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You're Fired (Part 2—The Five Things You Must Do Right Away)

Vivia Chen

May 7, 2013

This is the second installment in a series on getting fired. Part 1—What to Expect When You're Getting Axed—appeared yesterday.

©-Ljupco-Smokovski---Fotolia.comYou know something is fishy when your boss invites the guy from H.R. to join in the meeting. They nod as you enter the room; then the H.R. guy get ups and shuts the door.

Yup—you are getting fired. You feel sick to your stomach. Now what?

Chances are you're in shock. So take a deep breath and take note of the following when you are in that unpleasant, awkward situation:

1. First, stay calm, shut up, and listen. It's vital to pay attention to the termination meeting—particularly, if you feel the firing was unfair and might warrant legal action, says Katherine Kimpel, managing partner of Sanford Heisler's Washington, D.C., office. "A smart employee will keep emotions in check and will try to use that meeting to get details on why they are being terminated. Employees should be polite and measured in the meeting and document what happened in the meeting. Those records will be very valuable if they end up talking to a lawyer later on."

2. Don't sign anything too soon. Don't be pressured into signing the termination papers, severance agreement, confidentiality agreement, or anything else on the spot. Take the papers, read them carefully at home, and consult an employment lawyer.

Though some employers have papers ready for the employee to sign, it's a bad practice, says management lawyer Steven Swirsky, a partner at Epstein Becker Green: "The employee is in shock, and can argue that it wasn't informed consent."

What's more, says Swirsky, employees over the age of 40 are protected by the Older Worker Benefit Protection Act amendments, which "require that the terminating employee be advised of his right to consult with an attorney and be given a minimum of 21 days to consider the agreement and release."

3. Negotiate for the best deal possible. You're fired, but that doesn't mean you have zero leverage. You can—and should—negotiate for better severance, additional time to use the office phone and email, and other benefits. Certainly, it never hurts to ask.

What might prompt your employer to give you a better package? One consideration is whether you might have some grounds to sue. Corporate Counsel advises employers to ask: "Has that person taken any sort of leave in the past year? Have they filed a workers' comp claim? Have they had a baby? Are they over 40? What is their racial or ethnic or national origin background? Have they recently complained about something?"

4. Make sure you know what a future reference will say. Luckily, the trend is to give prospective employers just the basic facts about the employment. "My advice is that employers have a standard practice in place as to what they will provide—dates of employment, last position held, final compensation—and that they stick to this in all cases," says Swirsky. Moreover, he adds, make sure that only the human resource department responds to reference requests.

5. Don't burn your bridges. As angry as might feel about getting axed, try to leave on a high note. And though it would be cathartic to tell off the jerks you worked for and leave in a blaze of glory, don't do it. Some of your former bosses might be squash buddies with someone you'll be interviewing with in the future. And, believe it or not, some of those jerks could help you land another job.

You never know.

·        Related posts: Wave Bye-Bye; She Bites.


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The need to not burn bridges has its limits, and varies according to one's position in their career.

I was fired by one law firm after an extremely productive, effective, and lucrative (for the firm, not for me) tenure there, for irrational reasons cited by an incompetent partner with whom I didn't get along but who opted not to be in the room when another partner informed me. The partner who informed me was clueless about the issues the other partner was criticizing me for, so when I cut him off by rebutting the criticism point by point, he couldn't respond and all but agreed with me. Ultimately, the only reason he could sputter out for letting me go was some mumbo-jumbo about it "not being a good fit."

Since I had worked very hard for these jerks and was already feeling unfairly treated from their bonuses a few months earlier, the fact that they'd irrationally fire me in such a cowardly and insincere manner fueled a rage within me. I reacted that day with dignity, and was cordial as I packed my things and left. But my disgust of that firm hasn't subsided. And guess what? I've since moved on to bigger and better things in a position where that firm now depends on my organization for some of its business. I'll just leave it at that.

We all have our sense of what's most important. As an insurance firm, we're perhaps more obsessed with the urgency of insurance questions than most people. Still, even accounting for our own bias there, I do think that a lawyer who has been fired needs to look into the liability insurance situation ASAP. I'm not saying it's one of the five things to do immediately, but it's vitally important not to let coverage lapse. If that happens and the retroactive date resets on you, this could be a problem in the long run.

Certainly, it's not as urgent as the more "in the moment" type of things you're talking about, but it is something a lawyer might not think about until it's too late, at which point a lawyer might find herself without coverage for cases arising from work done before the new retroactive date. Rule of thumb: never let coverage lapse until you're ready to get out of the profession for good, at which point buy a policy with "tail" coverage that will cover you work past work well into the future.

This is all excellent advice. I want to add something small, but important, a traumatized person might resist. If for some reason you did not bring paper and pen to the meeting, ask the people who are firing you (yes, them) if you can have some. Note taking is not only good for a possible negotiation or later legal action. It may be good to study your notes later for self-improvement. If you were fired for sensible reasons, it will still hurt and may seem unfair, but you can learn from the experience.

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The Careerist takes an inside look at how lawyers shape their careers and manage their lives. The blog aims to dissect developments in the profession, provide useful information and advice, and give lawyers a platform to voice their views. The goal is to provide a fresh, provocative take on the state of lawyering.

About Vivia Chen

Vivia Chen

Vivia Chen, The Careerist's chief blogger, has been covering the business and culture of law firms for a decade. A former corporate lawyer, Chen is fascinated by those who thrive (as well as those who don't) in the legal profession. Her take: Success in the law (and life) doesn't always travel a linear path. If you have topics you'd like to discuss or information to share, contact her: [email protected]

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