How to Bounce Back from Losing a Job
Losing a job can be a devastating experience that hurts your self-esteem and leaves you in a precarious financial position. It can feel like rejection, judgment, and punishment all wrapped in one.
If you just lost your job and are feeling hopeless or worried, first know that you’re not alone. Many people experience some sort of job loss at some point in their career. Often, these aren’t outright “firings” — they may be layoffs, prematurely terminated contracts, or other strange situations that ultimately have the same effect: you no longer have a job. No matter the shape of your termination, it’s okay to be upset.
If this was the first time you’ve lost a job, you may be feeling particularly vulnerable or like you can’t move forward. Trust me, it’s okay to feel a mixture of emotions, and you can and will bounce back. In fact, people often come back stronger than ever.
This guide will walk you through HR-speak, logistical and financial ramifications, and self-affirming best practices.
What is Termination, Exactly?
Understanding some facts about termination from an HR perspective can provide clarity that can be helpful as you deal with both your feelings and your logistics post-termination.
Termination can be voluntary or involuntary. We’re talking about involuntary termination, which generally is divided into dismissal (HR-speak for “firing”) and layoff. However, there are many variations, such as “cessation of contract” or “unsuccessful probation.” In many states, dismissal is considered a disciplinary action while a layoff is not, yet either can be done at the employer’s whim.
“Was I Fired?”
You may wonder what exactly happened to you. When employers use phrases such as “nonrenewal of contract,” it’s hard to figure out what that means. Such language is meant to obfuscate as well as avoid charged words that could open the employer up to lawsuits.
Pay attention to the language and ask for documentation for the decision. This can be a letter indicating the reasons for termination. You’re within your rights to receive this from the HR department.
“What Can I Do?”
If you’re not terminated as a disciplinary action, you likely can claim unemployment from the employer. If you voluntarily terminated your employment, you’ve waived the right to do so.
If you believe that you were terminated due to discrimination based on a protected class (race/ethnicity, sex/gender, religion, disability) or retaliation because you blew the whistle or reported harassment, you can claim wrongful termination. Employers know this, which is why many who do terminate on the basis of discrimination or retaliation will invent reasons that they terminated you.
Unfortunately, in most states, you have little to no recourse if you’re terminated without cause and can’t prove discrimination or retaliation. Most U.S.-based employers are “at-will” employers, meaning that they can legally let you go because they don’t like the color of your shirt.
No matter the shape of your termination, you may hear some things about you from your former employer that are unfair or untrue. On some occasions, they may be trying to avoid paying unemployment. Don’t waste energy worrying about what you could have done better or what your former coworkers think of you.
I speak from experience. I’ve never been “fired,” but I’ve been “let go” and set adrift, and I’ve been completely bewildered to hear hurtful lies about the reasons for the layoff/nonrenewal/etc. It’s important to contextualize, not internalize, these claims. Remember, employers want to protect themselves. It’s up to you to do the same.
Handling Your Reputation
One of the first things that crosses your mind, especially if you’ve never lost a job before, is the sting of a new label: “terminated.” You may fear that it will stain your reputation or harm your job search. But it doesn’t have to.
It is crucial to not only protect your reputation by maintaining a professional demeanor, but also to cultivate a personal brand that will keep your head above water. You don’t have to start freelancing, but you do have to have a stronger case for pursuing work than simply “I got terminated and need a new job.”
In most states, it is not legal for employers to disclose the details of termination to third parties. When prospective employers call to verify employment, HR departments can only give the dates you worked there and what your position was. If you suspect that any boss is maligning your name to others, your best bet is to contact the HR department and demand that they enforce a standard reference policy. In rare cases where you can obtain proof of false statements that you can also prove hurt your professional reputation, you can sue for defamation.
One key exception is when you request unemployment after a layoff or other non-disciplinary termination. Many people have found that their former employers will claim criminal activity, poor performance, or other justifiable reasons for the termination, even if none of those things happened. If employers give false information to avoid paying your unemployment, you cannot cite defamation, but most lawyers will encourage you to appeal within the process.
