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Reader Question #26: How do I bounce back after being fired?

Oh Captain, My Captain,

How do you handle being fired and the aftermath of said sacking? I’m not talking about a blameless “strategic redirection” layoff, where the grounds were purely organizational and budgetary, but a full-blown, “We know you did the best you knew how to do, but this clearly isn’t working out” firing.

Nobody talks about this sort of thing, so I’d like to know any insight you’d have.

Man, I’m sorry, that has to be a blow to the ego and the wallet.  Fortunately for both of us, Penelope Trunk talks about this sort of thing.  I suggest you read her whole post, but the part I’m most drawn to is this:

“Make a quick and essential mental shift. Tell yourself that you  weren’t forced out, you left. You must believe this in order to create a cogent, believable story about your life. And, it’s true. Because it doesn’t matter who decided first that you’re a bad fit. Just because you decide second that it’s time to move on doesn’t mean you didn’t decide it. So, you have control of your life. You have vision for your life. And you decided that it’s time to move on. The stories you tell yourself about your life are essential to your self-image.

I especially suggest you read the link within that quote, “Manage your image by telling good stories.”

“The way you talk about yourself is very powerful. Whether or not you are conscious of it, the way you tell stories of your life frames how people see you, and how you see yourself. So you may as well do this consciously, and also be conscious that people get the most tripped up in their storytelling when they are talking about uncertain moments in their career.”

So, make a mental shift and then tell a good story about what happened.

Part of the mental shift is owning your own mistakes or incompetence or whatever got you fired.  Even if you had a bad boss.  Even if you had bad coworkers.  Even if other people handled things badly.  If you can critique your own performance and own your own shortcomings in relation to doing that job, then you empower yourself to make changes.

By critiquing your performance, I don’t mean giving into the inner-depressive cycle.  “Oh god, what’s wrong with me that I can’t even do ( your job)?”  I mean listening to the feedback that you got from your company and applying the truthful parts of it to yourself honestly. Admit the ways that you messed up.  Admit the ways you contributed to whatever made it a bad fit. This can help you figure out what changes you need to make about how you perform (stuff like being more organized, being more proactive, being on time, dressing better, projecting more confidence, meeting deadlines).  It can help you give yourself permission to not beat yourself up for the things that weren’t your fault.   And it can  help you make the changes you need to make about what you do. Because probably you will end up doing something else entirely, and getting fired will turn out to be just an event that leads you to where you need to be. If the story you tell is about how you were perfect and it was everyone else’s fault, it’s going to take you longer to make those changes because you’ll be holding on to a job and a conflict that doesn’t exist anymore.

For example, I’ve had a lot of jobs with the word “assistant” in the title somewhere.  I’m a decently competent person and I know how to do a lot of assistant stuff – I give good phone voice, I take good notes, I am extremely computer literate, I type 100 wpm, and I can generally be trusted to just handle your shit and not ask 8 million questions.  On a slow day I may surreptitiously alt-tab between your PowerPoint presentation and my screenplay, but I know the fine art of looking busy and will step to it for a deadline.

However, I am a terrible assistant over the long term because I hate so many facets of the job. Let me count the ways.

  • I like projects, not tasks.  I want work that fits clearly into the big picture of what the company is doing.  I want projects where you tell me what you want and when you want it and give me leeway to arrive at something that will make you happy.  An assistant is the person you hire to handle all of your small tasks so that you can do the projects.
  • I hate interruption.  I like getting into a zone of focus and concentration and just working like a crazy person until something is done, and I hate anything that pulls me away from that.  Unfortunately, the assistant is the person you hire to be interruptible on your behalf.
  • I work in spurts and chafe at schedules.  I hate slow days at the office where you have to sit there from 8-5  in pantyhose pretending to be busy even when there is not any actual work to do.

So getting fired from assistant-like jobs (see also “administrator”) was traumatic for me in the short-term because  I am Jennifer, a special A-student who is Never Wrong and how dare anyone tell me I’m not good at something?   And this is what I mean by a mental shift.  No specific” assistant” task was on its own very difficult and I certainly could handle things like expense reports and filing and phone calls, but I was not a good assistant or administrator or project assistant or assistant project administrator.  The sooner I was honest- I would not want me as an assistant – the sooner I could just admit I hated the whole thing and try to do something else.  And when I applied for jobs and went back to school, I could tell a story about what I really wanted to do and be.  People respond to self-knowledge, taking responsibility, and authenticity.  In job interviews I could answer questions about weaknesses and failures honestly and with self-awareness.

“Why did you leave your last job?”

“I was fired.  It was awful and really embarrassing at the time – the work wasn’t very hard in itself – but I just couldn’t keep focused on a million little tasks and working with constant interruptions from the phone, and my bosses could tell I was struggling.  I work much better when I have a project, a deadline, a quiet space, and some time and room to focus, which is why I applied for this position.”

Why should I hire you for x position if you couldn’t even handle being an assistant?”

