21st Century Alchemy: The cycle of grief after losing a job

At most companies, employers end up firing people for lots of different reasons, often pointing out that they ‘used to be great’, but now suck. But the assessment of their performance is rarely accurate.

“If you talk about someone for more than 10 minutes, they turn into a piece of crap,” the corporate HR director of an American chain of family-restaurants once said.

“It doesn’t matter who – our best or our worst employee – the longer you talk about them, the worse you start to view them. This happens because it’s in our nature to focus on weaknesses not strengths [theirs or ours]. So the longer you talk, the more you talk about what they can’t do; not what they can.”

So it’s a simple fact that at some point most of us will be fired (or whatever euphemism they use). Might be our fault, might not; either way it’s not uncommon. But here’s what happens to most people when it does happen.

Shock and denial – You’re stunned as confusion, fear, denial and numbness each take their turn on your fragile psyche. Even if you knew it was coming, somehow the absolute and complete finality and certainty of it all still surprises you.

Anger – You’re pissed (even if you knew it was coming). “How could they do this to me?!” or perhaps “I’ll show them!” repeat over and over as waves of frustration, irritability (ask your friends and family if you’re irritated), embarrassment, shame and anxiety wash over you.

Dialogue and bargaining – Sometimes this only goes on in your head, but there are times when you reach out to others – either to tell your story or get support. You struggle to make sense or find meaning in what happened.

Depression and detachment – Sadness in various forms and intensity hits you asyou wrestle with the question “What am I going to do now?!” You’re overwhelmed by the enormity of the shift; and you lack the energy to perform even the smallest daily tasks. You avoid friends and family and break from the routines you used to do. Everything becomes blah or meh, and at times you feel pathetically helpless.

Acceptance – With time, you begin to move on and start thinking about possibilities again. You begin exploring your options, both professionally and personally. If done right, this is the point when a healthy assessment about what matters to you should be done. That way, when the time is right, you’re applying for jobs that will be fulfilling.

Return to normal – Although this can easily belong to acceptance, the difference is that a return to normal is about functioning and not just accepting the situation. You begin to breathe again as your feelings of security, self-esteem and personal and professional meaning start to form outside of the job that you had.

Good news: you’re wanted!
However, once the full cycle of grief and loss has had its effect, it’s most likely you’ll become a highly sought-after asset.

You’ll be the employee every company wants on the payroll – the one who brings that extra chutzpah, an x-factor the already employed (the ones who don’t really need your job) and untested applicants don’t have.

What is it? It’s a deep-down unquenchable fire to prove to everyone (themselves, others, their employer past and future) that it was a mistake to fire them. These people ‘WANT TO…’ more than anyone else. They’re chomping at the bit to be better than everyone else and to defy their critics’ low expectations, and this edge (i.e carrying a chip and a little pissed off) can lift them to be your best performers.

So, there you have it. Your best hires might be those crap, fired employees!

Questions & Answers 

Interview Question
What do you know about the company?

Why they’re asking – Any applicant can and should read and rephrase the company’s ‘About’ page. But when the interviewer asks this question, they probably aren’t assessing whether you understand their mission and values, but whether you care about them.

How do you answer – Start with one line that shows you understand the company’s goals, using a couple of key words and phrases from their website, but then make it personal. Say “I’m personally drawn to this mission because …” or “I really believe in this approach because …” Share a personal example or two and let your brilliant storytelling gift shine!

Workplace Question
We have a very small kitchen in our office with unwritten rules on how to use it. The ‘last staff out’ tidies and runs the dishwasher, the ‘first ones in’ put everything away and make the coffee, and everyone does a little throughout the day to keep it clean. I personally buy the things that are written on a whiteboard shopping list. But the problem is that some staff don’t clean up after themselves. They’re adults so I don’t want to scold them.

Have a brief meeting about the condition and brainstorm solutions and get some commitments. If the behaviour persists then a ‘Why we can’t have nice things’ talk needs to take place. If you’re supplying a kitchen that’s not taken care of, then you have the right to take it away, and no-one wants to be the reason for that. It’s a crystal clear message that leaves no room for discussion or blame-shifting.