Throughout this whole ordeal:
Never badmouth your former boss or job on social media.
Never. Never ever. Unless the boss’ behavior is definitely criminal or you feel that they will harm countless others if you don’t say anything, do NOT vent your feelings on social media by laying out exactly what’s wrong with your former employer.
If you must post, focus on the positive, such as your friendly coworkers or the fun projects. Express that you’re sad to leave but are looking forward to new opportunities (you are, right?).
Take this opportunity to define yourself.
I’m a career coach, so I’m used to talking to other people about their goals and giving them advice on what to do. But until recently, I’d always been bad at selling myself.
Upon my last layoff, I’d already been freelancing for a while, but I had a very reactive approach to things. I’d pull writing samples on a job-by-job basis, I’d use the same copy for proposals and cover letters, and I had no website or social media presence dedicated to my business.
I realized I needed to whip my personal brand together. I spent a lot of time pulling samples and assembling a portfolio, writing and refining key messages that I could include in my applications and web presence, and thinking about how I could brand myself. I needed to stand out, and to do that, I needed to define myself.
It was very healing to go through this process. Here are my tips for it:
Get your personal brand together
Even if you’re not freelancing or running a business, it’s important to have a personal brand. This includes:
Your niche. What are you really good at?
Your story. How did you get to be good at it?
Your values. How do you approach your work?
Your offering. How can you solve your clients’ or employer’s problems?
Answering these questions can be difficult. I spent a full six weeks on them, and I’m still refining my brand. You should be able to perfectly describe — and pitch — yourself to professional connections, prospective clients, and potential bosses.
Use your early departure as an opportunity to talk about what you want from a job.
Your interviewers for future jobs will want you to explain any gaps in employment and reasons for leaving a previous job. While I don’t advocate lying, I do encourage you to reframe the question in a way that allows you to express your goals and needs.
Don’t go into details of the termination or how it affected you.
Do talk about what you hope for in this new position. If you were let go because you didn’t get along with your boss, talk about how you’d like to grow as part of a team. If you were fired for poor performance, talk about how you’d like to improve your skills in a new job.
Don’t bad-mouth anyone at your previous job.
Do talk about what you learned and appreciated about your former coworkers and bosses. If you butted heads with someone, talk about the strategies you use to resolve conflict (and if it didn’t end up working out, don’t admit).
Don’t be the first to mention gaps in employment, whenever possible.
Do talk about how you worked on networking, blogging, professional development while you were unemployed (you did, right?).
Remember that bad managers are a thing.
Whatever the circumstances of your termination, you likely heard some things from your employer. For what it’s worth, I seriously doubt that you were horribly bad at your job. Even great employees can be laid off for reasons that might be unfair, but certainly no fault of theirs.
And even if you were not at your best, so much of your success is dependent upon the environment cultivated by the management. Remember, your manager hired you and they were responsible for your training and development. If you didn’t perform up to their standards, it partly falls on them. When they hired you, they made a commitment to bringing you on board, and that includes properly managing your efforts.
Knowing this might help you understand why former bosses might say hurtful things or try to dodge paying unemployment. Try not to internalize these things. This is a time to redefine yourself for the better, not dwell on how your position might have been saved if you’d done this or that or wrack your brain trying to think of what you did wrong.
Spare yourself the torment.
I mention this because being involuntarily terminated definitely dings your self-esteem. Even if you know, deep down, that you did nothing wrong, that anxiety can be a silent killer of your confidence, and it’s hard not to let it bubble up to the surface in your next job search.
Recontextualize the termination in terms of what you can control. If you feel that your former boss unfairly represented your work or made up reasons to justify your layoff, acknowledge those feelings and then focus on affirming what you know you’re good at. Use that to motivate the creation of a powerful personal brand that will be more resilient.
You can and will bounce back from losing a job. I hate to rely upon clichés, but this one applies: Take the higher road. Remember that you are worthy of better things, and ultimately, if it didn’t work out, it wasn’t the right job for you. Good luck!