What To Do When You Lose Your Job
Updated: Jun 25
When the Lord closes a door, somewhere he opens a window.” - Fraulein Maria in the movie Sound of Music
It’s Thursday, you’re looking forward to the weekend. You see an email from your boss titled: URGENT. He wants to see you at 5.30 pm. He doesn’t mention why.
You are filled with dread. You have a nauseous feeling in your stomach. The relationship with your boss has been deteriorating over the last few months. You have not seen eye-to-eye on certain things. There’s been an undercurrent of aggression. Small matters get blown out of proportion every other day, the proverbial storm in a teacup.
At 5.30 pm you enter his office. He closes the door and lays down his cards. Your under-performance can no longer be tolerated. You can either voluntarily quit, or else…. And then he said the dreaded word: PIP. That’s “Performance Improvement Plan” for the uninitiated.
Before you can even take a resuscitating breath, he goes in for the kill. You have to decide by tonight. Tender your resignation by the end of the today, otherwise, you automatically go on the PIP tomorrow.
And then he delivers the sinker that drags you into the abyss... “If you don’t resign by tonight, you are not going to get a good reference from me. The industry is very small, and I know people”, browbeating you into submission.
And that’s how you’re told your life in this company is finished. It hits you like a tsunami. This is what you get after five years of twelve-hour days and six-day weeks.
Kicked out. Onto the streets.
ROLLER COASTER OF EMOTIONS
The next 12 hours is one roller coaster ride of emotions.
First comes shock: What should I do? Do I quit or not? I really don’t know….
Then slowly, denial creeps in: This can’t really be happening. He’s an incompetent buffoon. Who’s going to do all the work? He needs me.
Wait a minute… That ass-licking new hire who joined two weeks ago. That’s my replacement!
Now anger rears his head: What happened to loyalty and commitment? What does he think he’s doing?!! He can’t do this to me! It’s illegal!
Followed by guilt: This is my fault. If only I did as I was told and kept my mouth shut, this wouldn’t be happening. All you had to do was shut your eyes and think about the money, and you couldn’t even do that.
Past the guilt trip and around the corner, the roller coaster opens up into sheer panic: What am I going to do now? We’re in the middle of a pandemic. I won’t be able to find another job!
Finally, depression sets in. I just don’t have the energy to fight this anymore. And you slip into a zombie-like comatose.
WHY IS THIS HAPPENING TO ME?
It’s a very isolating situation. It crushes your confidence. It’s a punch in the face. You’re knocked off your pedestal. These emotions are especially troubling because you’re such a cool, composed person. Nothing ever fazes you. You’re THE SPECIAL. The one who has it all figured out.
You’ve never been fired in your life. You constantly see people suddenly disappear around you. It’s something people don’t talk much about, but it happens. All the time. Yeah, yeah, these things happen. BUT NOT TO ME. You have always been the high-flying executive. The blue-eyed boy of the Chairman.
But it seems even CEOs are not immune.
According to research, the median tenure for CEOs at large-cap (S&P 500) companies is 5 years. A majority of these departures were classified as “resignations,” even though they came under a variety of circumstances. Rarely are executives officially “terminated”, even when they leave under duress following scandals, as we’ve seen with Goldman Sachs’ Southeast Asia chairman Tim Leissner. Thrown under the bus to save the prestige of the firm. Collateral damage.
IT HAPPENED TO ME
I thought I found my dream job when I started my career as a headhunter in 2007. But the dream didn’t last long. The global financial crisis came along. 2009 was a mess. We got a new boss. One day, at one of our stupid useless weekly one-on-one meetings, he told me: “Make two placements in the next two months, or your role will be made redundant”.
It was a slap in the face, in so many ways. I was knocked back. The life force got sucked out of me. My face burned up like a fever. It was a blow to my “face”, so diu lian (“lose face” in Chinese). It was like being disowned by your family.
I barely crawled out of the room with as much dignity as I could muster. And once in the privacy of the fire escape staircase, the inner diva acted up like a severe case of allergy. She really did not appreciate the brush-off. How dare they! Don’t they know who I am?! I’m an ASEAN scholar, for goodness sake!
All this talk about one family, one team, one dream. ALL LIES!!!
Big fat tears fell down my cheeks. I felt naive. Cheated. I was stupid enough to believe the lies. I put in the hours. I swallowed the pay cut. Do it for the team. I felt used, discarded, like a piece of sanitary pad.
What was I thinking?! I was just a hired help. It was purely transactional.
