Fired does not mean failure

One of my favorite students came to my office the other day, and it was great to get caught up. He’s in his early 20s but we’ve know each other for a few years. Our conversation covered a range of topics but at the end, he surprised me with this question: “If you get fired… does it mean you failed?”

Short answer: No.

I mean, maybe you did indeed objectively fail, say, to complete an important project or meet a sales goal.

But in the broader sense, getting fired does not mean you’re a failure.

The first time I got fired, it was in the late 1980s and I was a very young MBA student – about 23 years old, without full-time work experience. I was working part time in the HR department of a regional bank. My job mostly involved setting up interviews and setting up typing tests.

I didn’t really enjoy my work.

And apparently I wasn’t very good at it, somehow, because given the job description I just shared with you, there really wasn’t that much to be good at or not good at.  But somehow I managed to do just that.

My supervisor walked with me to her boss’s office where they told me the news. I really didn’t see it coming but I felt relief when it happened.

I told my boss and her boss that I appreciated their time and this opportunity but I think I could have used more guidance about how to do my job better.

My grandboss’s response: “The first thing they do is look for someone to blame for their failure.”


Uh, I’m still sitting right here.

And technically blaming wasn’t the first thing I did. Actually, I don’t think she was talking to me. She was talking about  me. She didn’t call me a failure, but let me know that in her eyes, I had failed.

At least, I’m pretty sure I was among the “they” that she was thrashing. But who else was with me in this finger-pointing club? MBA students? Part-time HR employees? Twenty-somethings? Generation Xers, disaffected and directionless?

Doesn’t matter. I’ve recovered and applying some wisdom to my student’s question.

If you get fired, are you a failure?

Despite my assistant vice president’s artless accusation, the answer is no.

I mean, maybe you screwed up and committed an unforgivable offense. If that’s the case, take your medicine and work on being a better part of another organization like the one that just cast you aside.

More likely, getting fired can be good, and can be the best thing that happens to you. It’s acknowledgement that it wasn’t a good fit and forces you to move on with your career.

It can be devastating, if you didn’t see it coming. It can be disastrous, if your income is about to be halted but your costs and expenses aren’t going anywhere.

The key is to stay in control… and not only after, but before and during too.

Always have an exit strategy. This applies even if you have no reason to think your job is in danger. You never know when the ax is going to fall from above or better yet when opportunity might tap at your door.

When you get the news, be graceful and rise above. You may very well need the person telling you the bad news to say nice things about you when your future employer asks about your references. Or when the bad times end and job openings return. Never burn bridges.

Remember, though, that the best time to find a new job is while you’re still employed. If you think the fit isn’t right or there’s writing on the wall, see what you can do proactively. That might mean sitting down with your boss and redefining your role. It could mean moving within the organization, or looking outside for your next, better opportunity.

Many connections shared their thoughts and they serve as illustrations and support.

Thank you to my friends, colleagues, and alums Asad Azam, Sarah Corbin,Renee Hogan, Matt Kusek, Lorena Nunez, Gabe Perez, Janelle Wazorick for their awe-inspiring input.

Some of their wisdom:

Gabe Perez affirmed that the key is to look at yourself and not blame others. Jake Leganski knows that the key is to stay in control.

Janelle Wazorick and Renee Hogan know that the key is to learn and grow from misfortune, even if someone calls it a failure.

Lorena Nunez and Sarah Corbin recognizes that factors might be beyond our control. Don’t we all know somebody who lost their job due to an acquisition or downsizing or change in management?

Sarah and Asad Azam recognize the opportunity that come from this disruption. Embrace it. Matt Kusek knows that it might simply be a bad fit. And that means that all parties involved need to be separated.

That was certainly the case with me losing my job. Sometimes it’s deserved, sure. Companies have rules and cultures and if somebody violates these, often they’re given the ax.

But very often it’s just a bad fit. Be glad it happened and look for a better fit, for your career and your sanity. That’s called staying in control, as best you can.

Talk to you soon,



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