be justified, e.g., through higher quantity of output (e.g., of manufactured goods sold at a lower price, but in more than off-setting higher volumes), despite lower quality.

So, from the cost-effectiveness standpoint, employing a replacement worker can be cheaper not only because of the commonly-cited lower wage or greater work-quality rationales, but also or instead because his or her inferior output can through quantitative ramping-up still generate higher profits (on the assumption that the replacement worker can and will produce more than his booted trainer).

3. THE RESTRUCTURING JOB-OVERLAP ARGUMENT: Lower costs, higher profits and failing skill may have nothing to do with being forced to train one’s replacement. Consider this scenario: Because of technological innovation, a merger or acquisition, the advice of consultants, etc., a company embarks on a radical restructuring of operations and job descriptions. The replaced employee’s skill set, although perfect for the current job, suddenly becomes insufficient for any of the new or redesigned jobs, despite some overlap with any of them.

The rookie replacement, however, has more than enough of the requisite skills to take on the newly defined responsibilities—if (s)he can quickly enough acquire the replaced employee’s knowledge and some, not necessarily all, of that employee’s partially relevant skills, appreciation of the policies, procedures, etc., and learn enough of the ropes to warrant “hanging” the displace worker (out to dry).

If, despite these arguments, the ousted employee clings to Terminator logic, the logical follow-up and last resort for an employer is to “translate” the situation into yet another “Terminator” sequel. That might go something like this:

“A robot from the future travels back to our present in order to save its future job by destroying prototypes of a future rival robot. It succeeds in doing that, but upon returning to the future, discovers that its employer has purchased the next-best robot model that has to be upgraded by our returning time-traveling bot as a replacement for itself—only because the destroyed superior rival has never existed.”

Read more in Training

Michael Moffa, writer for, is a former editor and writer with China Daily News, Hong Kong edition and Editor-in-chief, Business Insight Japan Magazine, Tokyo; he has also been a columnist with one of Japan’s national newspapers, The Daily Yomiuri, and a university lecturer (critical thinking and philosophy).