Getting fired doesn’t make you a failure — here’s how to get back on track

By | June 7, 2021

Getting fired ranks somewhere between shoulder surgery and living through a pandemic. (Oh wait, we’ve checked that one off our list now.)

While some firings are more dramatic than others, it’s safe to say they all are pretty brutal. But instead of letting being fired derail your career trajectory, you can use the experience to refuel and forge a better path forward. Here, experts weigh in on how to rebound.

Play it cool

If you can keep your poise and emotionally detach when you’re dealt the blow, you’re three steps ahead of the game.“Responding in a composed, tranquil and calm way when you’re fired will disarm your boss, who likely was dreading and bracing for an emotional eruption,” said Sabrina Romanoff, a clinical psychologist at Lenox Hill Hospital in Manhattan. “Neutralizing this interaction will bring positive returns in the form of potentially rejoining the company in the future, negotiating severance, maintaining your reputation and keeping the door open for referrals.”

It may take a Herculean effort, but try to express gratitude and thank your boss for the opportunity to work and learn from the team.

Hit the reset button

Pausing can be good for the soul.“Try to utilize this rejection as an opportunity for growth by understanding why you did not thrive in this position,” said Romanoff.

“Disappointment is a natural reaction, but use it as a jumping-off point which will fuel your motivation to continue to develop professionally and explore the steps needed to thrive in your next job.”

Don’t go it alone

“This may be a time to seek out support in the form of therapy to help you process your emotions, repair and recover,” said psychologist Jessica January Behr, founder of Behr Psychology in NYC. Family and friends can also be important pillars of support and advice.

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“After being let go from a job, it can be difficult to separate your whole-person identity from your professional identity,” she said. “This can lead to feelings of deep shame, regret, fear or even despair. It will be important to process the experience and the feelings that result.

Connecting with friends and family after an event like this is helpful.
Connecting with friends and family after an event like this is helpful.

Be very honest, but gentle with yourself. Take some time aside and consider the reasons for being fired. Let your mind go off into all the areas it wants to, and then reign it back in and take an honest accounting.”

Behr recommends carving out time for this “people, places, things” exercise. Consider how you felt about the people you worked with. Did you enjoy your interactions? Could anything have helped to improve these relationships? How did you feel about where you worked?

Check-in with yourself about your feelings. Are there any that surprise you, or reveal an issue? How do you feel about the various aspects of your job — the tasks, the hours, the role, the salary? Notice if the overall tone is positive or negative.“This helps to process difficult emotions in a healthy and helpful way, so that you can learn from this experience,” said Behr.

Consider a new path

While being fired might be a horrible blow, if you spin it positively, it’s also a great time to travel on that other path on that fateful yellow road.

Behr suggests creating a Venn diagram. On a piece of paper, draw two interlocked circles. The left side represents your whole-person identity and the right side is your professional identity. List the qualities and attributes that you would describe for each. In the overlapping portion, note the qualities that are shared.“As you examine the words on your diagram, begin to build an understanding of your values and consider how this may inform your career trajectory,” she said.

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For instance, you might think creativity or intellectual curiosity aren’t big parts of who you are, but your drawing may reveal these traits in all three sections. You may be an accountant by trade, but is your Venn diagram revealing that you should take a graphic design class?

Need a reference? Do this

If you can, avoid giving a reference from the company altogether. But if a potential new employer requests a reference from your most recent gig, or you’re new to the labor force, it may be unavoidable.

The good news: “The standard policy is to only provide job title and dates of employment. The reason is if you lose out on a job because of a bad reference, your former employer could be sued. No company wants to develop a reputation for being a place where you not only get fired, but where you get hosed in pursuing your next job,” said Roy Cohen, career and executive coach in NYC and Long Island.

Sometimes getting a reference from an old job is unavoidable.
Sometimes getting a reference from an old job is unavoidable.

He advises clients convey the following if they’re in a pinch: “My company has a strict policy regarding references. You’re welcome to call my boss but, despite the fact that we had a great relationship, s/he’s by the book. S/he’s unlikely to put themself at risk. If for any reason s/he’s unavailable, I’ve reached out to another colleague who agreed to speak to you off the record.”

Don’t sweat the details on your resume or LinkedIn profile

Cohen points out that there are an infinite number of reasons why people lose jobs, from mergers to COVID-related downsizing.“There’s no need to explain that you’ve been fired,” he said. “Just be clear to provide your end date. People leave jobs, more often than not through no fault of their own.”

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You probably shouldn’t seek legal revenge

Simply getting fired is not sufficient for a lawsuit unless “you have reason to believe that you have been treated unfairly and that your rights as an employee have been violated,” said Cohen.

“When companies downsize, they have scrubbed the process so that they’ve eliminated any potential for legal action,” said Cohen. “They almost always hold out the carrot of a severance package as a trade-off for relinquishing any rights to pursue legal action. In this situation, hiring an attorney will offer virtually no benefit except to reconfirm that your rights have not been compromised.”

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