Getting fired pretty much always stinks. But there’s something distinctly humbling about being fired from your gig as a workplace advice columnist.
I know, because it happened to me.
OK, I wasn’t technically fired. I was a freelance contributor, not a staffer. Still, the net effect was the same when the New York Times ended “The Workologist,” a column I’d written for its Sunday Business section for five and a half years. I’ve had experience with gigs ending in various ways. But for obvious reasons there was something a little more existential, or at least meta, about this one.
The happy news is that my career as a work-advice columnist didn’t end after all. I’m writing a new column — obviously, it’s for Lifehacker, and it’s called “Human Resource”. I can’t wait to get back to being a watercooler therapist, helping you with your questions and dilemmas! No subject is too big or too small: Whether you’re coping with a clueless boss, struggling to get the most out of the team you manage, or dealing with the annoying habits of the person in the next cubicle.
We all need a sympathetic ear sometimes, and maybe some counsel from a neutral but well-meaning third party.
Meanwhile, I’ve been ruminating on my own recent experience with a work crisis — namely, getting booted. I recently lived advice that nobody has ever asked me for: how to get fired.
I don’t mean that in the sense that would lead me offer tips on getting caught embezzling, or insulting your boss in a public setting. And I don’t exactly mean what should you do when you get fired.
But what should you do before you get fired — what kind of state do you want to be, in other words, when the bad news arrives? This is a test (one I certainly never asked for) of how some of my general, all-purpose rules play out when the worst happens.
Make your job search (softly) permanent
This advice sometimes freaks people out, or just sounds super-depressing. So let me be clear: You don’t want to spend your weekends applying to every plausible opening you can find, for the rest of your life.
Instead, what I’m suggesting is that you should not wait for a major crisis (getting fired, a horrible reorg, your worst rival becomes your boss) to start thinking about other objects. It’s better to always have a kind of low-grade, ambient awareness of and openness to other professional opportunities. That’s true even if you’re ecstatic with whatever you’re doing. Always take the lunch or have the meeting or go on the informational interview that pops up on your radar.
You never know when this might lead to some opportunity that’s more appealing than what you’ve got — or even just an intriguing side hustle. More importantly, if the day ever comes when you get blindsided, you won’t be starting from scratch.
Remember that life is long
Always keep in touch with past work contacts you respect, and those you see as allies. When I got the news that my column was ending, I immediately reached out to several past work contacts whom I thought might have ideas. This proved quite helpful.
What matters here is making sure you stay on good terms with non-obvious ex-colleagues: not just your former bosses or direct reports or whatever. Stay on good terms with colleagues you don’t even work with directly, with assistants and even interns. You never know whose opinion of you and your abilities will matter some day! So respect, and seek to be respected by, as many coworkers as is reasonably possible.
This is good for your career — and also good for your soul.
Exercise selfish empathy
If there’s a big change with your employer, take a moment to step back and consider the potential implications — even the worst implications. Most crucially, think about what this big change means from the point of view of those who made it happen, or who directly benefit from it.
Let’s say you write a workplace advice column for a big newspaper, and the section it appears in gets a new editor. Hm, what do new editors do? They change things! They replace existing columns with new columns!
This is not personal. And let’s just say it happens to the best of us. Maybe the new boss (or other big change) will be good for you, or maybe it won’t. The key is to think about that change from a perspective that isn’t yours. And, again, I don’t want you to be too pessimistic or paranoid, but it’s a smart idea to at least consider the worst case scenario, and what you might do to prepare.
Meanwhile, don’t waste emotional energy on bitterness, grinding your teeth about the boss who does you wrong; their reasons probably had little to do with you. And maybe your paths will cross again. Life is long.
The absolute flat-out most irritating piece of career advice is this: Reframe challenges, failures, slap-downs, and humiliations as exciting opportunities.
Yes, we all get the logic. In fact we all get it so well that we don’t need to hear this advice anymore. Particularly right after we just got fired and it doesn’t feel exciting at all!
So let me try to offer a slightly different reframing. As noted, it totally sucks to lose your gig. But take a deep breath and try to keep an open mind about what might come next. This, in a way, is just a restatement of the “permanent job search” idea, with a little panglossian polish.
What’s the bottom line?
It’s one thing to just spout this reasonable advice, as I have for years. It’s something else to live it. But happily, I think my general philosophy of coping with the work world ended up served me well.
I certainly hoped the new boss wouldn’t give me the boot, but I can’t say I was shocked when that’s how it went. Luckily, being a permanent-job-search type, I had an alternative project going in the background (a book coming this May). And when the bad news arrived, I reached out to my life-is-long network, and that led to a very tempting offer.
But I also stayed open, and was thrilled to get another offer, the one I actually took, from Lifehacker — which I honestly think is a perfect home for me.
And of course I exercised selfish empathy, too: I totally get why my old bosses made their decisions, and I hope that all works out. Life is long, we might even work together again some day!