You Just Got Fired. Now What? Maybe Send a Letter…

We have all heard the story: Joe, the successful founder of a multi-million dollar company is being given a community service award. He acknowledges Mary, his first boss, who is attending. He says that he owes everything to her because she did the most to advance his career. “She fired me,” he says, to the roar of laughter.

The story is true. It has happened many a time. But that is not what this post is about.

You have just been fired. You are devastated. You believe that your career is over. You are embarrassed and humiliated. How are you going to tell your family? How are you going to tell your friends? Who is going to hire you? How are you going to get another job? That is what this article is about.

First, I have had many career counseling clients tell me they were fired. I always suspected something was up by their body language. When we got to the mock interview portion of my service, and I asked the obvious question, then the truth came out. “I was let go. I don’t know why.” “I was fired. I don’t know why.”

And they told the truth. But they were wrong. When someone tells me that they don’t know why they were fired I immediately ask, “Did you get unemployment?” The answer is always, “Yes.”

As far as I am concerned, if your employer paid unemployment then you were not fired “for cause,” but simply laid off. No one, including some lawyers, have disputed this. So if you got unemployment you were not fired but simply let go. And in an interview all you have to say is the truth. “I was let go. I was not fired. I got unemployment. I honestly don’t know what happened.” And if it happened to others, so much the better. Tell the interviewer. That is almost always the case. My clients have used this approach and have had no problem getting job offers. It works because it is the truth.

But let’s say you were fired “for cause,” meaning that there was a valid reason to kick you out the door because of your behavior. Now there is “cause” and there is “cause.” If you hit someone, or stole something, that goes to character and that is a problem. You should be lucky you are just unemployed and not in jail. You may be working in your neighborhood car wash for a while and, frankly, you deserve it and it might do you some good.

That is rare. Most people do not get fired for committing a criminal act but rather for violating corporate policy related to the conduct of business. That’s usually the people with whom I meet and they all get jobs, some even with my executive recruiting clients.

First, understand that everyone has been fired or knows someone who has been fired. They made a mistake. It’s called being human. It does not need to define them as a person. They are not a criminals. Interviewers understand that. They know from personal experience or from their friends. It is not unique.

So what do you do when you have been fired?

First, do nothing. You are emotional. It’s normal. You don’t want to react emotionally. So, do nothing. Literally, breathe. Oxygen is the best cure for stress. Think about what you did. How it happened. Why it happened. What you learned from the experience. Once you have those answers, write them down. That’s your story and it is no good. It’s too long. Take a day off. Write it down again. It’s still too long. Take another day off. Write it down again. Now you can tell the entire story in a minute flat. Now you are ready to start your job search. You will not sound bitter and you will not sound like you are making excuses. You will sound honest. You will sound contrite. You will sound sincere. You will sound human. You will sound like someone who has become a better person and a better employee because they have learned from a bitter experience.

Second, start networking. Call everyone in your network. Tell them what happened. Your tone of voice is key. You can’t sound bitter or resentful. That’s why you did nothing and then you started writing. Now it’s time to talk. Some people will say, “I’m really sorry to hear this. Send me your resume. If I hear of something I’ll let you know.” Translation: Don’t call me, I’ll call you.

Others will say, “You’re an idiot. Send me your resume.” Others will say, “That was stupid. What were you thinking? Let’s get together for coffee.” Those are the people who will help you.

Third, send a letter to the person who fired you. Apologize. Explain what you did why you did. Don’t apologize if it was a matter of personal ethics. In that case, say you are sorry that things could not be amicably resolved. Take the high road. Be the bigger person. You’ll understand why in a minute.

I have had two candidates, for two different executive recruiting clients (employers), get jobs with my clients not “despite” the fact that they had been fired but “because” they had been fired, or rather, how they handled being fired.

In both cases, they looked me straight in the eyes, told me what had happened, why it happened, and, most importantly, what they learned from the experience. I doubt we discussed it for more than a minute. And I reported exactly what they had told me to my clients. They got interviews and were asked about it. They repeated what they had told me. There was no substantial difference. They kept to the facts and they did not talk a lot.

The key was that they both told me, and I told the clients, that I would be able to call their former employers, not necessarily for a reference, but more for confirmation of the stories. Not only, to the shock of both, did their former supervisors confirm their stories, but they gave a positive reference saying that they were sorry to have had to fire them.

I’ve been there. I have had to fire people. I can recite, pretty much chapter and verse, what happened with the first person I ever fired. I remember what I said. I remember what they said. Anyone who has ever fired someone will tell you the same thing. While it never gets easier, you never forget your first!

Unless the employer is sadistic, which is surprisingly rare (!), no one likes firing someone. It makes them happy when they can help the person. In a way it eases their conscience even if they know they were right in firing the person. They are happy for the opportunity to help. A letter expressing regret, as mentioned previously, helps them to transition from having to be defensive (fear of being sued, which the letter eliminates) to wanting to be free of any sense of guilt.

When you start answering ads, don’t mention being fired in any cover letter. That’s a topic for the interview, when asked. Keep it honest. Keep it simple. Keep it short. Keep your eyes focused on the person. Keep your tone of voice neutral. Focus on what you learned from the experience. If you talk too much, or if you sound defensive, you won’t get the job offer.

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Bruce Hurwitz is an executive recruiter, career counselor and business advisor. His posts on LinkedIn have been read over 300,000 times and have garnered national and international media attention.  In addition to serving on the Board of Directors of the Manhattan Chamber of Commerce, he chairs their Entrepreneurs Network, hosts their weekly podcast – The Voice of Manhattan Business – and serves as an Ambassador. An advocate for the protection of job seekers, visit the homepage of his website, www.hsstaffing.com, to read about questionable offerings of so-called job search assistance companies and to learn about his upcoming speaking engagements.

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