By Tony Lee
Lost your job recently? Chances are you didn't tell your friends and family that you got fired. Instead, you likely used a euphemism to help soften the blow, such as saying you retired early, separated from your company or were eased out, for example. Or perhaps you went with the most popular reason being used these days: getting laid off.
While it's natural to want to mask the shame of being terminated, the truth is that incompetence and performance problems aren't the primary reasons people are let go. The usual causes range from staff reductions, mergers and changes in corporate direction to personality clashes, political conflicts and bad chemistry with the boss. Sometimes, however, firing does reflect personal failure: a person doesn't perform up to standards, is habitually late to work, has excessive absenteeism, takes excessively long lunch hours, has cost the company business or failed to bring new business in, or doesn't conform to a company's way of doing things.
Whatever the reason, however, getting fired can be one of life's most stressful experiences. The higher you are in the corporate structure, the greater the harrowing impact. The first reactions to being fired are usually anger and pain, followed by feelings of confusion and disillusionment. Unless these feelings are aired out with a spouse, friend or counselor, your self-esteem can become shaky. You can be overwhelmed by a crippling sensation of powerlessness, depression and fear.
For some, the shock of being let go produces a psychological numbness. But whether they feel numb or depressed, these states of mind strain the energy needed to launch a job search. Many laid-off people start sleeping late and endlessly watch TV, play video games or spend all their time online. Others comfort themselves with solitary pleasures like reading and walking. Ashamed, they avoid friends, or assume friends are avoiding them. Their family relationships also suffer as they grow defensive, cynical and bitter. Often they reach complete despair before the self-healing process takes over, and they can get back on track again.
While no one likes to be moved out of the mainstream into the backwater of surplus people, some do manage to navigate unemployment with relative ease. How do these individuals stay out of a self-defeating rut? Typically, they immediately seek the help of friends or a therapist to convert feelings of frustration, anger and loss into positive energy and action. They attend professional meetings, take skill-building courses, attend career workshops, study and respond to job listings, review career advice websites, maintain a wide network of contacts and use a variety of other resources to focus their job searches. These people maintain a confident and in-charge attitude, enabling them to land new jobs faster than many of their colleagues.
A Well-Disguised Blessing
While getting laid off is never a boon for your career, it can still be a positive experience. If you use the break for self-improvement instead of self-pity, you can emerge a winner. Yet few people view termination as an opportunity to lay a foundation for future career satisfaction. When you're unemployed, you have a chance to explore new careers and fields, find a better-fitting job, or perhaps even start your own business. An enforced sabbatical provides an excellent opportunity for self-rediscovery. Who are you? Why do you do what you do? What do you really want to do for work?
This opportunity to mull things over lets you rediscover your values and goals – or at last pry them loose for examination and reassessment. A restorative break helps you put your true concerns – the things that are really relevant to you – into sharper focus. Many people fall into jobs or seize available openings rather than plan their careers. Little wonder their work isn't properly matched to their interests, skills and personalities. Others find themselves in energy-draining jobs that leave them demoralized and exhausted. Still others work in jobs where they're unappreciated, undervalued and swamped with dull, soul-crushing tasks. A career transition gives you the chance to correct a bad job choice. It can free you from a situation in which you felt used – or used up. It can help you break out of a holding pattern that offers potential for growth.
This effort to maintain a healthy attitude starts the moment you hear the bad news. When the boss calls you into his office and says, "We're going to have to let you go," it's tempting to tell him off or threaten revenge. Don't. It's the worst thing you can do. Burning bridges like that means you might get a terrible reference, or in an extreme circumstance, that your boss might actively look for ways to hurt attempts to find a new job.
The best way to leave is gracefully and with dignity. Chances are the boss and company feel guilty about your termination, and will be glad to give you solid references, a generous severance package and outplacement counseling. They may even supply you with helpful contacts. Furthermore, should your career paths cross in the future, your self-control and cool demeanor won't be forgotten. If you can maintain your cool, you're in a position to negotiate a better severance package and, depending on company policy, a few weeks of time and office space. This will allow you to keep your contacts and friendships with your associates and tap them for any job leads. Co-workers often are more than willing to help you, especially during the first few weeks after your dismissal.
The first few days after a termination are crucial and should be devoted to carefully examining your situation. Many people feel panicky and call or email their business contacts and send out applications immediately. Feeling angry and confused, they make a bad impression and scare people off. To avoid this self-defeating behavior, you need to accept and examine your emotions. Don't bottle up resentment or self-pity; such feelings inevitably get transmitted in any future job interview, whether the interview occurs two or six months after termination. No prospective employer wants someone with a chip on their shoulder, or who's wallowing in self-pity.
To clear your head, try talking to someone who's unconditionally supportive about how you feel. This can help free you of all negative emotions and feelings. And drawing a curtain over the past will allow you to face the future more confidently.
When you've been fired, try to negotiate enough severance pay to cover the time it usually takes someone of your level and skill to find a new job. Some companies provide one week's to one month's pay for each year of employment. Many companies have been known to extend severance payments a month or two beyond the formal limit, if you take your severance in regular paychecks rather than in a lump sum.
You also should arrange for continuation of your health and life insurance coverage until you can find a new job. Under the Consolidated Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act (COBRA), employers are required to make health coverage available for a time for terminated employees. Find out if you can convert your policy to an individual policy with no lapse in coverage. In addition, make sure you extract a promise of decent references and job-search help whenever possible. Job search assistance used to be provided only for top executives, but now is offered to many middle managers and technical professionals as well.
Finally, make a thorough analysis of your finances and liquid assets. Add up your basic cost-of-living outlays and fixed expenses: mortgage, rent, utilities, etc. Next, add up your available assets and sources of income: severance pay, unemployment (don't be too proud to collect it), interest and dividends on investments and your spouse's income. Then revise your budget according to a realistic assessment of how much time it might take you to find another job. Don't make any major purchases or take expensive vacations, and avoid borrowing unnecessarily or extending your credit lines. Simply adopt a more modest lifestyle – without overdoing it.
Tony Lee is the Publisher of CareerCast.com and JobsRated.com