Be really, really good at your job. Not just getting shit done, avoiding the messy flirt with your coworker at the holiday party, laughing when the boss makes a bad joke: I mean redefining expectations good, smashing goals good, I-run-this-motherfucker good. It makes you invincible. It makes you gold.
That’s what you believe.
So when your new boss — the one you’ve been eyeing warily for months, the one who bullies and undercuts, the one who wrote you three emails the day you were 17 minutes “late” because it was Valentine’s Day so you bought flowers and baked a cake for the interns and glued tiny paper hearts to toothpicks because everyone was slowly drowning and you thought maybe, just maybe, today could be made better — schedules a meeting for the end of the day one Friday, you think: but I couldn’t possibly be getting fired.
But you are! Oh god, you are, you flesh-and-blood girl, you tender-hearted thing, you privileged wisp of a panicky try-hard. You did everything right: good schools, good grades, those unpaid internships. You’re working at a poetry nonprofit for pete’s sake, you literally just got fired from SAVING POETRY.
Being fired does a number on your ego, and left me with a buzzy case of work-related anxiety and a pervasive sense of shame that took a long time to shake. My misery is your gain, I guess? So: let me tell you how to get fired.
Help me, I just got fired.
Pop quiz time! Depending on how and why you’re being let go, you may have very little time before you’re asked to leave (or escorted out). This is especially true if you did (or they think you did) something egregious that violated your contract. The following questions are ones you should learn and internalize now.
+ Ask why. They aren’t obligated to give you cause (unless you are in a union), but try to get as much information as possible because it will govern next steps. Are you being fired for cause? Let go because of downsizing? Managed out because of restructuring? This matters. Demand clarity.
+ You could, depending on the relationship you have with your organization, ask if you could officially “resign” rather than being fired. It’s a sticky wicket: you’ll have less to explain in future interviews, but may screw yourself out of severance or unemployment.
+ Make sure to get the details on compensation for unused vacation or sick days, as well as what will happen to any retirement fund you may have with the company. Same goes for equity. Also, ask if they will continue to provide healthcare coverage for any period of time.
+ Finally, backup any vital electronic files — work you could include in your portfolio, for example, or any emails that provide documentation of your treatment and efforts you made to ameliorate the situation if you’re being let go for cause (really, this is something you should start doing as soon as you sense the tides turning), and save and/or delete any personal files or emails the company could access.
But I want to stay! Is it okay to ask if there would ever be an opportunity to return?
This depends on circumstance. If it’s an issue of restructuring, possibly. But tbh, that’s something HR should have brought up. If they wanted to keep you around, they probably would have found a way to do so, or at least furnished you with some options. So while yes, it’s appropriate to ask whether there are opportunities elsewhere in the company, do you really want to stay where you aren’t wanted?
Can I collect severance or unemployment?
Severance packages have become less popular since the recession, and are generally reserved for executive roles, but you should still ask — especially if you’re being let go for reasons beyond your control. Packages are based on how long you’ve been with the company, and generally include continuation of benefits over some established period of time. There are some strings attached here: this will limit your unemployment opportunities, and you may have to sign an NDA that prohibits you from bad-mouthing the company or discussing your experience in detail.
As for unemployment, laws vary from state to state. The best thing to do is actually call your state unemployment office and talk through your particular situation. If you were fired for cause, you may not be eligible, but don’t presume anything. Pick up the phone and figure out what your rights are. You do need to be actively job hunting while collecting unemployment, and if you turn down a job comparable in salary to your previous one, your benefits could be affected.
THIS ISN’T FAIR.
I know, pop tart. Do you have a case for wrongful termination? You can’t be fired for your age or gender or race or physical ability; you can’t be fired for making a complaint about abusive behavior or unethical conduct. But most jobs are classified as “employed at will,” meaning the company has no legal obligation to employ you and can decide not to employ you at any time. Still, if you do think you have a legal case, you can try taking it to HR; failing that, contact your state labor bureau.
Do I cry?
You do not cry. If you think you are going to cry, ask if you can have a moment to process and collect some questions about next steps.
You will be gracious, polite, understanding. Thank them for the opportunity, even as you want to claw their shitty little faces to shreds. It’s unlikely you’ll ever call on the person who fired you for a reference, but someone else in the company may be a valuable resource and the way you handle your exit can determine how helpful they will be going forward.
What do I say in my next interview?
There is a wide, beautiful gulf between what is factual and what is honest, and you get to figure out how best to represent yourself within that space. When prospective employers asked why I left my last job, I said I no longer wanted to work in the nonprofit sector. This was true! Since I wasn’t fired for performance, and was officially “let go” on a legality, I was not obligated to disclose anything else. I had a wonderful reference from my previous supervisor at that job. (This all goes back to the importance of making connections where and how you can: I had a strong reference because I worked hard and established a positive rapport with someone I admired deeply. That she had left the company before I did and was not the person who let me go was, well, kinda irrelevant.)
To be clear, I do not recommend lying. If you did get fired for being shit at your job, that’s something you need to reconcile and figure out how to weave into your narrative. Maybe you were drowning in the misery of a bad career choice, you learned a lot about where your strengths lie and now you’re excited to throw yourself into something about which you’re truly passionate. Maybe you were a small fish in a big sea of jerks; now, you’ve realized you work best in collaborative settings where you really have a chance to connect and participate. Every cloud has a silver lining, etc.
What do I do now?
You keep going. In the months that followed my firing, I learned a lot about how truly miserable I had been. I discovered I had lost a lot of the passion I’d had for my career. I realized I hadn’t stood up for myself: rather than trying to placate and grovel my way towards gaining my new boss’s respect, I should have asserted my strengths and been more clear in what I was bringing to the table. I should have taken less shit. In the end, being fired was a gift (I know, sorry, I know). In my next job, I was given far more money and far more agency. And, most importantly, I was able to identify when it was time to go, rather than clinging to the ship as it sunk.
We put a lot of stock in things that are, to some degree, beyond our control: our relationship statuses, our careers, the shape of our bodies, our propensity for adult acne. Much of the work of life is learning how not to let any one thing define you. Even if you go through life doing your best work at all times, some things simply will not go your way. In the moment, losing my job felt like a confirmation of the dark voices that told me I had nothing to offer; five years later, I’m finally coming to terms with the fact all it confirmed was that that job wasn’t the job for me.
Been fired? Getting fired? Share your story, please!