Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Leaving a Gig Professionally, Rather than Petulantly, Part 2: You don't Initiate Leaving, But You're Leaving Anyway.

It happens, eventually, to everyone. You're working at your desk and your boss or the a human resources rep asks to see you in his or her office. You wander in, a small amount of dread in your mid section, and you discover that you are leaving the company.

In current times, you're usually being laid off (as "firing" is a lot easier to dispute in a court of law) and honestly, they may well be laying you off for legitimate reasons. Whatever the reason for the layoff, you're on your way out. It just depends on whether it's that very afternoon or you have been given some time to complete projects.

In some cases, you're being fired. You did something that the company prohibits, disapproves of, or otherwise has issue with for any number of reasons, or for none at all--many states are "at will" states, so you can be fired at will (just as you can leave at will). Note, most places have actual reasons in place for a "for cause" termination, so that they can be protected in case you decide to sue for unlawful termination. In this case, it's not a matter of how long you have to complete projects, that's not really an issue anymore. You're going from the meeting with HR or your boss out the door, and its a matter of whether they'll let you pack up your stuff or if they will do it for you.

No matter the reason you're suddenly not having a job anymore, it sucks. Even if you've been expecting it, even if you hate the job with a passion of a thousand fiery furnaces in hell, it sucks to have someone who is not you choose your fate, and choose it in an area that affects your life and livelihood so profoundly. Leaving a job hurts, but being removed from the job hurts more; you're always wondering what you did wrong, or, in some cases, not wondering at all and maybe feeling like a bad person.

I'll start with the good news: what people tell you when you are being terminated from a job (laid off or fired or whatever) is sanitized before you hear it. For the same reason you shouldn't lay into your boss or type up a letter about how much everyone sucks when you're choosing to leave a place (per last week's blog post), companies have to be very, very careful in what they tell you when you're leaving employment under their power and not your own. So no matter what they say, you're probably never going to know the exact reason that you were let go, and that means no future employer will ever know, either.

I recommend in the case of laying off or being fired you request an exit interview. During the interview, you are going to ask for tips and information about how to improve your job performance at your next position. You are going to not get angry and yell and scream. You will take each point and accept your flaws if you agree with their assessment, and make a counterpoint if you do not. This is not arguing for your job back, this is making a statement that, with what they've said, you're going to write down and you'll send it to them in an email when you get home as a summary to make sure you understood what you were told and so you have a written record, in case they opt to change the story later. You will not include your verbal agreement on the flaws that you did agree on, only that the flaws were mentioned, and you will include a neutral argument against the flaws and issues that you do not believe. Again, this is not to argue with them--the job is GONE. But to set the stage so that if they are called on a reference in the future, they are aware that you're the type that keeps records. They'll be more inclined not to tell an interviewer calling about your time working there anything negative (either directly or through tone) and keep it professional.

You'll also be able to take that same set of notes and use them when, inevitably, while interviewing, your interviewer asks why you left that job. You can explain that there were some differences of opinion which were squared away in the exit interview, and, if you must discuss specifics, keep it general in regards to what you've done to improve yourself since that time. Note, if in a future interview you fear that a company may say something bad about you, you often have the opportunity to check in the application "do not contact." If you can, do that. Obviously try not to do it for every employment opportunity you've had, but if you can keep these people from talking to the folks that fired you/laid you off for specific flaws, then you should.

If you cannot prevent them contacting this employer, then you should disclose the fact that you did not part with that particular company/boss on good terms; again, keep it general: "We had a difference of opinion; he was the boss, his opinion was what should count--as the boss he should get what he wants--and so I left. I worry that he or the company may not look favorably upon me after our last conversation."

Obviously, if you were laid off for budget reasons, because your division was terminated, because the company closed, or other reasons that have nothing to do with your performance, feel free to volunteer that information at the nearest opportunity.

But back to the office you're about to leave. If you were laid off and they gave you a week, two weeks, or a month to finish projects (as some companies do), treat it like giving your notice as noted in my previous article:

1) Try not to burn any bridges on the way out
2) Take all your stuff on the last day
3) Leave all their stuff (badges, etc.)

If you are leaving that very day, then you need to find out about disposition of your things--will you be able to pack them and take them to your car, will they pack them and you will wait, or will they pack them and you will collect them at a later date? Find out from your boss/HR person, and then comply with their wishes. If there is an item or two without which you cannot live, ask for that item and they will accommodate you. On days when you're being walked out of the building, the company REALLY doesn't want to make a scene, so they're likely to give into your needs.

And that's sort of the important part here: DON'T MAKE A SCENE. Making one could make you liable if other employees take actions detrimental to the company because of your leaving; ie: they follow you to a new company, protest and cost the company money in lost productivity, or a variety of other potential actions. As eager as you may be to see the company embarrassed and/or brought to its knees, this is not an 80's feel-good-summer-movie; it never works out that way, and in this litigious society, you could be unemployed and end up owing money to the company that made you unemployed.

Also, it's unprofessional. I know the last thing you're probably thinking about when you get laid off/fired is "how can I seem the most professional," but seriously: handling this type of thing with aplomb and professionalism is what will increase the chances of a good character reference, good professional reference, and/or change the answer the company might give when asked by another firm interested in hiring you "Would you hire this person again?" from a "No" to a "Yes." As much as we hate it, as much as its unfair, future jobs may contact this job and you want to increase your chances of that being as positive an experience as possible for the sake of getting employment in the future.

Now, if you feel you're being fired unfairly, STILL DON'T MAKE A SCENE. State it in your exit interview and your summary notes. Then I recommend talking to a lawyer to see what your options are. The more professional you appear and treat the situation, the more likely a future judge will reflect positively on your behavior.

Okay, you have your stuff, you're driving home, you've been fired or laid off. Now what?

Now you go directly to your computer. After you type up your notes and send out a summary, you go to the local state unemployment site and immediately, do not pass go, fill out your unemployment paperwork. Most states have a lead time (a week or two) and you want to wait as little time as possible for unemployment insurance to come in; some money is better than none at all.

Next, update your resume with the details of your last job skill set.

Now, take a break and mourn the loss of your job; have a nice dinner. Spend time with friends. Do something non-work related and non-work-finding related. Yes, things suck and might be dire, but your not in the right head space to sell yourself to other people--which is really what job hunting is about--so, take a little time, at least that very evening, and give yourself some time to relax, mourn, and heal.

Then start kicking the tires on the job market.

Note, in some rare cases, employers will challenge your right to unemployment benefits. In most states, to get them, you need sign off from your former place of business. If they opt not to provide that, or delay in doing it, you should check what your recourse is with your local state unemployment bureau. It could be a simple letter from the unemployment department, a mistake that got made and could easily be fixed, or actual reason on the part of your former employer to deny you (whether those reasons are legitimate or not). You have options. Your local state unemployment office can help point you at the right ones for you, if they cannot outright resolve the issue themselves with your employer.

Aside from dealing with the trauma and the need to get back into the saddle with a new job, keep in mind that losing a job is not a measure of your self worth. I have trouble with that myself; the economy sometimes just sucks. Other times, you have just a really bad boss. Other times, you have had an interesting learning experience. But it doesn't mean that you won't do better next time, or that you are a bad person. You're a person without a job, who will eventually, become a person with a job, and that's all that it means.

Next Week, the final installment in this series: Someone's leaving the job, All the Stuff You Probably Ought to Do as Their Boss.

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