What to Do (and Not Do) If You Ever Get Fired or Laid Off

What to Do (and Not Do) If You Ever Get Fired or Laid Off
Photo: Andrey_Popov, Shutterstock

Whether a “restructuring” results in layoffs or your own job performance earns you the boot, it can be devastating to be told that your time at a company has come to an abrupt end. It’s important to consider how you’d respond to such news in advance of it ever happening, though, because your reaction in that moment is key, as are the ways you act in the hours and days that follow. Here’s what to do if you’re ever let go from your job.

Don’t melt down in front of your employer

The news may come as a huge shock, but it’s best not to get riled up. You might think it doesn’t matter and you should burn all your bridges on the spot since you have nothing to lose — but you do still have things to lose.

“In the moment, take a deep breath and try not to react,” said human resources expert Tim Sackett, of HRUTech. “More than likely, you will need something from the people who just terminated you. It might be a reference, help with benefits, etc. Don’t burn that bridge, no matter how much you want to.”

Sackett explained that behind the scenes, employers and hiring managers communicate frequently, so any rash move on your part may follow you reputationally. Don’t let the ending of one job be the reason you don’t land another one, no matter how angry you are.

Ask questions — and get responses in writing, if you can

You may think the best option is to turn tail and run, but you have to see this conversation all the way through, even if you’re feeling demoralized, panicked, or embarrassed. Ask questions, starting with why this is happening. Ask your human resources representative to put the answers in writing, too, and if you get those written answers back but they don’t match up with what you were told in real life, contest them immediately, also in writing. Better yet, if you’re fired in person, ask if you can record the conversation for your records.

Phrase your questions gently but directly. For example: “I’m really disappointed to hear this. Can you tell me exactly why I’m being fired?” While the answer may be difficult to hear, it’s important that you understand why this happened, either so you can avoid a company like this in the future or work on the issues in your performance that led to the axing.

You also need to know next steps. Ask if there is a severance package, what will become of your benefits, and when you are expected to clear out. Ideally, there should be no confusion on either end by the time the meeting is over.

Give yourself time to process, then get to work

Your HR department may provide you with information on applying for unemployment benefits, but if they don’t, you need to look into it on your own. Depending on why you were terminated, you may not or may not qualify, but it’s important to investigate it.

If you believe for any reason that you were let go for an unlawful reason, like discrimination, contact an employment lawyer. Even in so-called “at-will” employment states, there can be unlawful terminations. In New York, for instance, you can’t be fired for reasons stemming from discrimination or retaliation; an employer has to have “just cause” to terminate you.

Besides those two steps, you need to start thinking about your next career move. Unemployment benefits can’t sustain you forever, and neither can a fat legal payout — provided you even qualify for either. Plus, both of those options take some time.

“Build the most believable job loss story you can and activate your network,” Sackett said. The reality is people get terminated from jobs every single day. Sometimes it’s your fault, sometimes it’s the company’s fault, sometimes it’s the boss’ fault or the economy’s fault, but the reality is that everyone’s first impression will be it’s your fault until you tell them something else to believe.”

While he maintained “the truth is always best,” Sackett did concede “there are many versions of the ‘truth,’” too, so pick the version that is gentlest and run with it: “You want to own the parts you are responsible for but also place some ownership, in a positive way, on other things within the entire situation. Most importantly, keep it simple and straightforward.”

For more information on how and when to fudge the truth, here’s a guide on whether (or how much) you should lie in your next job interview.

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