The Ultimate Guide to Getting Fired

UPDATED: October 2, 2015
PUBLISHED: October 1, 2015

Fired. Laid off. Canned. Let go. Downsized. Managed out. Graciously “granted the opportunity to pursue other income-generating possibilities that may be a better fit for all involved.”

No matter how tough or gentle the boot to your behind, and regardless of the reason, having a job one day and being all too free to catch up on Judge Judy the next is always a shock—and terribly upsetting.

“I thought if you were good at your job, you keep your job,” says Jennie Baird, who in 2008 was laid off from a high-profile media position along with more than a dozen other people. “I struggled for a long time with, What did I do wrong? Is there something about me that I don’t see that led to me being laid off?” When the dust settled, Baird saw that the closing of her department was purely a financial decision based on the company’s overall struggles. “I had a bigger salary, and my group had a bigger staff,” she says. “That’s what it came down to. But at the time, it felt very personal.” Making matters more difficult, Baird was also the single parent of a special-needs child in private school, with no monetary support from her ex.

In the “Ya think?” category of social science research, there’s lots of evidence that losing your job is associated with long-term earning losses, declines in emotional and physical well-being, social withdrawal and family disruption, says Jennie Brand, Ph.D., associate professor of sociology at the University of California, Los Angeles. Being let go may mean the next position you land isn’t as well-paid as the one you left, and the psychological blow of being terminated—even if it was a business decision and you absolutely hated your job—can prevent you from presenting your best self at subsequent interviews.

Tim Porter, “restructured” out of his financial services job at a large investment bank in 2012, says that “having interviewed people for jobs, I knew if some sad sack came in and told me a sob story, I wouldn’t feel great about hiring him. [When looking for work,] it was really hard to stay positive sometimes, but you gotta do what you gotta do.” (He found another position that was a better fit after 10 months.)

Brand’s research suggests that the psychological effects of losing your job are somewhat mitigated if it happens in a poor economy, when lots of people are being squeezed out; the same is true if your dismissal is due to something unilateral, like a company closing, as opposed to you being singled out, à la The Weakest Link. “But the negative effects are still there, even among people who get another job very quickly,” she says.

It’s not clear whether the dismissal itself or the challenges of being unemployed cause people the most distress. “Some of it is going to be the trauma of the event, the psychological repercussions following the event, the stigma or the loss of income,” Brand says. And the higher your education and job level, and the less common job loss is in your community, the harder you’re going to be hit mentally.

Ethan Chazin is a former marketing executive who now runs The Chazin Group, a business consultancy and executive coaching firm with corporate and nonprofit clients in New York and New Jersey. “I have more perspective on this subject than I care to admit,” he says. Chazin was let go nine times in 23 years. The first time he was given his walking papers, by a large firm in 1991, Chazin said he was mortified. “That was back when people seemed to be at the same place for their entire career. Now, of course, it’s more widely accepted that people are forced to move around because of the economy. But back then, people didn’t seem to have that same understanding.”

Even these days, however, with automation and outsourcing and the uneven recovery from the 2008 financial crisis making job loss more common, there’s no getting around the fact that you were cut and the person in the next office over was not. Rarely does it have nothing to do with you, says Cynthia Shapiro, a Los Angeles career consultant and author of Corporate Confidential. “Even if a company gets rid of an entire division, some people always get saved, and some get discarded,” Shapiro says. The smartest thing you can do is be alert to the signs that layoffs are coming and try to position yourself as a keeper. If you are pink-slipped, what you do immediately after and what you learn from the experience can make all the difference between being that bitter old guy reliving his glory days at the local dive or finding something better than what you lost.

Read on for a detailed guide to being fired (or not!), from the first anxiety-provoking office rumor to finding your next dream gig or even starting your own business.

Memo: Please Be Mindful to Use Fewer Styrofoam Cups in the Break Room!

(And other signs your company is in trouble.)

If you see the following indications, it’s time to update your résumé, crank up your networking and explore options for freelance work, just in case. “Companies are horrible at telling employees when they’re in trouble,” career consultant Cynthia Shapiro says. “Don’t listen to what they tell you. Look at what they’re doing.”

More is being done with less. “A company that’s feeling good is going to do everything it can to succeed,” Shapiro says. A company in good shape isn’t going to conserve its resources. If people are leaving and the positions remain unfilled, or a printer breaks and isn’t replaced, take note.

The vibe is chintzy. The annual Christmas party is reduced to pizza in the conference room. There’s a hiring freeze and raises go by the wayside. The cups! For Pete’s sake, the cups!

Execs look harried and haggard. If they’re showing unusual stress or stay locked in closed-door meetings, Shapiro says you have reason to fear.

