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What to Do if You're Fired

Almost everyone faces career reversals, and some of the most famous and successful business leaders have been fired. Jamie Dimon, now CEO of JP Morgan Chase was forced out of Citigroup by his former mentor, Sandy Weill. Bernard Marcus co-founded The Home Depot after he was fired from a home improvement chain. JetBlue board chair and Franklin Covey vice-chair Joel Peterson was forced out of the real estate firm Trammel Crow early in his career. Rudy Crew, named the best school superintendent in America in 2008 while overseeing Miami-Dade County schools, had been forced out as New York Schools chancellor by Rudy Giuliani and was, unbelievable as it might seem, fired by the Miami-Dade County school board within months after winning acclaim from the American Association of School Administrators. As Harold Kushner noted in his best-selling book, When Bad Things Happen to Good People, life is not always fair. Your success after a career reversal depends on your resilience and what you do after losing your job.

Forget about Shame
It's natural to feel embarrassed when you get fired, and to withdraw and not tell people what happened. Bad move. First of all, if you don't tell your version of what happened, others probably will--and seldom to your benefit. Second, if you feel ashamed, you are unlikely to present yourself to others with much confidence, and this absence of confidence will make landing another position difficult. And third, it will affect your "informational social influence." People look to others to figure out how to interpret and react to ambiguous social situations. If you're embarrassed, that feeling will "leak out" in your voice, language, and behavior. People will think, "if that person is ashamed, maybe they have something to be ashamed about. I'm not going to support that person."

Tell Your Story
On the other hand, openly telling others what happened conveys that it is not such a big deal and that rather than being ashamed, it is the boss and organization that fired you that maybe ought to feel badly. By admitting what happened, you can ask for help and convey that you're going to be successful again. Others will rally to your side because people love to associate with success and they particularly enjoy associating with successful people who have surmounted adversity.

When I was teaching this advice in an executive program last year, Pedro Galvan, the 35 year-old chief marketing officer for Volvo Ocean Race, told me how his personal story illustrated my social-science derived principles. Prior to his current job, he had worked for another organization in Barcelona, Spain, as a communications director, a position not nearly as good as his current job. One day he was fired. His first reaction was "an extreme and massive feeling of peace." Not worry, not embarrassment, not anger--just, "something happened, fine, and now I will go on." When his boss asked him what sort of story he wanted to come up with to preserve his business reputation, Galvan replied with wisdom well beyond his years, as he told me in an e-mail:

Listen, the speech I am going to tell everybody is that you just fired me. Because in this world there are two groups of people: the ones who love me and the ones who don't. And the second ones, who don't care about me already, they are not going to help whatever story I come up with. The first group [which was much larger and included his subordinates and many colleagues both inside and outside of the organization] I like and I must be honest with them. And let me tell you one thing--those people, the people I have been working with the last ten years, those are my people. They understand my real accomplishments. And they will support me and help me. And my boss was scared.
Not everyone who is fired will, like Pedro Galvan, land a good job within a month. But your chances of bouncing back quickly are greatly enhanced by conveying to others that the loss of your position was the company's mistake, not yours, and emotionally relieving yourself of guilt and shame so you can strategically and confidently go about continuing to build your career. This is difficult advice to follow, but in many instances, will lead to a much better result.


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