A Story About Getting Fired and Getting Back Up
It was a Monday between Thanksgiving and Christmas when I got fired from a job I once loved.
This story involves a young communications manager, a marketing organization, and its president whom we’ll call Bob. It begins in the summer of 2015.
As a new and enamored resident of California, I came across a communications job that allowed me to write about all the things that make it great. Not only that, but wine and dine visitors to show them just how great. I jumped on the opportunity and joined a small team of five full-time staff.
The team was welcoming and complemented by the most amazing group of volunteers whose personalities made each day unique. I got to know them and lots of other community members well. I immersed myself in the small beach town I called home by volunteering to chair committees, attend special events, and always work overtime when asked. I’m not implying I was a perfect employee—none of us are—but I’d like to think I was a valuable member of the team.
My moment to shine came when a wildfire (the largest in California history at the time) swept through our community. After months of research and strategizing, I’d finished compiling the organization’s first crisis communications plan only two weeks before. I was prepared and determined to make a difference. I worked night and day gathering news updates, rescheduling press trips, updating landing pages, writing blog posts, sending stakeholder and consumer newsletters, sharing guidelines and templates, giving media interviews, and keeping detailed logs. On many occasions, Bob and I were the first ones in the office and the last to leave, and we stayed in touch through texts in-between. What's my point with all this? Bob knew me well. And a few months later, when life as I knew it began to unravel, Bob (and most people) could see I was out of sorts.
Unbeknownst to me, my husband decided to head to Alaska to find himself. He drove off in our car one morning and I wouldn't see him again for a year and a half. I found myself juggling heartache, work, and a three-month-old puppy. Eventually, I got past the tears but learning to be on my own again for the first time in five years wasn't easy. And apparently, I didn’t do it as well as a previous employee whom, I was advised when I contemplated a short leave, went through a divorce in the evenings without ever skipping a beat at work.
I, on the other hand, struggled to keep up with my previous schedule. I began arriving at work one minute before I was supposed to and leaving one minute after. I walked my puppy before work, during my lunch, and after work, so I also stopped volunteering to work overtime. And though I still made every deadline, my change in priorities became a source of tension at work. Which, in full disclosure, became a source of resentment for me. I knew that my hardship was no one else’s problem, but I thought the dedication I’d showed for years had earned me a little understanding. Perhaps that’s the millennial in me. Suffice to say, the organization I’d earlier in the year nominated as ‘best place to work,’ no longer felt that way. Still, I felt blindsided by what happened next.
A few months had gone by since my husband left and time had made things easier. Work wasn’t perfect. Our long-term office manager had recently left and our photographer had tried to resign on a good note but ended up being asked not to come back to the office. I’d had some difficulties working with one of my colleagues which was complicating some projects but we had exciting events coming up and everything felt like it was chugging along. Bob approved my request for vacation and I was excited to spend the holidays with family. I was even more excited for the New Year’s clean slate.
It was just another day on my countdown to Christmas and I had a group of journalists in town from Scandinavia. I took them out for breakfast and showed them around our town. I made it back to the office around noon and told Bob about my morning. Something about our conversation felt off but I chose not to ask what was wrong. We’d recently taken our annual staff holiday photo and I sat down to write our holiday card.
“Fio, do you have a minute to meet?”
“Of course!” I said.
I grabbed a notepad and pen and joined Bob and my direct supervisor in his office. Bob closed the door, sat down, and fired me effective immediately. The entire exchange took less than five minutes. Bob explained that the board had opted for a change, that I would no longer need my work email or computer so I’d been withdrawn access, and that I would be paid out through present-day plus vacation days and a two-week severance if I signed a release. When Bob asked if I had any questions, all I could think to ask was, “Why does it have to be done this way?” That’s truly how I felt. Not, “Please, don’t fire me,” but, “Isn’t there a better way?” After three and a half years, I packed up my desk and went home.
A couple of friends came over that evening and over a bottle of wine, I explained that by far the hardest part was not having a chance to say goodbye. All of the volunteers I worked with and all of the community relationships I worked hard to develop suddenly ended and I had no way of offering any explanation at all. I didn’t want anybody to think I’d left so abruptly by choice. They deserved better than a bounced back email saying I was no longer a part of the team but that’s all they got.
A few days later, the holiday card was sent out with my words but a different staff photo. And a few days after that, my position was posted. I made my way home for the holidays and most certainly got my New Year’s clean slate.
So what did I learn? To start with, there are ways to fire someone respectfully. The more I shared my story with friends and listened to their stories, the more I realized it really didn’t have to be done that way. I heard stories of employers who gave employees time to find other jobs. Some even went as far as to help them with the job search. I wasn’t expecting that but a week to wrap up my projects and say goodbye would have meant a lot to me. Instead, withdrawing access to my email while I was being let go not only seemed disrespectful but made me feel like a threat. When we’re making a decision that will change someone’s life, we can and should do better than “standard procedures.” And some people already are.
Next, perspective is everything. We all know that "what ifs" benefit no one. You can try to place blame; chances are unless you work in a large corporate environment, your boss was never actually trained to manage people, but unless you were flawless, that rabbit hole won’t be satisfying either. I was lucky to have a friend who in nicer words reminded me that I’m not the first or last to get fired. In truth, you are replaceable (and so is your job). So I negotiated some time with myself to reflect on the experience on the condition that I focused on takeaways. What did I do best? What can I do better next time? Then I made myself move along.
It was this step where I learned a few things on more practical notes. Keep a "Work Story" folder on your personal computer filled with notes of your accomplishments. Should you ever wonder what skills you have to offer, what experience sets you apart, or what stories to include on cover letters, you won’t have to start from scratch. Also, portfolios are not just for photographers or designers anymore. Keep samples of the work you’re most proud of on your personal computer so that you always have access to a highlight reel. If your work entails skills such as writing, digital marketing, or website design, consider maintaining a personal website. Lastly, take LinkedIn seriously. It’s the best way to control your work story and maintain professional relationships beyond any single role.
If there's one thing I wish I'd done better sooner, it's honestly discerning what I wanted to do next. I was lucky. I had some savings, some unemployment insurance, and a wonderfully supportive family. No one was pressuring me to spin the wheel of jobs but myself. I thought it was what I was supposed to do. For a 30-something professional, I was surprisingly closed-minded about the definition of a job: 9 to 5, Monday to Friday. My best friend suggested I had great potential as a freelancer. My dad told me I should try being my own boss. I even had a couple of people reach out to me for projects. Still, it was months before I made a list of what I wanted and their words clicked.
I love having time to work out and walk my dog. I do some of my best writing at 5:00 in the morning. I hate office clothes and love to travel. I allowed myself to ask for that and more. Suddenly, freelance work made perfect sense. I now split my time between the sun in California and my family in Vancouver. I choose my own projects and set my own deadlines, and my dog is always the employee of the month. My life is still crazy but now on my terms. I’ve learned that matters. We aren’t robots. We shouldn’t expect ourselves to be. When life knocks us on our butts, it’s okay to take the time we need to get back up.
So thank you, 2019, for the one-year anniversaries showing me how far I’ve come. Can’t wait to see what 2020 has in store.