What If You Lose Your Job?

Turning a lemon into lemonade

Posted Aug 22, 2017

Saiko, Public Domain
Source: Saiko, Public Domain

Losing your job is one of life’s more stressful events. After all, our identify may be heavily defined by how well we do at work. Indeed, compare the worthiness of a life centered around sex, drugs, and NetFlix with even an ostensibly unimportant worker bee—say a receptionist—who ends up making life easier for countless people.

Losing one’s job can happen to the best of us. What to do?

Use the fuel of your anger to find a better job…now.

I disagree with the standard advice to take a good chunk of time to "process" your job loss and to ponder next steps. At least with my clients, and I’ve had a few, 5,200 to be precise, every hour and I mean hour, that a person waits before trying to find new, perhaps better-suited work tends to be an hour less anger that can be channeled into finding good work. It’s an hour more for the usual pattern of that anger morphing into self-doubt. Post-termination drive has a short half-life.

Most of my clients who have taken significant time off to grieve and “process,” usually don’t end up with a better plan than the one they immediately came up with. They’re usually just more despondent and inert. Why is any gained insight usually insufficient to compensate for the likely inertia?  It's because most people who lose their job were long aware that could happen and have long been thinking about their wisest next steps. Indeed all employees should, while employed, think about what they would do if terminated.

If you don’t know what your next work target should be, ask yourself, “What lessons can I learn from my past job or three: About my strengths, weaknesses, and work non-negotiables and desirables?” That should help you identify your goal.

For example, let’s say the thread that ties together your unhappy work experiences is that you’re impatient with stupid or unethical bosses and co-workers. That would lead you to decide to be self-employed or to focus your job search only on organizations known to have a smart, enlightened workforce. Or if that’s too hard to ascertain upfront, wait until the job interviews, when you can size up your likely boss and coworkers. Then, to solidify your decision, when offered a job, visit the workplace to negotiate terms, when you can check out your coworkers.

Another example: You could decide that key to your success is working in a room with fewer distractions—no cube farm for you. That can be a wise filter in evaluating future job openings.

One more example: You might come to accept that you’re highly technical but not a great people person. Even if your current position is managerial, you should probably search only for individual-contributor technical positions, even if the salary and prestige are lower. Up isn’t the only way.

Severance agreement

Employers are afraid of wrongful termination suits, especially if you’re in one of the many in a protected class: “underrepresented” minority, woman, person over 40, veteran, person with disability and, in many jurisdictions, LGBT—essentially everyone except straight, not-disabled white males under 40. To avoid such lawsuits, most deep-pocketed employers offer severance agreements: They give you some money, a few months of health care premium, and maybe a more positive reference than you deserve in exchange for your agreeing not to sue.

If your employer doesn’t offer you a severance package, ask for one. Then, do not sign it when angry. Indeed, even if calm, don’t sign it right away. Take a couple days to reflect on it. Or if you really think your termination was because of you race, gender, etc. you might see a employment lawyer to get advice or to write a letter.

Your story

Employers prefer to hire candidates that are employed because it's difficult for the employer to discern if a candidate is unemployed despite being a good worker. As mentioned, sometimes a severance agreement requires the the employer to give a positive or neutral reference even to a bad employee. Or candidates, aware that having been deservedly let go will hurt chances of re-employment, may dissemble. They may even, if unsure their previous employer will provide a stellar reference, list their romantic partner or family members as former employers. Of course, their buds will say, “Terry was an outstanding employee.”

So you need a story to tell in your cover letter and interview that won’t eliminate you from consideration for a decent job.

At the risk of sanctimony, the best option, by far, is the truth. Of course, first and perhaps most important, that's because it’s the ethical thing to do. Even from a selfish perspective, wouldn’t you be sad if in applying for your next job, you were rejected in favor of a lesser candidate who lied about why s/he left the previous job?

Apart from the ethics, being honest means you won’t get caught during the reference check. Plus, your story will be believable—Few people are good-enough liars to not arouse an employer's suspicion—Employers already have their antennae out for job-seeker BS, especially regarding your stated reason for leaving your previous job. Also, chances are that even that prospective boss hasn't always been a wonderful employee on every job and so may be open to a less-than-dream candidate.

But just because you’re being honest doesn't mean you shouldn't put the best legitimate face on your termination. Let’s say you were fired for stealing: claiming reimbursement for your spouse’s travel expenses on a business trip. You might say something like,

A career book encouraged creativity in explaining how you lost your job but, after committing one ethical lapse, I don't want to commit another. The true reason I lost my job is that although I was a good employee—and I can show you my evaluations—I took my wife on a business trip and submitted her travel expenses for reimbursement. I can understand why that might make you reluctant to hire me even though that wake-up call makes me committed to being ethical. But perhaps you’ve done something you’ve regretted and someone gave you a second chance. I’m looking for someone to give me one. I am a good employee.

Of course, some, maybe most, employers will still reject that applicant, feeling it’s safer to hire someone who’s currently employed or who appears to have been let go for a reassuring reason, for example, the entire department was moved to India. But when day is done, if you're a good-fit for the job and demonstrate that you'd do a good job, one kindly employer, the kind you’d like to work for, will likely give you a chance.

The takeaway

As stressful and dispiriting as losing a job usually is, it provides an opportunity to give yourself a fresh, better start: to build on strengths, remediate weaknesses, change attitude, and to look for a job that brings out the best in you or in the new, improved you.

NOTE: Dr. Nemko will be giving a public lecture on a related topic, The Future of Work at the University of California, Berkeley on Sep. 12, 2017. It is sponsored by the University so it is free to all.

Dr. Nemko’s nine books are available. You can reach career and personal coach Marty Nemko at mnemko@comcast.net.