Getting Fired – How to Make the Most of It

There seems to be a lot of getting fired going around. I have several friends who’ve had it happen to them in the last month or so, and for each person, it was devastating. I understand this. I’ve been fired too.

The truth is, though, that once the shock wears off, being fired might be the best thing that could happen to you. Getting fired is a real wake-up call that you are in the wrong job or the wrong situation, and it forces you to get into action. It also gives you the opportunity to learn things about yourself that will help you predict the wrong jobs and situations in the future, so you can seek out the right ones… the ones that will really make you happy.

To get the most out of the experience, I have an exercise. If you’ve been fired, even if it was a while back, take a few minutes and try this out.

Start by drawing a line down the center of a piece of paper. On the left side of the page, write the title “Why They Wanted to Fire Me.” Here, I want you to list what your boss or company felt was lacking or not enough about your performance… even the little details, all of their possible complaints. Nit-picking or petty or inaccurate as you may think they are, write down their complaints about you.

Write the list that the people who decided to fire you would have written, with the cold harsh light of unforgiving truth.

I know some of you are saying, “But I have no idea why they let me go, it was totally out of the blue!” Sorry, but I just don’t buy that.

I believe we *always* know what people’s complaints about us are, even if we don’t agree with them. There are always signals, clues, and often direct information that tell us that people in our workplace are getting frustrated with us. We might choose to ignore the signs, but we know they’re there.

Here’s how this exercise worked for me. Many years back, I was fired from a job with a fancy-pants ad agency once. I was righteously indignant afterwards, of course, but when I was willing to look at it without drama or trying to make myself look better, I was able to see what their complaints were.

The first item on my list was that I sent off clear signals that I didn’t like the owner of the agency (possibly less of a problem if I was in some distant department, but she was my direct boss). In that list, they would have written “difficult” or maybe even “arrogant” to describe my attitude.

My list also included not doing the little things she asked if I didn’t think they needed doing (for that, they would write “stubborn” and “won’t follow instructions”), and being moody at work (“moody” is exactly what they might have written on that list, though happily some of that was triggered by a medical issue that I was able to solve.)

These were the reasons that stacked up over a period of time. And heck, if someone worked for me who was difficult, arrogant, stubborn and moody, I might fire them too!

When I was fired, though, that wasn’t the reason they gave. They told me I had violated the company’s policy of personal email at work. This isn’t uncommon… the reasons someone is fired are often not the reasons the employer gives. Even in a state like California, which is an at-will employment state (which means that the employer and the employee are legally able to terminate the relationship at any time for any reason without any legal liability, and they don’t even have to tell you why), human nature really makes them want to give you a reason. And often the reasons they give are just a smokescreen to the truth. And the real truth there was that we just didn’t like each other.

Common reasons employers might give include too much time online or on personal phone calls, or being late. Most of the time, these are more excuses than reasons, because if someone’s doing a fantastic job, they are likely to look the other way with some minor infractions. But if you’re an average worker, bad work habits or doing personal things on company time can be a real issue.

So, embarrassing as it may be, write that list of their complaints about you, those things you might hear if you were a fly on the wall, or inside the head of your boss. Include the reasons they tell you, but look deeper than that, for the unspoken reasons, the things that are the real problem.

Was there a personality conflict with the boss or another important person in the company? Do you show reluctance to do things the company way? Are there parts of the job that you are just not good at doing? Are there coworkers who don’t get along with you? Are you really doing your job, or are you fudging on the details? Did you take on something that was beyond your level? Are you a misfit with their corporate culture? What really went wrong?

Be honest with yourself, because what you learn about yourself and the situations where you fail vs. thrive will serve you for the rest of your life. It’s not about them being wrong and you being right (or vice versa)… it’s really about you learning your limits, and about the situations where you are going to do your best.

Inside this examination are the secrets to who you are, and what you need in order to succeed in your job.

Now, once you have that list of their complaints, title the right-hand column on your paper “Why I Seemed That Way.” Now you are going to look at what was *behind* the problems that got you fired, at the real issues that came out as the symptoms that they were complaining about.

For me, for instance, what was behind my being difficult with the owner of the ad agency was that, when I was completely honest with myself, I just plain didn’t like her. I didn’t respect her value system and I didn’t like the way she treated people. She was not someone I looked up to, and it showed. Bottom line, my attitude came from not respecting the woman I worked for.

Now, this was news to me, because I’d worked for plenty of people before who I didn’t respect all that much, and had never been fired. But this time, it was more than I could hide apparently, and I saw that working for someone I don’t like really brings out the worst in me. Now *there’s* a lesson I could have learned a few jobs earlier, and we all would have been happier!

And then I knew to add that to my checklist for my jobs and my life… that no matter how much someone pays me (and the fat salary was part of the appeal for that job), I need to work for someone who I respect and admire, someone who shares the same values that I do.

I also learned to trust my intuition more, and that when I make a mistake, and find myself in the wrong situation with the wrong people again, I will take action more quickly, so it doesn’t have to come down to me being fired again.

There is another great benefit to this exercise, which is that it prepares you for talking about what happened to a future employer, without flinching or lying, and with a sense of confidence about the lessons you’ve learned and how they will help you make a better decision next time.

I know getting fired sucks, but it is a big learning opportunity. Take a little time to do this exercise now, and see if you can find your lessons like I did mine.

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