That’s a fair question!  The answer is that I did very well with the actual work output, for example (specific project), but my bosses could see that overall it was a bad fit for me.  They did me a favor by pushing me toward work where I can really excel, and I now have much more self-awareness about how to be a great employee.”

If you’re not going to get the job, you’re not going to get the job – if they’ve taken the trouble to interview you, it’s not going to hang on whether you were fired from some job that you didn’t even want anyway, so just focus on being positive and really connecting with the people.  Employers want to know that you are a person who learns from mistakes and that you are not a sad sack.  So don’t be a sad sack.

I think you get the gist, so if I had to leave you with some practical steps, they would be:

1) Get organized financially.  Cancel expensive luxuries, sell unused things, look into freelance or temp income. You’ll reduce stress if you know you have this under control.  That wedding you were supposed to travel to in the fall?  It might not be in the budget now – give yourself permission to speak up about these things and take care of yourself.  Don’t be embarrassed – we’ve all been there.

2) Collect/write down everything your bosses have ever said about your performance.  Accept the criticism and think about what you could do to improve or change direction.

3) Make a list of all your duties and accomplishments and rewrite your resume.  Make it long – include EVERYTHING.  Now cross off everything that you hate doing or your bosses said you weren’t good at.  Circle everything you’re great at and enjoy doing. Craft a new resume, slanted toward the things you are great at and enjoy doing.

4) Use your time off wisely.  Get up at your normal time, put on pants and shoes.  Exercise, eat well, connect with friends and family.  Learn a new skill or polish an old one. Volunteer:  It gets you meeting people, gets you out of the house, gives you structure, and stops you feeling sorry for yourself.

5) Craft the story you tell about yourself at work.  This includes what you learned from getting sacked and also how you spent the unemployed time.  “I was sacked from my old job – embarrassing, but it was a really bad fit -  so I used the time off to volunteer for this amazing environmental organization and brush up on (thing you really want to do).”

6) This is Penelope Trunk’s advice again:  Be kind to everyone on your way out, including your former bosses.  As you look for new work, reach out to them with a note, for instance.

“Dear Boss,

I hope all is well with you.  I know the last time we spoke was uncomfortable, but I wanted to let you know that I’ve taken your feedback to heart and it has been very helpful to me in reassessing what I want from my career.  I’m starting to send resumes out again for (types of positions that will be a better fit), and wanted to know if I can give your name as a reference.  Best wishes, etc.”

Good luck with everything!  Let us know how it goes.

Readers, how did you bounce back after being laid off or fired?  Any good stories or encouragement?

As always, you can send your questions to Captain Awkward at welcometoawkwardtown@gmail.com.

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7 comments
  1. Kathleen said:

    This is amazing advice – lots of things to take to heart. Thanks.

    • JenniferP said:

      I hope it gets better soon!

  2. Stephanie said:

    “Don’t be a sad sack.”

    Word. I interviewed for a position on the very day that my current job was announcing layoffs. I was not one that was laid off, but going into an interview right as the shock of it all was soaking through me, I blew the damn interview.

    I can look back now and know that the exact reason they did not hire me was 99% for sure because I was clearly a sad sack. I know I had a negative vibe. I also know I would have been aces at that job and there’s a good chance I would have received an offer if I’d been in a “normal mood” when I showed up at their doorstep.

    • JenniferP said:

      I’ve read that you should stand up during phone interviews for this reason – it gives you more energy.

  3. Sid said:

    I got fired once. I did a good job, but something in my very being rubbed the head of the small company the wrong way, and lo, I was sacked. Head of Company didn’t even bother to fire me himself, but sent 2nd in Command to do it, when 2nd in Command had been my biggest champion and partner in many actions.

    At my first interview, they asked me “so you were fired?” and I said, “Yes. My performance was exceptional, as you will find from speaking with 2nd in Command. I accomplished [many accomplishments], but the Boss and I had [single specific conflict in which both of us could appear reasonably justified], and since Boss was the Boss, I got fired.”

    I got that job. I’m still IN that job. And I think it’s much better than the job I was fired from. SO YEAH!

    Being fired: not the worst thing in the universe, even though it seems that way for a while, and you are allowed a day or two to mope about it.

    • JenniferP said:

      Well played, Commander Logic.

  4. Juliet said:

    Was “dismissed” from a job that had a really messed up work environment. I was there one month. The job they’d advertised was not the job I did. No one responded to my ‘good morning for the first week. Morale was low, everyone miserable. I was given 5 days to learn the job, which was ridiculous. My boss was a bully, and on my last day of work he berated me for not improving office morale and accused me of lying on my resume. I did the job well for only one month. I take responsibility for not getting my eyes checked as I need glasses for computer work, but that’s it. I know I’m a great employee, and I won’t mention that I was fired at my next interview because it’s irrelevant. What can you do when other people have problems? The kind that may need professional treatment?

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