They tell you they’re having some money problems. The default for companies is to be overly optimistic, not open and honest. “Don’t be fooled by casual presentation,” Shapiro says. “If they tell you they’re in trouble, you should be worried.”

Departments are consolidated or outsourced. “For greater efficiency.”

Think You’re a Keeper? 

Better act like one!

If layoffs are inevitable, you can’t always control whether you’re kept or asked to leave, says Ralph Mortensen, Ph.D., a senior consultant at Vantage Leadership, a business consulting firm in Chicago. (Mortensen has been both the firer and the firee over the years.)

The problem is, when rumors fly, “normally trusting people get very skeptical and suspicious,” he says. That contagious office anxiety “can make you more antsy and agitated, and can contribute to the very outcome you’re dreading.” Say your reaction to not knowing what’s going on is to gossip, vent, behave pessimistically or take longer lunches.

“If you start exhibiting some of the negative stuff, it can impact whether you get laid off,” Mortensen says. If you’re unsure how secure your job is, you can lower your odds of losing it with a few smart moves. Below are the things that make you most vulnerable and how to mitigate them.

1. You speak the truth. That is to say, you’re openly critical of company policies. “From a leader’s viewpoint, if the business is under financial pressure, and suddenly so-and-so becomes a whiner, the leader will think, I don’t need this right now,” Mortensen says.

Be safe: Keep your piehole shut no matter how angry or anxious you are, and distance yourself from the Debbie Downers. “The best course of action, whether you think you’re in trouble or not, is to voice open support for the things you do like, and be silent about what you don’t,” career consultant Cynthia Shapiro says.

2. You’re expensive. That can mean you’re very well paid for what you do, you’ve cost the company money (that workers’ comp claim, however justified, was money out of their pocket), or you’ve taken medical or maternity leave. “They’re not legally allowed to get rid of you for that reason, but they can lump you in with all the people they’re laying off. It happens all the time,” Shapiro says.

Be safe: If you know you’re paid well in the current market, offer to take a temporary pay cut. If you offer to take a reduction “until the company gets through this,” you’ll be forever appreciated, Shapiro says. As for whether you’ve cost the company money in other ways, the best thing you can do, Mortensen says, “is try to show that you’re a good corporate citizen.” Step up and volunteer for projects or take on extra work.

3. You’re seen as nonessential. Or you work in a department that hasn’t done well. If your division is not adding to the company coffers, you’re in a vulnerable spot.

Be safe. Here you want to show that your skills and talents could be useful in other areas of the company, and to be visible as a fixer, if possible. Walk into the decision-maker’s office and ask what needs to be done, what no one has taken on. “You want to step into that breach and make those things happen,” Mortensen says.

Take This Job and… Depart Professionally.

A few do’s and don’ts for having your head chopped off

There’s a new honcho in town, and you two don’t exactly click. All of a sudden, it’s getting harder to do your job. You’re not included in meetings you once were, your responsibilities are leached away, or you’ve been called on the carpet in a formal way. “And if you’re given a performance improvement plan, you’re definitely done,” Shapiro says. “The writing is on the wall.”

You’re being managed out, which is to say you’re not wanted anymore, but company managers are hoping you’ll take the hint and quit so they don’t have to fire you (exposing themselves to a lawsuit) or pay you severance, Shapiro says. “If you get the feeling that you’re not a favorite, you need to act.”

So what do you do?

1. Look for another job. If it turns out you’re wrong and you’re not being managed out, you’ll have another offer, which is never a bad thing.

2. Speak to your boss, carefully. “Say, ‘This is confidential, but it seems clear that you don’t want me around,’ ” and request to be laid off so you can collect severance and unemployment, career consultant Cynthia Shapiro advises. “If your boss asks if you’re resigning, say no—you want it in writing that you were laid off, not terminated, and to receive a nice severance,” she says. Many companies will go along with it to avoid the risk of a wrongful termination suit and have you out of their hair.

3. Fight for your future. If you miss all the signs and they call you in to fire you, “it’s in that meeting you want to get them to change the status to laid off, because you don’t want it on record that you were fired,” Shapiro says. “If they say no to that, ask if you can submit your resignation.” Many companies will agree because it doesn’t cost them anything and reduces their exposure to a lawsuit.

DON’T: Trash all your files and send an epic goodbye email outing your boss as an embezzler with a penchant for after-hours dalliances with interns. “Everyone says good riddance to the person who sets fire to his desk and slams the door,” says leadership consultant Ralph Mortensen, Ph.D.

