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Fired! Interview with Workforce Expert Dr. Nancy King

Workforce reduction. Terminated. Laid off. Down sizing. Re-organization. Fired. When you are employed, these are not words that you want to hear. Job instability is unfortunately more common than you think. Roughly one-in-five American workers have been laid off during the last half-decade (report). As some economists point to a slowing economy in late 2019/early 2020, job insecurity may be the new normal.

I had the opportunity to do virtual coffee with Dr. Nancy Koury King. Dr. King has a doctorate in management from the Weatherhead School of Management and a Masters in Social Administration from the Mandel School at Case Western Reserve University where she studied social capital and leadership.  In addition to work in health care leadership, Dr. King has served as an adjunct instructor at Case Western Reserve University and The Ohio State University. She's spent the last 5 years learning everything she could about job loss for her recent book, "Fired: How to manage your career in an age of job uncertainty"

Sarah: You spent 5-years interviewing people all over the country who experienced being "let go" from a job. What was your biggest take-away from this experience?

Nancy: My biggest take away was how rarely people are fired because they are not doing a good job. I was shocked to learn how people were let go because a new leader joined the company. Or because someone wanted to hire a friend. Or you were part of the old regime. The idea that if you are loyal, work hard, and do a great job, you will be rewarded can be completely upended by employment at will. You can be doing all the right things and through no fault of your own, you can lose your job. Job uncertainty is the new normal.  

The other big take-away I learned was simply, "Be loyal to yourself." The people I interviewed were very loyal to their companies. They were so loyal they declined calls from recruiters and job opportunities. Some of them worked so hard they were not able to do any networking outside of their companies. Employers ask for loyalty but it is often a one way street. You should do the best you can at your job and continue to learn. But be loyal to yourself.

Sarah: Job loss is one of the top ten most stressful life events on the Holmes and Rahe scale.   Grieving a job loss can be an emotional roller coaster taking many forms. In your book, you say, that for most people, "job loss goes well beyond the real and actualized fear of lost income...for them, the jobs and the companies that they worked for meant a form of status, a place to belong, a social network, and a source of self-esteem".  Why is it important for people to take the time to grieve a job loss? What is the appropriate amount of time to process a job loss?

"If your job is how you define yourself, when it's gone, who are you?" - Brenda (interviewed by Nancy in Fired!)

Nancy: Loss of a job often generates a flood of emotions including profound grief.  The loss is real and encompasses your income, identity, social status and everyday routine. There is a lot of false bravado out there. People will tell you "it's your next big opportunity" or it will be "the best thing to happen to you." Don't listen to them. That may turn out to be true in the long run, but it in the near term being let go is disruptive, unsettling, embarrassing, devastating and/or frightening. Recognizing this as a loss and allowing yourself to grieve is so important. There is no perfect amount of time for grief, each person is different.  Even if you have to work immediately, make time for your self to grieve. That can mean seeing a counselor or someone from your faith tradition. It's OK to talk with family and select friends about it. But be careful to limit your disclosures to only a few trusted others to limit rumors. Also, it is very important that as you look for work you you maintain an air of confidence. If you can, give yourself a few days to decompress before you go at your job search. I interviewed one young woman who went on a job interview before she was ready. She panicked during the interview and ran out mid way through it. She was too emotionally distraught to be able to convince someone else she was the right person for the job.  

Sarah: The title of Chapter 3 in your book is "You're not fireproof: No one is safe from getting fired." The chapter is complete with stories of top performers who "thought that they were an asset to their companies and believed their companies recognized it".  

As a career development professional, our industry often stresses the importance of continuous learning and upskilling. Did you notice any trends when you were conducting your interviews that affirmed this?

Nancy: The ability to continually learn and upskill are one of the benefits of being employed. Wherever you are in your career, take advantage of opportunities to read, attend seminars and learn new skills. Even in a job you don't particularly like, look for ways to learn and stretch yourself. If you lose your job, these new skills may be important ones in your next position. Plus, continuous learning demonstrates to your leaders that you are committed to your field and anxious to grow. Unfortunately, this doesn't insulate you from job loss, but it does build your skill set for your next job.  

My best advice is to always be prepared that the next day is your last day at work.

Sarah: Your book also talks about the importance of having an "exit story". What is this-- and why is it important?

Nancy: An exit story is an often overlooked component of losing a job. You need an exit story to tell people simply and succinctly  why you are no longer employed and why you left. And you want to be able to say it like you are reading a recipe.  It is also good to create an exit story that your employer can share with your former colleagues. So, if possible, as part of your departure, ask you employer if the two of you can work together on an exit story. It is much better for company and you if you can say your departure was a part of a re-organization or due to a leadership transition than just a cold notice that as of 5:00 today, you are no longer employed. You also can ask your employer what kind of reference they would give you and if you can suggest some of your accomplishments that they could share if asked with potential employers. 

Sarah: There is a common debate in HR-- it better to fire people on Wednesdays or Fridays? In your opinion, can someone be "fired well"? If so-- what is the best way to terminate someone?

Nancy: I have heard some outrageous stories of very undignified dismissals. (And there are many in the book.) Unceremonious dismissals not only hurt the employee affected, they also are damaging to the remaining employees, the company itself and the culture. So yes, I believe in most cases 'red carpet in, red carpet out.' Of course there are exceptions and I don't minimize the threats that are posed with firing someone. But in general, I believe that there can be a way to let an employee go without having to use the text book, lawyer driven method. If possible, it is good to give people a heads up that a job loss is coming. And if you do, you can tie a reward to this like getting paid through a certain date, if they remain professional. Another nice thing to do is to help them with an exit strategy including an exit story, a nice notice to their co-workers, and outplacement services. Give them the resources to get on COBRA. And once they leave, never bad mouth the person.  

I don't think it matters which day of the week it is done. I do think for the employees sake, doing it the last week of the month is far worse than doing it the first week of the following month. Employer paid health insurance is paid at the first of the month for the whole month. Therefore, letting someone go at the beginning of the month gives them longer time on the company's health insurance. If they are fired toward the end of the month, they will have to apply and pay for COBRA almost immediately which will pose a financial hardship on them.  

Sarah: What are some of the best resources for people who feel like they were wrongfully terminated? 

Nancy: I am not a lawyer and cannot give legal advice so I am unable to answer this question. I will say that most people think that they were wrongfully discharged. My web site is a useful resource for anyone who has lost a job. www.jobuncertainty.com

Sarah: What is the best career advice that you've ever gotten? Did you take it? (Asking everyone this question)

Nancy: Good question! The best advice I ever received was from my mentor Glen Gronlund who said "Nancy, people with great strengths have great weaknesses." And, yes, I have heeded his advice. It has helped me with my own career as well as in working with others. 

The other great piece of advice came from a former supervisor, Ken Kemper, who said, "People will listen to you if you get results." To this day I live by that advice.  

Want to learn more about Nancy's work? You can visit her website, follow her on LinkedIn and Twitter or buy her book on Amazon.