Candidates jump ship for an extra $1,000. Companies hire and fire. And you’re supposed to facilitate the transaction. It’s good for business. Hmm, what industry am I in, really?
• the unworthy or corrupt use of one’s talents for personal or financial gain
THIS IS HAPPENING FOR YOU
You gave it your best shot. You dedicated a significant part of your life to the company. But the reality is… not every boss is going to be a charm. They are not. You didn’t do anything wrong, so why give them the satisfaction of hurting you and making you miserable?
Plus, failure can often lead to something better.
This could be one of the best things that happen to you. You just don’t know it yet.
If Tony Fernandes hadn’t taken the severance package from Warner, there would be no AirAsia.
If Jack Ma hadn’t gotten rejected by KFC, there would be no Alibaba.
If I didn’t get the ultimatum, this book would not exist.
You’re meant to do something bigger. There’s a company you’re meant to build. There’s an organisation looking for you to solve a problem in a way that only you can solve, that you’re uniquely positioned to do, given your story.
And if the Universe didn’t give you a kick in the bum right now, you will wake up at the age of 80 regretting a lifetime of playing small. Face it, if they had said, “We have another job for you” - say, setting up the Mongolian office - you would have done it in a second. It is a great organisation and you would have been happy to stay in the “family”.
So you’re faced with a dilemma: Leave or stay? Even if you’re not welcomed?
It might be a timely question. Impeccable timing.
You have shot through the upper echelons of the organisation, driven by your desire to keep moving up the ladder. This is not just another job to get a paycheck. You love what you do. You have ambitions to grow the Asian market but your boss has not been supportive. Your effort to capture the technological shift in the industry butted head-to-head with the bumbling bureaucracy of a big corporation. It has been extremely frustrating, you’re losing interest in your job. You don’t feel the same adrenaline rush you felt at the beginning of your career. That fiery passion has been waning. And your own performance has started to falter because of it. Your career has stalled. The writing is on the wall. It’s time. Time to let go of the past. And allow the future to emerge.
Maybe, deep down in the murky subconscious brain, you’ve been wanting out. And the Universe delivered what you (unconsciously) wished for. This is happening for you.
Of course, this is much easier to appreciate once you are on the other side of the journey. But right this moment, it requires a leap of faith… a CRAZY leap of faith. You have to believe: I can’t see it, I don’t understand it, but somehow, this is happening FOR me.
When you do that, you’re giving permission to that quiet, creative voice within to wonder: Yeah, how is this happening for me?
Your eyes start to open. You keep your ears to the ground. You start looking outwards, towards the wide-open ocean of exciting opportunities. It’s looking for you to show up. It’s inviting you to dance at the edge of greatness. You may not feel ready, because you’ve been so focused on the little things. It will take a bit of work, a bit of practice, a bit of courage. But you got this.
Tip #1: Acknowledge the emotions
You are going to be upset.
You are going to be mad at yourself. You are going to be mad at your boss. You are going to be mad with the whole goddamn world.
Be mad. FTW. Fuck the world. Allow yourself to feel all those shitty things that you frankly do not want to feel.
But why? I’m really not comfortable with this. It’s not rational.
Because you basically have to go through a death process - to let go of the old. So that the new can enter. Because ignoring those icky emotions won’t get you anywhere. It keeps you stuck in the past. It holds you back from stepping forward with hope and optimism. When you stop hiding from your inner demons, you can embrace them and pull the power from them.
You think you have gotten over it - the emotional roller coaster ride. In twelve hours. Dusted your hands. IT’S DONE.
You just buried the stinky rubbish truck angsty emotions. We ignore this part of us. We stuff it down, but it's still driving whether you like it or not. It will come back to haunt you in the future. Your emotions are swirling in the abyss all of the time. That ego is seeking expression. Constantly. It lies in wait for that perfect moment, when the stakes are high, and your guard is down.
You will go for interviews for several exciting roles. The conversations will go smooth as a charm. Up to the final interview. It’s down to the final two candidates - it’s either going to be you or the other person. And you always lose out. It happens again. And again. And again. You will try to figure out why, you will ask around, but you will not get a straight answer.
“So, why did you leave your last company?” This is a standard interview question.
My boss was an incompetent buffoon.
There was no loyalty and commitment.
It was purely transactional.
Not in those exact same words. It’s subtle. But people can feel it. Even if they can’t articulate it. That’s why you don’t get straight answers.
You can pay attention to it and make it be your superpower. Or you can ignore it and have it be your kryptonite. But either way, it's running. FTW. Fuck the world. Or Find the win. It’s an invitation.
