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 who 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 lead 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 lead 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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  • Abby

    Getting fired was, at the time, the legit worst thing that had ever happened to me. I was so embarrassed! When I look back on it now, though, I realize that job was a terrible fit for me and I was absolutely miserable. I’m sure my boss was aware how unhappy I was. I have a great job now that I really enjoy, and the getting fired experience taught me a lot about what I need to look for in any job going forward. (Plus my job now is a huge step up in prestige and salary, so that was a real balm on my wound!)

  • rolaroid

    I’d like to add something about how to to *avoid* getting fired. I started a new job a few months ago and was doing a bit too much outside of work and it was jeopardizing the quality of my work. I was kindly told that if I didn’t shape up I wouldn’t be kept until the end of my contract (a maternity leave replacement of 11 months). I was horrified BUT I welcomed all the criticism, took notes, really listened (because I hadn’t been listening — which was part of the problem) and a few days later I got in touch with my supervisor and told her that I really took to heart what she had said, and that I had made a list of what I could do to improve — from dropping extra-curriculars (whatever it took!!) to bigger picture things all the way to point-by-point stuff about how to improve my process, she was really impressed. But then I had to do it! And I did. A couple weeks later I gave her a brief summary of what I had been doing, and a couple weeks after that (so a month after I was told I could get fired), we had a talk and she said that not only did I receive the information well, not only did I make a plan, but I actually executed. This was all really difficult but it made me feel like I am worth it, and she reminds me that this is an attitude that will serve me well in the future.

    • Nice work! I’ve worked alongside someone who was almost constantly on the verge of getting fired and I can’t tell you how I wish she’d done something similar.

    • Lyla

      I’m really impressed by that. I’ve felt the branch creak several times at my current job and while I correct where I can, the truth is that if they do decide to let me go, I won’t be heartbroken. I see potential for me to be a better fit down the road, but it is really tough going these days.

  • Monica Zavala

    Honestly, I’ve only been fired once and it was terrible. I’ll say it took almost 2 years to find a ‘real’ job after graduating. My first job as an events coordinator after college I had to quit, because my manager was always hinting to show my ‘worth’. Underhandedly saying that I could get fired at any moment- I couldn’t bare the stress anymore. I quit without two weeks notice and lived off savings for 2 months in NYC. I had to move back to Dallas, but the job hunt made me even more anxious because of my previous experience. And still on the hunt for the right fit…

  • wafflesfriendswork

    When I first moved to NYC, I temped for about a year, and was fired from two different placements. The companies I was temping with handled both VERY differently, even if I did cry both times:

    -My first placement was as a receptionist/assistant at a hedge fund and I got an email over the weekend from my person at the temp agency to call her before I went in on Monday and when I did she told me they were letting me go–apparently they couldn’t afford to pay me anymore, but when I went in a couple of days to quietly pick up a package I was having delivered there they had someone else in my spot. I was there eight months!

    -My next placement was pretty much the same job but at a very cool clothing company–after I was there about 2-3 months and was there through a new CEO and some other shuffling, the CEO brought me into his office and when I thought (hoped! this place was VERY COOL) I was being offered permanent employment, he told me they couldn’t afford my position, but were giving me a few weeks to find another placement before this one ended (a kindness, as I was unemployed for about a month after the last placement!).

    Both were terrible, but thankfully applying to any and every job online out of desperation led to a job I have now and really love (for almost two years!)

  • Jennifer

    Being fired is one of my biggest fears. It’s only happened once (I was working at a real estate consulting firm when the bubble burst in 2008/2009) and, while there were some rumors of downsizing, I really thought my position was safe. Turns out I was wrong. It took me completely by surprise and I don’t think it stopped crying for a full day. Luckily it turned out to be a good thing — I ended up going back to my job that I had before the consulting firm, and I still have that career today. Maybe that’s why I’m so terrified of ever being let go. I enjoy my work, I love my colleagues, and I can honestly see myself retiring from here.

    • Bria

      It sounds like you were laid off, not fired.

      • Yessirree

        The result is the same. With the ups and downs of the financial market, there is always an excuse for “lay offs”. I was “laid off” and my job was given to my assistant. “Lay offs” are an opportunity to get rid of people you couldn’t legally fire.

  • Julia Schnell

    As far as the “why” goes — in a number of states, companies are allowed to fire you “at will” without just cause. I got fired from a restaurant job right after college and asked why, and the manager yelled, “I DON’T HAVE TO TELL YOU THAT”. To which: a) chill out, and b) technically correct.

  • Danielle Cardona Graff

    I don’t know if i feel like being fired is an assault on my character, as much as it just sucks to go through all of the emotions associated with being fired at the same time as having to abruptly look for new work. It’s a lot of emotional garbage to deal with in one shot.
    On the topic of employment, I’d love for MR to do an article about pay cuts. Why it happens, and when and how having one’s pay reduced is actually legal, vs when it might not be.

  • Claire

    Haley, you are such a writer – I cannot imagine you working in HR or anything else.Thank you thank you for coming to MR and dazzling us with your writing <3

  • Dale Chong

    I got fired last May, and in some ways or another I saw it coming, but at 22 of course I felt like it was the end of the world. Luckily I have a part-time job to keep me afloat while I continue to go through the strenuous job search in the editorial world, I’m allowing myself to be picky and ensure my next job will align with my interests of be the right next step towards my dreams.

