I remember it like it was yesterday. I was a TV news reporter in Dayton, Ohio and I was asked to come to the TV station 30 min before my start time to meet about my contract renewal. I had an agent but didn’t think much of being asked to talk without her. I entered the TV station and was 45 minutes early, so I sat at my desk and tried to log on the computer. Huh. I couldn’t log in but thought I had clumsy fingers. The news director came out and said, “Are you ready?” I grabbed my notebook and headed to his office where there was another lady. Clueless, I was ready for a negotiation.
Within one second of sitting down, I heard the words, “We’re terminating your contract effective immediately. We will pay you out to the end of your contract." And those were the last words I heard. I was fired. No explanation. In that moment I could only hold my composure long enough to get to my car. Rage. Sadness. Anger. Embarrassment. FEAR. Swirling in my head. How would I explain my unemployment to prospective employers? How will I pay my rent? What do I do now?
This was 25 years ago when a gap on a resume was the worst possible thing in your career. I wish someone told me in that moment that getting fired does not always mean failure. It can actually be the start of your greatest career success.
Here is how I turned my termination into triumph.
1. Reflected and acknowledged my contribution to my termination. My first thought leaving the TV station that day was “My boss is a jerk!” After all, he was the same news director who told Julie Chen who sat next to me that she’d never make it to network! (She not only made it to network, she’s the host of Big Brother in case you don’t know). But he wasn’t the sole person responsible for my firing. I had to reflect on my part in it. I was a pretty angry person. I had a recent bad break-up with my fiancé at the time and that sadness trickled into the workplace masquerading as anger. It wasn’t the “what” – my reporting was solid. It was the “how.” The term "emotional intelligence" wasn't in the lexicon back then and the only feedback I remember receiving in my entire TV news career was, “Don’t rock on your feet when reporting live.” Through reflection though, I was able to understand how I needed to change my own behavior and enter the next job completely differently. Being fired made me more self-aware of not only my behavior in the workplace, it also made me more aware of the parts of me I wasn’t happy with and wanted to change. My firing ignited the fire in me to make those changes.
2. Took time for self-care. When I realized I didn’t like how sad and angry I was, I took some time to meet with a therapist/coach to work through my sadness. I also took time to exercise, be outside in nature, see friends for coffee. These were the ways I was able to breathe, gain energy and tap into my inner wisdom to help me know it would be okay. What I didn’t do was hide. In working through these areas and forgiving myself for my own behavior while also working to change what bothered me, I felt better about myself, which shows in both interviewing and in how I showed up for the next job. I was not only able to enter my next role with a healthy mind, but also maintain that healthy mind throughout the rest of my career. And this process of self-reflection and taking care of myself gave me tools that I use in coaching leaders how to improve their “how” – soft skills and emotional intelligence. I still practice self-care, whether it be exercise or a bath or a walk in the middle of the day, when I feel the stress is too high or I just need to breathe. I now know what helps me feel better and when I need self-care the most.
3. Forgave my former manager. I forgave my former manager for not giving me feedback, not showing any empathy and not being “human” in my mind. Why? Because I wouldn’t have heard him anyway if he gave me feedback at that point in my career and hating him and/or his behavior was draining my energy and only harming me. New hiring managers can sense if you have unresolved issues from your former employment. It comes out in your overall demeanor no matter how much you try to hide it. When I looked back at the situation, I realized, he was in over his head, probably avoided conflict, and didn’t know what to do with the young angry woman. Understanding he was just human and not perfect allowed me to forgive him and move forward. While it felt tragic at the time, now, I am thankful he fired me. Who would I be today if I didn’t learn so much from this experience so early in my career?
When you really think about your firing and reflect upon it, it boils down to one reason: it wasn’t a right fit. Once you have self reflected, given yourself the opportunity for self-care and you are truly ready to move forward, here are steps to find the right fit:
1. Understand your perspective on your resume gap – We all know if you say in a job interview that you were fired from your last job, it could torpedo your candidacy. The recruiter and next hiring manager don’t know you, and there is no way for them to gauge whether you truly self-reflected or learned from the experience that quickly. Therefore, you need to figure out out how to explain your perspective on why you departed from your previous company without lying. In my case the TV station was put up for sale within days of my departure. While I would have loved to say, “I was fired. My boss was a jerk and I self-reflected on how I could have been better,” I knew there were too many ways to interpret that, many of them unfavorable. Instead, I was able to say, “My contract wasn’t renewed during a station sale, and I was able to secure a freelance position in Connecticut, a bigger market.” Truth. It wasn’t renewed. Station was being sold. Then I steered the conversation to discuss what I was looking for in my next role and how my experience would make me a great fit for the next job. If you have ever been fired and told it wasn’t the “right fit,” then you can use that from your own perspective and say what is authentic to your situation such as, “I knew the second I took the job it wasn’t a right fit (in regard to culture, or in regard to best use of your skills), or it was a bait/switch (not what I was told during the interview process), or the company wasn’t ready for the role (I was hired to implement change but then the company didn’t really want to change.) Figure out your authentic perspective on your departure, what you learned from the experience, and own it.
2. Revisit your values – What is important to you in your next role? Title? More money? Big company? Small company? Be very crisp on what is important to you and compare each new role to your values. If your values are fulfilled, then you will feel fulfilled in your next role. To learn more, check out my article on how your values inform your career.
3. Network – Quite frankly, I hate networking. Can’t stand it actually. But meeting people via phone or zoom or in person to learn more about companies and departments in those companies you may want to work for is critical to long term career success. Applying online means your resume is in a stack of resumes in the applicant tracking system also known as the "black hole." Knowing someone internally to flag your application can ensure your resume is actually reviewed. Therefore, building relationships with employees and hiring managers at the company you want to work for and finding a contact who can flag your application now or in the future will hopefully at least get you a screening interview with the recruiter. If you plan to approach a recruiter, approach with the recruiters’ goals in mind.
Lastly, breathe. Being fired is not the end; it’s the beginning of finding a company where you fit, and which values your skills and capabilities. Reflecting on how your firing has helped you grow will allow you to be even more successful in your future company.