7 Things to Know if You’re Scared of Getting Fired
Collage by Emily Zirimis

When I was 22 and working my second job out of college, I was called into the office at an unusually early hour and fired in a small conference room by the CEO of the company. I openly wept. I’d been hired as an office manager six months prior, and had spent half a year doing everything from buying office groceries and stacking toilet paper to filing visas, managing budgets and planning unnecessarily extravagant parties at the unpredictable whims of a 28-year-old founder who had never been a manager before and whom everyone hated. I was doing a lot, but nothing tangible. He hated that. I hated it too and probably wasn’t good at it. Yet, when he fired me, I was heartbroken. I walked home sobbing into my cardboard box of desk supplies.

Three years later, I sat in a small conference room waiting for the person I was firing to find his place in the seat across from me. If you listened closely, you’d detect a shake in my voice as I told him we’d decided to terminate his employment, effective immediately. If you looked closely, you’d detect a shake in my hands as I presented the forms he’d need to sign. It was the first firing I’d have to do of many, and they would only get marginally easier. One time, I’d watch a woman cry for 10 minutes while I tried and failed to comfort her. Another time, I’d watch a woman remain stoic and speak only a word: “Okay.”

Having been on both sides of the firing coin, I have a fair amount of experience banked around the process leading up to, during and following a termination of employment, a lot of which is counter to what I thought about it before I ever held a job of my own. If you harbor a fear of getting fired, just did get fired, or have only seen it happen in the movies, below are seven things you should know, just in case.

1. It’s not as uncommon or life-ruining as you might think.

I first realized this when, upon being fired myself, people told me about their experiences getting fired. These were stories I’d never heard, from people who seemed totally together and, in my mind, utterly un-fireable. It helped me see my situation less as a mark of failure and more as another mark on my path.

When I became an HR manager involved with who stayed and went, I began to see “managing out” (the industry term for firing) as a fairly run-of-the-mill business need to keep the company healthy. It happens more often than many suspect, even to people who are capable and “together.”

2. It’s not an attack on your character.

Getting fired has a horrible connotation in our culture, but on the face of it, ending an employment contract is a reasonable outcome to something that happens all the time: a well-intended, unforeseeable mismatch. Just as a breakup between two people doesn’t necessarily indicate wrongdoing, the same can be said of a separation between employer and employee. So maybe you brought skills the company didn’t need, or they needed skills you didn’t have — nothing about that makes you a failure, it makes you human.

3. A lot of thought probably went into it.

Despite what we see in movies, people don’t often get fired on the spot or on a whim, because doing so puts the company in legal jeopardy. The process leading up to managing someone out of a full-time position varies by governing body (in the U.S., it varies by state), but typically, it’s an arduous one that involves a lot of documentation (legally) and a ton of internal discussion (ethically). If you suspect that wasn’t the case, do some research and learn your rights before signing anything, which brings me to:

4. You do not need to sign or respond to the decision right away.

In the U.S., an employer is not allowed to let you go for discriminatory reasons (the exact terms vary across states and are far from perfect), which means that, in order to protect itself in court, a company will usually never fire someone without “proper documentation.” That could mean a few things: an official performance improvement plan, documented rounds of feedback or multiple attempts to make the relationship work. (There are different rules around layoffs).

If you’re being let go and the conversation catches you by surprise, be clear in asking why it’s happening. An employer probably won’t hash out the issue then and there (it’s not in the company’s interest, so there’s little use in pushing), but the overall “why” should be provided. If it doesn’t sound legitimate, wait and decide if you want to push back (and how) with outside legal help. Also, be careful of accepting severance right away, as it usually comes along with a release document wherein you “release” your right to sue in exchange for the money.

5. The person firing you is probably having a terrible time.

Even though he or she is representing a company, whoever is letting you go is just a human person doing a job, and they’re probably dreading the conversation as much as you. But there are reasons beyond empathy to not to let your anger at the messenger taint the exchange. Depending on how it goes, that person can help you out with next steps, whether that’s in severance negotiations, follow-up questions, requests or even in your future job hunt.

6. There are ways to reshape the narrative.

The most common question I got when I worked in HR was the same one I had when I got fired: Who is going to find out? Future potential employers? Colleagues? The answer is it depends on the nature of the separation. If you think of the aftermath on a spectrum, the worst case being everyone knows and the best case being no one does, most cases fall somewhere in the middle.

If the separation is truly amicable — you might even call it mutual — it’s worth asking if your employer will let you position the exit internally as your decision, and never externally share the nature of your departure. They may be amenable. To the latter point, most companies don’t share that sort of thing anyway, for legal reasons, and typically the most they’ll say, if called, is whether or not you’re “eligible for rehire,” which is both an official designation and unspoken code for how it went down.

After getting fired, I was terrified of being asked about why I left my previous job in interviews. I had a very carefully worded answer at the ready that was honest but also, in a way, pled the fifth. It was fine and never mattered as much as I thought it would.

7. It’s probably for the best.

I’d received no feedback prior to being fired. I was shocked. In hindsight, managing me out the way he did was a pretty unethical decision on my boss’s part, and could have left the company vulnerable to a suit. But it was also, as luck would have it for him, ultimately right. In fact, I remember him saying when he fired me that I should pursue writing for a living instead (I’d blogged for our company as a side project). It wouldn’t happen for a while, but he was right. I didn’t belong there. Being pushed out helped me see that and recalibrate what I wanted.

The two-month job search that followed ate away at my modest savings and was really hard, but it led me somewhere much better. I stayed at my next company for over three years. There, I truly thrived, was respected, challenged, mentored, promoted. I didn’t spend a moment wondering if they wanted me. It was everything the job I lost wasn’t, and even though I eventually left it to follow a bigger dream, it was an important step in who and where I am today. I’m very grateful for that.

I saw this same trajectory reflected in almost everyone I fired, too. What was initially perceived as the worst thing usually led the person to a much better and befitting situation. You’re so much likelier to thrive at a company that wants and needs what you can offer. It sucks not feeling in control of your own destiny, but just because you didn’t choose to jump doesn’t mean it’s not the leap you needed to take.

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