DO: Make it as easy as possible for people to pick up where you left off. Mortensen handled three rounds of layoffs for the billion-dollar consulting firm where he formerly worked. Guess who was in the fourth round of cuts? “I concentrated on doing everything I could to help while I was still there. That’s the kind of reputation you want, there until the end.” You might even make yourself available if there are questions after you’re gone.

DON’T: Log on to social media and declare your freedom from the tyranny of that horrible dictatorship you used to slave under.

DO: Ask friends to be discreet about the circumstances of your departure. That’s what Jen Rudin, a casting agent, did when she was let go from The Walt Disney Co. in 2009. “I was told that my position had been dissolved.” Rudin wasn’t happy about it, but she felt she was treated fairly by the company and appreciated its generous severance package. “Because I left so graciously—and didn’t post ‘those blankety-blanks’ on Facebook—the company was among my first freelance clients.” Even if you feel screwed, it never pays to vent publicly.

DON’T: Use your next several job interviews or networking lunches as therapy sessions, explaining in detail what happened and why you feel it was unfair that you were let go.

DO: Think of a way of being truthful about why you left your last job that comes off as positive and professional, even if that’s not how you feel. While Tim Porter was sad and angry when he was fired from a position at an investment bank, he put the personal aside and looked objectively at why he was let go: “I said I wasn’t a great fit with the direction the business was going, and that the truth was I felt like a square peg in a round hole by the end.”

DON’T: Sit and stew.

DO: Take care of your health and your spirits. Unemployment doesn’t mean you have to sit in front of your computer searching for work around the clock. “Go out and have a few giggles,” Mortensen says. Exercise; be social. “Take a breather. Do what you need to do to lift your mood.”

DON’T: Shame yourself or beat yourself up about losing your job.

DO: Learn from your dismissal, and if there are any patterns, notice them. When Chazin was first let go, he was angry. “I was the idiot who thought if you worked hard enough and did phenomenal work, you were bulletproof.” When it happened a few times, he started to see that it was a combination of working in expendable departments and being poorly adept at politics. He let his initial anger fuel his energy to discover new avenues and eventually found his calling. “You can say ‘why me?’ and internalize being let go, or you can let it be your motivational force.”

Crisis Meets Opportunity

Sometimes we all need a little kick in the pants.

Always dreamed of starting a business? One that, you know, “they” can’t fire you from? There’s no better time than the present, if you’re unemployed. You don’t need a brick-and-mortar storefront or even an LLC to take control of your financial independence. Consider freelance gigs and contract labor for the time being. You might make a lot more flying solo, and you’ll probably love the freedom.

Here’s advice and perspective from folks who became their own bosses after getting the boot.

After she was laid off from Disney in 2009, Rudin started Jennifer Rudin Casting.

She says she allowed herself one brief pity party and then got on with her life. “I had a big meltdown at the pharmacy when I tried to fill a prescription and was charged $55 instead of $4. I started screaming at the pharmacist. That was when I was like, OK, Jen, you’ve got to figure all this stuff out. I didn’t let myself sit on the couch.” Rudin treated learning the ins and outs of health coverage, managing the technology her assistant used to handle, banking, invoicing and everything else as simply part of the job, and now she’s doing great. She even wrote a book, Confessions of a Casting Director. “Some days I ride my bike, and other days I have three jobs at once. It’s fun, and I’m taking good care of myself.”

Paula Derrow, a writer and editor, was laid off after 11 years on staff at a magazine and 30 in the business. “The best thing I did was not to give in to my fear and immediately try to get another full-time job. I gave myself time to talk to lots of former editors and writers who had made it on their own and many smart, successful people in general [including two sessions with a career coach].” The magazine writing began coming in, and now Derrow has grown her business to include corporate work, ghostwriting and teaching. “I can work from wherever I happen to be, and I’ve spent a month in Rome two years in a row! I love being able to walk away from difficult clients or say no to work that doesn’t float my boat.”

“Avoid the best-intentioned advice of those closest to you who tell you why you should not pursue your dream of starting a business,” Chazin says. They may be worried for you, but if you’re ready and have a good plan, their concern isn’t helpful. Luckily that wasn’t Chazin’s experience when he lost his position as a marketing executive before launching his own firm. “My wife has been awesome. I told her what I wanted to do, and she said, ‘It took you long enough.’ ”

Baird started (and later sold it) within 10 days of getting laid off from the media company iVillage. “A lot of people start a business because they want to follow their passion. You shouldn’t start a business unless you see a need in the market. It’s common when you lose your job to want to just do something you love, but even if you love it, you still have to pay bills; working for yourself is hard! I knew I needed to do something that I had a passion for and could win at.”