    I just have to continually encourage myself.

  • kay

    not to be a downer (but I’m going to be), but i want to speak the unspoken premise here: i think this advice rests on getting fired at a certain point in your life when you have no dependents and few financial commitments, and maybe are at a starting out point rather than at a job you have worked a long time finally reach. this advice is just right for that solo flying beginning time, I’ve totally been there and can confirm that it’s not the end of the world. but getting fired with kids and a mortgage, or an illness in the family, sometimes leads to homelessness instead of greater self-actualization. or maybe you can work it out financially, but you just got fired from your dream job after 20 years of going for it, and now you have to start over. aaaand like i know everyone already knows, but i’m saying it anyway, that $ to get thru the months without a job has to come from somewhere, either bc you got paid enough at the old job to save (so more than minimum wage) or your family can help out. i know I’m not saying anything new that everyone doesn’t know already, and i know the specific perspective of this article does not mean that Haley doesn’t know about all this other stuff, i just wanted to name the specific perspective. and with that ill go back to my oscar the grouch trash can.

    • I really liked this article, as well as your response. You make a very good point!

    • Lyla

      I don’t think an article about losing a job in your 40s is something most Man Repeller readers can relate to.

  • Lauryn P.C

    Great post. When I got fired last November, at my first job out of college and the first job I got right after I moved across the country, it was rough. I went into a downward spiral of really tough times throughout the winter (and despite being in CA, it’s not always as sunny as it seems). Even though I was SO unhappy in the job and I knew it wasn’t the right fit for me, it was so much to deal with – graduating college and getting on a plane the next day to move across the country, doing a complete 180 on my life. Had I been let go from the same job but at home I believe I would have taken it better. But since then and finding a more low stress (actually office manager job) in CA which Is what I was looking for until I figured things out, I realize that the firing really helped me learn a lot about life not going exactly as I would always want it (and often it was like that back home). And I wouldn’t take away the experience for anything, because this move and firing helped me realize a lot. However, at the time it was incredibly tough. I was living with my new husband, and I felt like I had no purpose and wheras it could have been a self exploration time, I had no motivation. Now I realize that truly capitalism is the bane of my existence and jobs will come and go but what is more importance is my happiness and contributing to something bigger than me – so currently on the hunt for those things!

  • On the flip side, if you work at a large company and hate your job but still need $$$, you can pretty much stop working and count on it taking the company a few months to fire you.

  • Nina

    In my old job, I saw it coming for a while. The company was going through a “restructure”, or well, it was more like an excuse to get rid of people who didn’t ‘fit the culture’ (which was toxic) while trying to make it appear it wasn’t personal.
    Anyway, I could see it coming and instead of fretting and trying to cling on to something that was slipping away, I focused all my energy on finding a new job.
    The day I was brough into the HR office to receive the news, I already had another job to go to. At the end of it, I walked off with a pay out AND a better job. My advice is for everyone to always-always-always look to their own best interests first, ahead of any misdirected loyalty towards an employer to whom you will always be, at the end of the day, replaceable.

  • Rosie

    I started reading this article because I was worried about it happening to me. But by the time I finished reading the article, my boss had sent me an email, with praise – actual positive words – in it. This is the first time this has happened in the 7 months I’ve been here. Maybe I’m not going to get fired after all!
    But maybe I should be?
    I suppose if I could add any perspective on the “I think I might be fired” stage of life, which I guess others might be feeling, it would be to consider why you’re in this situation, and whether it has anything to do with being a round peg in a square hole – do you work in a happy, cooperative team? Do you actually enjoy your job? Or does it just pay the bills? And even if you’re not going to be fired, would you feel the tiniest bit relieved if you were? Might be time to proactively remove yourself from the role, starting with looking for jobs you do want.

    Totally agree with Kay, that this perspective really hinges on having few dependants and a certain degree on financial independence – all the more reason to set yourself on the right course before it becomes more difficult.

  • Robin

    Haley your articles are so comforting do you want to be my older sister please?

  • s

    Wow can you just get fired effective immediately in the U.S?? In the U.K where I live if you have a permanent job you can get made redundant which has to be for a good business reason and often involves a financial payout, but to get fired you would have to be in very insecure employment or for some sort of serious misconduct you could get fired, but that is not done lightly.

  • Lyla

    I’ve only been fired once and it was from an internship where I was completely miserable. I behaved very badly during a review despite receiving very positive feedback on my work. When I was asked about my supervisor I kind of let loose about how much I disliked her. I still think my comments were warranted, but I was so frustrated that I was inarticulate and rude and their response was basically, “You can’t talk about your boss that way. Since you’re so miserable here I don’t think you’ll have any problem with us letting you go. Good luck and fuck off.” It happened so quickly and I was already so angry that the only thing I felt was pure rage. I picked up my purse at my desk, flounced over to accounting and waited for them to cut me a check, and then sat in my car and sobbed for an hour. I still had 6 weeks of the summer left and ended up taking a hostessing job that meant I could hang out by the pool during the day. Oh, to be 19 again!

  • dorothy

    Haley, can you tell us the “very carefully worded answer” you used during interviews? Just curious how you framed the situation.