Terminated? – Encouragement for Executives Who Find Themselves Released From Employment

Fired. Released. Dismissed. Terminated. Expendable. Not Valuable. Unimportant. Confused. Angry. Lost

You feel like you just got your ass kicked. Blindsided. Possibly betrayed. You have the box of items from your desk. You were top dog a day ago and now you are no dog. You are trying to figure out how to answer the questions of “What happened?” “What will you do next?” “How do you feel?” That’s tough, because you don’t really know the answers yourself.


One of my clients, a high level executive, was terminated a few days ago. I have been angry for the past two days and have struggled to understand my own reaction. The truth is, I’ve walked multiple executives through this path. Mergers happen. Politics exist. Maybe it was a bad fit, and someone had to initiate the break-up. Logically, we understand this. The highest rung of the ladder is not the most stable one, especially if the ladder is built on a shaky foundation. Yet, despite the intellectual understanding, we still struggle with the questions that whisper through the recesses of our mind.“Could I have done something differently?” “Should I have seen this coming?” “I know it is them, but what if it’s me?

About 40 hours, into the analysis of my own angst, I realized why I was angry. The decision was fundamentally unfair. We all know that any expectation of ‘fairness” is a bit childlike; life isn’t fair. And yet, somehow, we still struggle with the emotional aftermath of injustice.

Here is the truth about my client. He was a threat. If he had been a little less intelligent or a little less genuine, his position would have been safe. It takes a person who is grounded, secure, and personally confident to view a smarter colleague as a win-win asset instead of a competitor in a zero sum game. My client is a high performer with high expectations of others and even higher expectations of himself. His expertise and his personality make him stand out. It’s possible that if he would have been a little less insightful, a little less honest…that his items would still be in his desk instead of in a box.

Or maybe not. Sometimes you can blend in like water and someone has a friend that is aligned for your position. You’ve been working hard to build something solid, and your replacement is simply…shinier.

More questions.

“How do I explain this?”

“What about my reputation?”

“Do you know what really makes me angry, Tricia? She is going to say all of these bad things against me that are simply not true. And I won’t be there to defend myself.”

“What if I take my time to find the right opportunity and the opportunities dry up?”

I provide suggestions, give emotional support, ask more questions. I reassure my people that there is a new path, a better fit, more untapped opportunities. And yet, I understand, that deep down, the struggle continues, “Could I have prevented it?”  “Did I handle this the right way?

If someone believes that only bad workers get fired, another question filters through the fog. WHAT IF I’M NOT ENOUGH?  It’s the worst one–the question that we don’t want to discuss, because we fear that if it is true, no one else will want us.

Tips for Coping After You Have Been Terminated

If you are in the no-man’s land of simultaneously knowing that you have skills but questioning everything you know, here are some tips to guide you through.

 1. Look around for all of the high quality people you know who have been in similar situations. Do you think that something is wrong with them?

 2. If one of your former colleagues offers to grab a beer or meet you for lunch, take him or her up on it. Almost all of my clients obtain more information in the next few months that affirms their feelings and concerns. Filling in these blanks will help you to move on. Additionally, whenever we feel vulnerable, we feel alone. Knowing that you are not alone and actually speaking with people who have been through similar situations can be very powerful.

3. If you are blaming yourself, take an objective inventory. What percentage was in your control and what was not? Was the organization healthy? Was the leadership healthy? Did you ignore red flags? Did you try to squeeze yourself into the wrong fit? Did you violate someone’s trust? What did you learn that you can apply later? Get additional perspectives so that you are able to accurately assess the whole situation, not simply your role in it. The beliefs that you walk out with will form your decision-making for the next opportunity; make sure they are correct and useful.

4.  After the first few weeks of “vacation,” when you feel the fear crawling through your mind, make a list of your successes. Look at your resume–not to revise it, but to remember your achievements. There is a reason that you were a top level executive in the first place. Someone else’s decision cannot take that away.

5. If you have not signed the severance package, you may want to have an employment attorney assess it. Sometimes we want to sign, get the money and cut the connection; it’s necessary to make sure the offer is fair. You will want the extra cushion if you are seeking a “right-fit” versus “next job” position. Having said that, do not let it drag out forever. Fighting for the sake of making a point may yield a higher emotional and financial cost than you really want to pay.

6. Surround yourself with the people who love you.