You may think “You’re fired!” makes a great TV tagline — but you’ll feel very differently when you’re on the receiving end of it.
The only time I’ve ever been fired, I felt my whole world had come crashing down around me. I was in a job that I adored. I was passionate about it, believed in it, and had no concept of ever doing anything else. Sleepless for days and torn between rage and grief, I made my indignation felt far and wide. If my company was going to fire me, I thought, it should suffer. So I tried to humiliate it and its leaders in every way I could find.
What an idiot I was. Of course, the revenge felt great at the time. And it did win me a certain amount of sympathy. But once a company knows you’re gone, you’d be amazed at how fast the waters close over you. Life goes on. If the company’s any good, even your allies continue doing business with it. And you’re left, scarred and hurt with an ugly mess to your name.
My father was fired when he was 55. They called it early retirement, but we all knew otherwise. Instead of getting mad, he was depressed for several years. Eventually, he rallied and became a gifted entrepreneur, having more fun and making more money than his previous work had ever allowed. He’d clearly recovered by the time he told me he wished they’d fired him earlier. But he got what might have been his greatest satisfaction many years later, when he was called in as an expert witness against his old employer. His trajectory was a lot cooler than mine.
I’ve talked to a lot of people about being fired — in part because lots of great people have been fired at least once in their careers. And many have made the same mistake that I did. I don’t know anybody who now thinks that that was the right thing to do. Dramatic exits make us feel powerful in a time of our greatest impotence. They’re seductive. But they’re usually a last act in the middle of your career.
What should you do instead? You need to understand your legal rights, if you have any. If you have a contract, check any termination provisions it may include. It isn’t against the law for companies to be nasty, mean or stingy — but if you think you are demonstrably a victim of discrimination, see a lawyer fast. Discrimination cases must be filed within 180 days of leaving.
Lacking any legal claims, in the last few days or hours before you go, you may still have some, small negotiating power. The promise of an elegant exit may extract more money or more time, and it will certainly generate better PR for you. I’ve even known executives who secured funding for a new venture before leaving an old one. It’s hard to keep your head at the moment that your world is turned upside down — but once you’re gone, you’ll have no opportunity to renegotiate. Try very hard to keep cool. Once someone has decided to fire you, acts of revenge merely confirm their opinion. Acts of grace, on the other hand, leave them puzzled, even respectful. It’s a far better way to go.
I found being fired so traumatic because I didn’t see it coming. But sometimes you can. I remember a CEO friend of mine telling me he thought he’d be replaced. He figured his investors would want a more senior figurehead for the IPO, and he didn’t know what to do. I advised him to discuss it with the chairman; that way, I reasoned, if they do want to replace you, you can be part of the process, negotiate a good deal, and leave with your head held high. He didn’t take my advice. I think he just kept hoping the problem would go away. He was finally told the day before his successor arrived to take over. He’d missed his moment to do a deal.
Being fired taught me just how horrible it is to be fired. So when I’ve had to fire someone, I’ve approached the event with dread. (That is as it should be: Any CEO who doesn’t hate laying people off shouldn’t be running a company.) Watching the reactions of employees has taught me a great deal about them. The SVP who continued to argue for promotion even as he was being shown the door certainly convinced me that I’d done the right thing. But the director who continued to generate leads for the company long after he’d gone made me wonder. And the executive who impressed me the most was the one who clearly explained what she needed for a good exit — and did so with such calm and insight into mutual benefits that she won everything she asked for. If ever there is a moment to seize the moral high ground and stay there, this is it.
It’s taken a long time for me to feel comfortable even talking about being fired. I can do so now because a lot of time has passed — but also because the event forced me to rethink my whole career. Had I not been fired, I’d probably be in that job still. Stuck. Probably bored. Instead, I’ve run three companies in two countries, learned more, and made more friends — and more money — than I’d ever imagined. Just like my dad, my bad luck became my good luck. I didn’t know it at the time but working well has been the best revenge.