what to do if you think you’re going to get fired

If you suspect you’re in danger of being fired, the worst thing you can do is just sit back and wait for it to happen. Instead, here are 10 concrete steps you should be taking now, before you’re shown the door.

1. Remove personal files and emails from your work computer. Most companies disable computer and network access as soon as an employee is fired, so you may not have the chance to retrieve these items once you’re let go. Email any personal items to yourself—and erase anything that you don’t want your employer seeing once you’re gone.

2. Take home your personal belongings. If you’re fired, you’re likely to be given only a short amount of time to pack up your personal items—often with company security standing over you. At that point, you’re probably going to be desperate to get out of the office and won’t feel like dealing with your collection of blown-glass Star Wars figurines or tracking down where you left your college fraternity mug. So if you see a termination coming, plan ahead and take some of that home now.

3. Take home work samples and contact information. If you want to have samples of your work to show future employers, take them home now, since you might not have the opportunity once you’re fired. (Make sure you’re not violating your employment agreement by doing this.) Make sure you also have contact information for any colleagues, vendors, or clients who you might want to reach out to for networking purposes after you’re gone.

4. Imagine hearing the words “we’re letting you go.” Actually hearing those words can be a real emotional blow. And if you’re caught off guard, there’s a higher chance of saying something that you’ll later regret. As satisfying as it might be to go on a bitter rampage about everything that’s wrong with your boss and your company, you need to protect your reputation by exiting professionally. A classy exit can garner you future recommendations from coworkers and even your boss; a bitter, hostile exit closes that door for good. So figure out ahead of time how you’ll control your emotions and what you’ll say to exit with class.

5. Think through logistics ahead of time. For instance, you’ll want to ask whether they’re offering you a severance package, how long your health care coverage will last, when you’ll receive your last check, and what they’ll say to future employers who call for a reference.

6. If there’s any reason you might need to take legal action later, collect relevant documents now. If bringing legal action is a real possibility, take home a copy of the employee manual, copies of any relevant emails or memos, and anything else you would need to prove your case later. Because it’s costly and can take years, legal action should be a last resort (and employees often assume things are illegal that actually aren’t), but if you think you have a case, this may be your only opportunity to assemble helpful documentation. (It can also give you leverage to negotiate a better severance package.)

7. Get your finances in order. Don’t wait until your paychecks stop coming in. Stop any unnecessary spending, and sock away as much money as you can. If you’re planning to do something that depends on being employed (such as refinancing a mortgage), do it now.

8. Investigate how unemployment compensation works in your state. Learn about eligibility requirements and how to apply. If you’re fired, you’ll want to apply immediately, because the sooner you do, the sooner you’ll start receiving benefits.

9. If you’ve been putting off any health care appointments, make them now. Get your doctor and dentist appointments in while you still have insurance. (You can also choose to extend your coverage after leaving your company, through the federal program COBRA.)

10. Remember that you’re not alone. Lots of good people before you have been fired. Steve Jobs was once fired!  So was New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg. Harry Potter author JK Rowling once got fired too. Getting fired doesn’t make you a failure; it’s just a tough break, one that you’ll bounce back from.

I originally published this at U.S. News & World Report.

{ 46 comments… read them below }

  1. GeekChic*

    As the IT person assigned to clear out employee computers and folders on our shared network, PLEASE listen to #1 “Remove personal files and emails”. I so don’t want to see the love letters, bizarre pictures or diet tracking Excel sheets.

    1. Jamie*

      I second that. People think IT loves to snoop, but the reverse is really true. We don’t want to see anything that will color our opinion of you (or add to our workload).

      I once cleaned out a computer of someone who had left the company years before I started (previous IT didn’t clean and wipe…just created a new profile and passed along – ugh) and found over 1800 saved pics of Tim McGraw. Now, far be it from me to judge the pics people use for wallpaper…but 1800? That’s a glimpse into crazy of a woman I’ve never met.

      1. Jaime*

        OMG, I am laughing so hard right now. Aside from the stalker level devotion indicated by 1800 photos – how much work-time did that take to find and save that many pics? O_O

      2. Talyssa*

        well… they’re a LITTLE nosy. Our desktop support guy used to go straight to the picture folder of anyone whos laptop ever got turned in.

        Best (..sort of) thing he ever found were pictures of what we ASSUME was a pile of cocaine on a coffee table – including pictures of the former employee standing next to it, etc. They’d done things like put a coke can in it so you could see the scale and stuff, and taken TONS of pictures posing with it. Obviously we don’t know for sure what it was but I can’t imagine what else a huge pile of white powder would be in that context.

        He also found lingerie pictures of one guy’s wife but at least that’s not flat out ILLEGAL activity. Although the same guy also had a thong in his laptop bag.

