Career Advice

There’s no dishonor in being fired (most of the time)

So you “get fired” – what does that really mean? And should you feel bad, or is it an opportunity to review where you really belong.

Let’s start with the word. Fired. The web has a variety of etymologies for the word fired being applied to losing ones job but the version I grew up with is that when a craftsman was very bad at his job (say… working on a Medieval cathedral) and he was kicked off the crew his tools would be thrown into the fire (so he could not continue), as opposed to the craftsman who loses his job because times are slow in which case he is given the “sack” – he put his tools into his sack and left.

People get “fired” for a whole variety of reasons and in the majority of the cases it has little, if anything, to do with how good they actually are. They may lose their job because a company is downsizing, or reducing a group because a project is over, or the team/task is being moved to a cheaper location. I know a fantastic Bay Area VP who lost her job because the team was moved to Denver by the acquiring PE firm and she said no thank you (even though the severance was pathetically small).

A person may lose their job because they were in the wrong job in the first place: the job was simply not a good fit for their skills and it’s a shame they, and the hiring manager, did not figure that out up front. This is a great opportunity to get feedback, get coaching about where the fit would be better, maybe make an inventory of skills and satisfaction and figure out a slightly different career (see my blog post on this here).

I’ve seen great sales people fail, and get fired, because they switched industry and, without a deep knowledge of the product they are selling, they never quite grok the new sales process well enough to make quota, but they are still great sales people.

Sometimes people get fired because they challenge their boss to a point where the boss feels threatened. If you work for a weak manager this is always a risk, so find a strong person to work for. This happens to senior executives who go over their bosses heads to the CEO, or even to the board. If you find yourself in this situation don’t be naïve. Know that if you lose faith in your boss (or know they are doing something really wrong and won’t listen to you) and go over his or her head there is a 90% probability you’ll lose your job. Even bona fide whistle blowers lose their jobs in most cases.

You can even sometimes see executives lose their jobs because someone has to be sacrificed (to the SEC, or major investors) and the board is not willing to let the CEO take the fall. Yes, this happens.

And then we have the whole recent crop of media moguls, executives and CEOs who have been fired for breaching some part of the sexual harassment code of the company. What’s fascinating, and worrying, about this trend is we have the whole spectrum from the ghastly Harvey Weinstein to CEOs being fired for having a relationship which breaches the company’s rule for relationships within the company, to  “code of conduct” reasons where the company does not say why (but they say in their press release that it is unrelated to the business). My biggest worry about boards acting as judge and jury on sexual harassment cases (oversight of which is loooooong overdue, trust me) is that we could get a backlash and future serious cases of harassment will get ignored. If the #metoo movement sticks and creates permanent change that’s a good thing, but with most board members still being male (and too often not wanting to deal with harassment issues that come up) I do hope boards don’t get bored and stop paying attention because too many marginal cases come up.

So how to think about it if you have been let go? Unless you have done something really wrong like steal from the company or sexually harass a coworker or let a customer down through your own negligence or missed days of work and then shown up high as a kite (all of which I have fired people for) then your “firing” has little to do with your worth as a professional or a human being. It has to do with your fit in the job you found yourself in, or the circumstances of the company. So you are still great. Don’t let being fired cause you to doubt it.

Photo: Mine – Musée de Cluny, Paris