Tip #2: Reach out to your support network
Seek out someone who has solved your problem. Look outside your organisation. Look within your organisation.
Seek advice from your HR and Legal. Seek out the opinion of your mentor, even if he’s the Chairman. You’ll be surprised how much people want to help. But in that horror vacui of Chinese whispers, they can’t, because they are not “supposed” to know. That’s how your boss wants it. So the last thing you want to do is slink away quietly into oblivion, out of shame.
The “You will never work in this town again” threat is just bullshit. It’s the quintessential Jeffrey Epstein bully tactic to shame their victims into silence. It’s a blow below the belt, and it says more about his mean spirit and pettiness than it does reflect you.
As for me, I turned to my father, a retired engineer by profession, wannabe lawyer by trait, and professional tennis player by accident. Dad had brought his employer to court for constructive dismissal. It took one year, during which he played tennis. He was eventually awarded one year of back pay, including performance bonus, and was rehired by the company. It was a short-lived professional tennis career.
My father advised me to respond with an official letter to my boss and cc the HR person. I said, “F@ck that. I’m out of here. What’s the point?” My father insisted, and I complied. As I said, you can’t win an argument with dad. And I’m glad I listened to him. He helped me draft a very professional and generous letter. I still hold a copy of it. I left the company soon after, but I left with my pride intact. On my own terms. (By the way, the HR person never responded, not even with an acknowledgement).
Tip #3: Negotiate for a win-win
Should I quit or not?
Either/or dilemmas are very restrictive. It narrows our choices down to one option. Take it or leave it. It’s like choosing between a rock and a hard place. Leaves us feeling like a victim. Powerless.
Instead, these open-ended questions power up your creativity:
What do I really want, and what are the best options to get it?
What am I here to do, and how do I want to spend my precious time?
I really love this company, it’s just this hiccup of a boss. He’s not an evil person, what’s really happening here? Why is he behaving like this? What does he really want?
Maybe you’ll realise what you really want is a six-month paid sabbatical (angel investor funding to start your next thing). And what your boss really wants are automatons and he’s willing to pay to keep you quiet and not tarnish his reputation. So, win-win.
If you feel that you belong in the organisation, then stay. Go on the PIP. Be sincere about it. Be willing to change and shift your mindset. I don’t say this lightly. If you really want this to work, you have to connect with your boss. To truly connect with people, you have to agree with them. Let me put this simply. With your boss, you have to say, “You are right.” It’s a total mindfuck, because it challenges your own identity. I might become him. But that’s the real transformation, the learning edge. The good news is everything else after that gets easier. You will naturally be committed to engage with the process. You will take the lead. You will create support structures to hold yourself accountable.
You will also hold your bosses accountable. You realise that you play the most significant role in your own performance, but the processes and infrastructure also play an important role, and that’s the job of the bosses. Keep your faith in them. Hold them to a higher standard. And they will rise to meet it. Don’t give their frail ego even a minutia of a chance to sink into thuggish behaviour. You can take the boy out of the HDB void deck, but you can never take the egotistical pai kia (Singaporean slang for gangster) out of him.
Your future self in 3 years’ time wants to look back at this moment with pride. Lead with your values. Don't be a jerk. But also don't be a doormat.
Tip #4: Be grateful
Remember to count your blessings and express gratitude for what you have. Celebrate and honour the past. Express gratitude to your boss and organisation. They have played a critical role in shaping who you are today. You are who you are today because of them. What you have today is because of them. Your dreams came true because of them. The company paid for your Maserati.
This is as much for you as for them. There’s no better way to placate the disturbing inner demons than to hold a heartfelt sense of appreciation for your life. Expressing gratitude may still taste a bit salty right now, but there’s always SOMETHING to be grateful for: It was character-defining. I learnt what NOT to do as a boss. I made friends for life, comrades in suffering.
Tip #5: Leave on a high
On your last day of work, you’ll put in your normal twelve hours. You’ll leave the office and make your way to Orchard to pick up your made-to-measure Zegna suit. It fits perfectly. You look like a million bucks. You are delighted. You head off to dinner. Your wife joins you. You pop open a bottle of Dom Perignon. For tomorrow you begin your new life.
Afterwards, you won’t look back over your shoulder. You won't hang around wondering what is happening back at the old company. You won't go back and visit. You move on. In style. On your terms.
This article is part of a book I’m writing titled Dancing At The Edge Of Greatness: In Pursuit of the Joy of Leadership. I would love to hear your comments on what resonated with you and where I can make things better.
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