Monday, March 30, 2015

Getting Fired

I’ve worked in high tech for a long time now and have lived through many rounds of layoffs. I’ve noticed that employees generally handle the possibility and reality of getting fired quite poorly. (Disclaimer: No, I didn’t just get fired. In fact, my employer of several years seems quite happy with me. But that could change any time.)

Possibility of Getting Fired

Employees are mostly complacent about the possibility of getting fired. That is, until a colleague gets fired or their employer announces upcoming layoffs. Then most employees are nervous wrecks until it seems like layoffs are over. Then they slowly transition back to complacency. There are people who don’t follow this pattern, but most do.

Whether they are in a period of complacency or fear, few employees do much to prepare for possibly being fired. If you force yourself to confront the reality of what would happen if you lost your job, it becomes self-evident that you need emergency savings and should limit debt. But the possibility of getting fired is so scary for most employees that they refuse to allow for this possibility in their planning. The few times I’ve said to a group over lunch that I wake up every work day knowing that this might be the day I get fired, it silences the group for a while.

I can almost hear many readers’ saying to themselves, “maybe others are at risk of getting fired but not me.” People who think this way are among the many who later say “I can’t believe they fired me.”

Response to Getting Fired

After observing many people during the first couple of weeks after getting laid off, I’ve seen lots of different reactions. But there is one thing that is nearly universal: people decide to take a break for a while and not look for a new job right away. They offer various inventive reasons for this choice, but the real reason is usually quite simple.

It’s scary to put yourself out there and attend interviews. If you choose to delay looking for work, you’re just avoiding pain in the short term. But let’s take a longer view. Unless you’re wealthy, you’ll have to find new work eventually. By delaying you’re just extending the period of time when you feel lousy about yourself and you and your spouse are scared about money. Why would you want more of that?

I’m not suggesting you start interviewing on the day you get fired, but it shouldn’t take much more than a few days to process what happened to you and begin to move on. If you find new work before your severance pay runs out, you might even be able to double-dip for a while.

In summary, try to be realistic about the possibility of losing your job. In addition to financial preparations, it makes sense to do small things like get a personal email address so you’re not cut off from friends when your work address disappears. If you do lose your job, avoid making up smart-sounding reasons for delaying looking for new work. Suck it up, prepare a resume, and start hitting up colleagues and friends for ideas for finding a new job.


  1. All very good points, what was that line from Mike Tyson again? "Everybody's got a plan until they get punched in the face".

    You may think you are prepared for a lay off, but you most likely aren't (I speak from personal experience).

    1. @Alan: Most people spend a lot more time hoping they don't get fired than they spend preparing in case they do get fired.

  2. I think fear is really debilitating to some people. I worked as a contractor with a group that was going to be out-sourced (which they all knew.) There were people there whose basic computer skills were about 7 years out of date (e.g. what versions of Word, Excel, etc they were using.) Even though the out-sourcing/downsizing was more than 6 months in the future, several didn't get proactive and start taking upgrading courses, even though the same courses would also make them more desirable within their own company if they were fortunate enough to make a lateral transfer rather than get severed. From what I could see, they were paralyzed by fear. They had been working there since graduating and couldn't begin to visualize how to search for a new job with a different employer. It was actually very sad to see.

    As for those actually laid off, everyone I know that has been has started looking for work immediately. Several found it within weeks. Some never found comparable employment. But they were all being let go from professional large companies (not high tech btw) that provided out placement services. I'm not sure how easy it would be if you had no guidance on the "new styles" of resumes, mock interviews, a fax machine and printer you could use, etc. etc.

    It is a huge psychological hit to get laid off, even if you know it wasn't because of your performance. I think some people are more resilient than others and some people are in a luckier situation when it happens (e.g. have "in demand" skills; have a supportive partner/family; have good physical health; live in a city/area where there are other employers.)

    Certainly it's good to prepare financially to withstand the worst as best you can!

    1. @Bet Crooks: Something I've seen as well with people who are told well in advance of a layoff clinging is they hope the decision will change. It doesn't matter how clear you are in saying that the decision won't change, some people cling to this hope and do nothing to prepare.

  3. I was fortunate to be fired suddenly from my very first job, although at the time it was awful. I got a new (better) job in two weeks and moved on. It taught me a good lesson though; I've never completely counted on keeping a job since then. I've always had a draft resume on hand, and I now have multiple sources of income.

    1. @Northmoon: That's a very good way of thinking about that early firing. I find it very stress-reducing to acknowledge that I work at the pleasure of my employer and that I'm prepared if they decide they don't want me there anymore.