The Upside of Getting Fired

I was railing to my buddy Lawrence about how ridiculous it is for companies to get rid of employees around the holidays when he told me I should check out "Up in the Air," a movie starring George Clooney as Ryan Bingham-a human capital consultant who fires people at companies looking to reduce headcount, I did—complete with a $4.50 20-ounce fountain drink and $5.00 regular popcorn (glad to see movie theaters are adapting their business model to compete with the growing threat of video on demand—but I digress).

Snack prices excluded, I thought the movie was great. But the thing that really stood out for me was the stories of the people he fired. The raw emotions—anger, sadness, disbelief, and fear that were evident in their faces and from their responses when hearing the news that their "position was no longer available." The reason their responses seemed so real is because they were real—they were non-actors that director Jason Reitman asked to share what they said, or wanted to say, when they were recently terminated. "What will I tell my kids?" "How will I pay my mortgage?" "I’m 57 years old, how am I going to start over?" Which leads me to my first point—as a manager, you should have been fired at least once before you are able to fire someone else.

Knowing how it feels to lose your job can help you become a better manager. Instead of using termination as a first resort (which surprisingly some people do), by understanding how devastating the move will be for your employee, you are more likely to explore every possible option before getting rid of them. You’ll be more likely to work with them to create a personal development plan to address any deficiencies.

Surviving a layoff or termination helps you appreciate what you have. After a few years in the same job, it’s easy to take things for granted. You start to assume that your position will always be there. You forget that a downturn in the economy, a dip in your performance, or a hot shot boss looking to clean house so he or she can build their own team could cost you a regular paycheck, your ability to make your mortgage payment, your career progression and your close friends if you’re forced to relocate to find work.

Losing your job can force you to make a career move—when you’re stuck in a rut but you have a steady paycheck, it’s a move you might not otherwise make. In the movie, Clooney’s character tries to console someone whom he fired. Searching for answers as to how he’ll now be able to support his kids, Clooney suggests he consider being a chef, something he had listed on his resume that he studied years ago as an undergraduate. If he hadn’t been terminated, he might have spent another 10 years in the same role without transitioning to something he loved.

In a race to cut costs or even if you’re just a hot shot manager hell bent on empire building, it’s easy to forget that you’re playing with peoples lives—and that’s something that should be taken very seriously. If you haven’t yourself been fired before, I suggest you watch "Up in the Air" before you decide to get rid of someone on your team. And if you’re someone who recently lost your job, you might find the shared experiences of those who were let go in the movie will give you a voice—especially if you weren’t able to say what you wanted to say when you were let go.

Shawn Graham is Director of MBA Career Services at the University of Pittsburgh and author of Courting Your Career: Match Yourself with the Perfect Job (

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  • Shawn Graham

    @Gregoire-Too bad they don't make 32-month calendars...because I know you are counting the days. Since you can't move right now, I really think you should consider the remote career counseling services...could be some jingle money if nothing else.

  • Gregoire Bolduc

    Thank you for your suggestions Shawn!

    I haven't used the remote services, but have spoken to a career/job coach whom I knew from my college days. The bottom line of those discussions was to get out of Michigan as mental health and related services with my skill set are contracting here in Michigan and that's not likely to change any time soon.

    Moving isn't an option as my wife is just 32 months away from retiring. So I continue my local job searching and networking with others. There's not much here....

  • Shawn Graham

    @Jonathan-thanks for the comment. The same thing happened to me. I was downsized from my first job out of college. I thought about making a switch to career services so I called up three local colleges and offered to work for free. I'll leave out the part that two of them told me know. But more than 10 years later, I'm still in career services and it has opened some great doors for me--including being able to blog for Fast Company. Now if I could just score a cool hat like the one you're wearing in your profile picture, I'll be all set.


  • Jonathan Kay

    Hey Shawn,

    I am really happy you pointed me to this article. Just like @lyne i felt very strongly about your post. In fact It made me want to share a real example of this that happened to me in March of last year.

    When i graduated College I worked as a Temporary Accounting & Finance recruiter for 2 years. Very hardcore / cut-throat sales...i enjoyed interacting with people, but it really started to take a toll on me. Just like you said, I was so determined to succeed and so badly needed the paycheck i kept on pushing. Being the youngest person in the company I was included as part of a 25% company wide layoff. Laid off from my first job, i was pretty devastated. But i kept networking, and started looking for a job. 3-4 weeks later I interviewed and got hired here at Grasshopper. The skills i learned in my last job were an integral part of me being hired here at Grasshopper. More importantly, i absolutely love my job now and my skills are being fully utilized. And i really mean that, i wake up and don't mind at all coming to work. How amazing is that? If it happened to me, I am sure it can happen to you.

    Really love the post and the message Shawn. Thanks for writing this.


  • Shawn Graham

    @Gregoire-have you tried approaching any of the remote career counselors like Ready Minds or Resume Deli? I'm sure there are many others out there as well.

    Here's hoping the worst is behind you and that you're able to jump back in to the workforce very soon.

  • Gregoire Bolduc

    I'll have to check out "Up In The Air" if only for the cathartic effect.

    I lost my job in my career field (of 16 years) abruptly six years ago just before Thanksgiving (and the day after my wife had major surgery) and have run into a stone wall trying to get anything within an hour's drive of my community. Until 18 months ago I made due in working in retail until my arthritic knee gave out.

    I now find myself too disabled for unemployment here in Michigan, yet not disabled enough for Social Security. I applied for both and was denied for both.

    So I resume my life changing career change (via Richard Bolles' "What Color Is Your Parachute" for 2010), just as I have every year since my counseling career came to a screeching halt.

    I don't take rude interviewers, rejection letters, etc., personally any more. If I did I would have quite trying four years ago. Thank God for family and friends ( both in the real world and online).

    Sooner or later, things WILL get better!

  • Shawn Graham

    @Lyne-thanks for the comment. I'm sorry to hear you lost your position just in time for the holidays. If you have any tips you'd like to share for how you're coping with the transition, send them along. Maybe we can start a dialogue.

  • Lyne Tumlinson

    I thoroughly enjoyed this blog post, having been informed that my position had been eliminated on Dec. 15 (amen to your comment to your buddy on the timing), then went to watch Up in the Air last Friday afternoon.

    Ditto on everything you said (including the price of popcorn), it was healing to see it at this time. In fact, of the 15-20 people in the theatre, I'm guessing most were in the same situation (as they were sitting alone and some were crying at the end).

    Thanks for sharing!