Getting fired seems to be one of the last workplace taboos. But after former New York Times executive editor Jill Abramson speaks up about her experience, Radhika Sanghani explores out why we’re still so ashamed of it
If you were fired, would you:
a) Tell everyone you know, or
b) Feel paralysed with shame and keep it to yourself.
I think even the most confident people would find themselves in the ‘b’ camp. No one really wants to talks about being fired. While being made redundant is sadly pretty normal these days (the recession helped turbo-boost that trend), getting fired seems to still hold a separate stigma of its own.
When Gina Shaw, 23, was fired from her job as an admin assistant, she felt “shocked and devastated”. She was fired because she could no longer work the hours they expected of her, and was handed her notice via email after working there for a year.
“I loved the job – I dealt with the crap money because I loved it. I gave it my all and after I had read the email I ended up crying in the toilets on the phone to my boyfriend,” she tells me. “For a while after that, I didn’t tell people I was fired. It kind of felt like a bit of a dirty secret.”
‘Don’t feel stigmatised’
This is common. Just a quick Telegraph Wonder Women Twitter poll showed that out of every one of our readers who had been fired, hardly any felt comfortable discussing it. That’s why it is so important that the former New York Times executive editor Jill Abramson has come outand said she wants the world to know she was fired and isn’t ashamed of it.
“Is it hard to say I was fired?” she told Cosmopolitan magazine. “No. I’ve said it about 20 times, and it’s not. I was, in fact, insistent that that be publicly clear because I was not ashamed of that. And I don’t think young women — it’s hard, I know — they should not feel stigmatised if they are fired. Especially in this economy people are fired right and left for arbitrary reasons, and there are sometimes forces beyond your control.”
She’s right that no one should feel stigmatised for being fired but she’s also right in that it is hard. Rebecca Reid was recently fired as an account executive for a PR firm after working there only three weeks. She was told by bosses that she wasn’t the “right fit for the company” but also: “You don’t sit up very straight and it gives the impression you’re not happy.”
‘I was mortified’
“I was pretty mortified initially,” says Reid. “I was really embarrassed to tell people I’d been fired. My friends skirted around the issue like, oh, it’s fine, you almost quit. They were upset for me because for them, that was a huge, huge problem. I was worried how it would look on my CV and would it look badly on me.”
She felt like it was a reflection on her as a person and avoided the word “fired”. Shaw tells me the same: “When you hear the word ‘fired’ you feel like you have done something awful. Anyone I knew who’d been fired had been fired for a really bad reason rather than just things weren’t working out and that they needed someone who could do more hours.”
This is where the stigma in being fired seems to come from. The word is so often associated with mistakes and wrong-doing that it’s hard to not take it personally. Corinne Mills, managing director of Personal Career Management, explains: “It feels like a commentary on how well they have performed in that role. People internalise it and see it as a judgment on them and their capabilities. Most of the time it’s just a tough business decision the organisation’s making. It’s not personal – it’s not about the individual.”
Women take it worse
She thinks that actually, women feel stigmatised by being fired more than men do: “I think women do internalise it a lot and can get very anxious. They do see it as a commentary on their value as a person. Sometimes the men tend to get more angry; they vent it a bit more.”
It can often take self-coaching to accept being fired. Reid, for example, had to slowly teach herself to not view it as a comment about her as a person, and more a result of her not being a correct fit for a job. “If I was dumped by my boyfriend I’d tell anyone,” she says. “I don’t know why but getting fired seems to be more embarrassing. On balance, it was a stigma I put on myself rather than something anyone had ever told me.
“Firing implies the fault was on your side but generally it’s not the case. The idea of it being a mismatch of personalities is one that’s underplayed. I’m 23 and I’m young and I can bounce back.”
Mills thinks that it’s important for someone who has been fired to reframe it in their mind. “Most people in their career will either have been fired or had a mutual exit at some point,” she says. “It’s just the rough and tumble of careers and the workplace.
If you accept it, everyone else will
“No matter what level you’re at, it’s not firing itself that’s the issue. For a junior person they might have been in the wrong role and it gives them a chance to think about what’s right for the future.” Mills suggests that in an interview, you either say the job wasn’t playing to your strengths or if it was obvious you were fired, just be honest. “If you don’t feel like it’s a shameful thing, then the interviewer won’t either,” she says. “It’s not even what you say – it’s the tone in which you say it.”
The advice is one that Reid and Shaw are slowly taking. “My mum (to this day) tells me not to say I have been fired as it has negative connotations,” says Shaw, but now she’s a lot more open about it. Reid is too: “If people ask about it I’ll say I started but I found their methods difficult and I was asked to leave. I come across as a non-horrible person enough, so you can tell it’s not because I was absolutely vile.”
For both of them, being fired turned out to be exactly what their careers needed. It propelled them to land jobs they’re both now much happier with.
Sian Astley, a property entrepreneur and TV presenter, agrees that it can be a big positive. She tells me that being fired – multiple times – was the best thing that ever happened to her.
“I ended up being fired from pretty much every job I ever had aged from 16-25,” she explains. “It taught me lots of things: I can’t take orders, I’m never on time, I’m too headstrong to be employed. Now I’ve been self-employed for 18 years, very successfully. Since all those firings, I have built up multimillion pound property portfolio, had my own TV show and run an interior design practice.
“There’s no ‘taboo’ in being fired, even if it seems like the end of the world at the time. Everything happens for a reason, even if someone makes a terrible mistake in life and gets fired for that. Often it’s more about the person doing the firing than the person being fired. If that’s the case you fight back, otherwise dust down, learn the lesson and move on. Use it to your advantage.” Amen.