  2. Anon*

    Taking a list of clients is usually not a good idea. Companies usually consider this a trade secret.

  3. Jamie*

    Good advice to email your personal emails to yourself so you have them.

    Word of caution – most IT will look and see what else you’ve been forwarding to your personal email account. You’d be surprised how many people forward data they have no business taking with them.

  4. Diana*

    “…you wouldn’t believe some of the stuff I’ve found on employees’ computers after they were let go”

    Spill! Er, I meant, please share. :)

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      Well, I can’t top Jamie’s Tim McGraw story, but I’ve found or seen found:

      – highly sexual email exchanges that made it clear the person was sleeping with a coworker
      – emails complaining about everything under the sun in a petty, juvenile way that made it impossible to think well of that person afterwards
      – evidence that the person spent huge amounts of the workday shopping, emailing with friends, etc.
      – porn
      – a Kim Kardashian “fit in your jeans” workout DVD (left in the CD drive of a male employee)
      – really personal exchanges with a significant other

      1. Anonymous*

        I will never, ever understand the porn-at-work thing. Seriously? I get nervous even going to Google News occasionally during the day and there are people WATCHING PORN? Good lord.

        1. Piper*

          I was working in the creative department of a large company and we often required pictures of product from the marketing managers.

          One time, a marketing manager gave us a disk of product pictures (or so he thought). We opened it up and it had the product pictures, but it also had several folders of porn, too. He must have accidentally grabbed those folders when copying the product files to the disk. Because porn was definitely not the product we were selling.

          To this day (this was 3 years ago), we make fun of this guy (behind his back, of course, because we never told him about our find).

          1. Anonymous*

            Even though it wasn’t on a computer, I have to share the worst “horrified HR person” story that I know.

            A friend I know worked in a very casual sort of office with a real nutter. Eventually this guy physically attacked a manager, and the company was so intimidated by him, instead of firing him and pressing charges, they gave him a year of paid leave (with benefits!) after which he’d no longer be working for the company. His desk reflected his mental state, and it was stacked with mountains of trash and papers. A poor HR person was assigned to come box up his belongings and ship them to his home address so that he would not be back on the premises, and she miserably began tackling the mess. There were dirty food containers that had mold on them and other unpleasant discoveries, and the HR person was practically in tears.

            Now, about six months prior, there had been a health day at the company, and as part of it, there was a group handing out free condoms. My friend had taken one, and being a bit of a smart ass, he’d left it opened up on the crazy guy’s desk with a small container of lotion, and some sort of teasing note. This joke was well-received at the time, and they’d all enjoyed a good laugh that day. Only, somehow the note had ended up being tossed out, but the condom and lotion remained. The HR person lifted up a stack of papers, and immediately jumped to the absolute worst conclusion possible and shrieked in horror. At that point my friend and his coworkers who also knew the backstory realized that the HR person was so upset that they were all afraid that if they confessed what it really was, they’d end up being officially reprimanded, so they all kept quiet and left the HR person believing that these products had been used by the terminated employee. The one thing they remember her saying was “They don’t pay me enough to have to deal with this!!!!”

      2. Anonymous*

        I don’t get why someone not wishing to see such things would be looking in the first place. A wipe and reinstall does not require anyone to pick over the hard drive’s content in search of things which can become fodder for blog postings.

        1. Ask a Manager* Post author

          Sometimes you have no choice, because you need to get key files and emails that will be transferred to the person’s successor or whoever is taking over their projects. Or you need to go through it to see where various projects stand, what’s still outstanding, etc.

          1. Anonymous*

            Sometimes people could also use the ‘search’ function to go directly to what they want. Or require work documents to be saved to the network shares. Don’t have either of these? Well, that’s hardly the responsibility of the person who was just fired. Of course, following either of these two obvious and simple steps would cut down on the amount of gossip which could be ‘accidentally’ discovered later.

    2. Anonymous*

      Is this where I get to share my story of my Former Boss of Horror? After some disaster and it was clear there was a bunch of bad the org let him go. It fell on me to clean everything up. He never came into the office to retrieve anything and was fired when he wasn’t there. He clearly wasn’t prepared for this. Over the next 2 months I cleaned his office, his files, all the files and trash (quite literally) he’d accumulated from 4 years of working there. I found lots of clothes, his and others. I found food, years old. I found reams of print outs of casual connections types of hook up information. I found recepits for hotels he’d stayed in, on company money, and the names of the women who’d stayed with him. (And yes he was a married man.) And then it started to get better. I found his prn collection. I found printed items. And then I found his own personal collection. And then I found condoms.

      There are not enough words in this world for how far above my pay grade those last couple months there were!

      And, yes, I actually had to go thru all of it because it would be like date site hook up, grant acceptance letter, photo, invoice for copier paper with condom stuck to it. I had to touch every single item in that office.

      I drank a lot.

  5. Washington*

    Regarding the emailing of personal docs: I do this at least once every 3 months, just as a way to keep myself current. For example, I have a copy of my resume at work that I update whenever I’m assigned a task of significant importance – so I email this to myself once per quarter. I also do like to keep templates of my legal documents (not containing any client information, just boilerplates) so that I can take them with me to my next job. I learned to do these things when my mom saw her termination from her job coming – she started emailing everything to herself at home and is glad she did – cause a week later, she was fired.

    But beware, as Jamie said – having an IT employee for a husband, he has told me about all sorts of weird crap they’ve found on people’s computers after they left, and one person they actually did sue for taking client information (which they found out because he emailed himself from his work account).

  6. Anonymous*

    I had to have a discussion the other week about not conducting discussions with a potential new employer… over their work email account with their current employer.

    They hadn’t even resigned yet!

  7. Anonymous*

    Don’t use your work email for personal reasons. Ever. More and more companies, and nearly all government entities, are archiving all emails. Government entities must for freedom-of-information requests. We keep ours for 10 years. That’s 10 years of your “hey buddy, what do you think of this eBay purse?” emails. Logged. On the server. Use gmail and your phone. Please.

    1. bob*

      That is a must at least for publicly traded companies due to the Sarbanes-Oxley regulations so if you’re working for a public company stop emailing crap now!

  8. just another hiring manager...*

    While this is good info if you think you might be getting canned, I was expecting something more constructive along the lines of “get your act together so you don’t get fired” from you AAM.

    1. Anonymous*

      In my experience it’s tough to recover once you’ve gotten to the point where you’re likely to be fired. Often, probation really means “we’d like to fire you now but have this damn action plan to walk through first”. You’re usually better off putting your effort towards planning a smooth and quick exit.

  9. De Minimis*

    Great advice.

    I was in the situation of seeing a firing coming at least a few months in advance. It was the type of environment where they did all their firings around the same time of year, and I already knew I most likely was not someone they planned to keep around [they’d quit giving me work and didn’t respond to my reaching out to see if there was anything I could help with.]

    When the day finally came, I’d already taken my personal stuff home long before, so it was a simple matter of handing in my laptop and filling out some paperwork. I can’t agree more with the need to prepare mentally for when it happens. In most cases, the actual firing is not done in a way where you can know in advance, you usually get maybe a couple of minutes notice. It is highly stressful even when the employer tries to be sensitive about it. It would be a million times worse if you haven’t at least thought about what it’s going to feel like.

    I did have some personal stuff on my computer, but not a whole lot, and nothing nearly that embarrassing.

  10. JessA*

    What would you recommend in a situation where you get laid off but because you deal with confidential information you can’t really provide samples of your work? In the past, when this happened to me, I created a mock up of what such documentation would look like with either made up numbers or blanks. Is there a better way?

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      You don’t always need to provide samples. I’d either provide real redacted samples or probably not worry about it at all … although if they specifically request to see something and you can’t provide real redacted ones, recreating it could be the way to go.

      1. Another Anon*

        I had great luck with that. On request I said, “I can’t give you a sample of my real work. It belongs to my last employer and I’m not permitted to share it.” So the hiring manager said, “Mock up a sample of your work.” So I did. I’m not sure if it was the sample or the ethics but something about that got me the job.

  11. LP*

    One thing I would add to this list is getting your work in order. Very few people have fully organised files or information, and you may be the only one to know certain contacts/details/website login information. Get all of this in order so that everything is easy to find and continue with when you’re not there. Also, depending on your role, consider writing guides to common tasks that others won’t know how to complete. Helping the company isn’t the thing most people will think of or want to do if they’re going to be fired, but it will help you in the long run – it will reflect well on you and your time there.

    1. Mike C.*

      If there are issues with a lack of knowledge or skills, it’s the responsibility of management to ensure that those needs are taken care of, not the person who was just fired. They are the ones who make the decisions about hiring and firing people, and they need to live with the consequences of those decisions. Doing what amounts to free work is simply crazy.

      1. LP*

        I didn’t mean writing the guides in your own time. For simple tasks a procedure could be written out in 5-10 minutes, which most people could find time for in their work day. I agree that lack of knowledge or skills is a problem for management to deal with and it’s not something you need to spend your time trying to fix. But, if you come across something that could help by being written down, then I think it’s a good idea to write it down. I guess I’m thinking more along administration lines, where you might be the only one to know certain passwords or ordering procedures. It will take a lot of time for them to reset passwords and figure out processes compared to you just writing it down.

        1. Anonymous*

          I guess I’m thinking more along administration lines, where you might be the only one to know certain passwords or ordering procedures. It will take a lot of time for them to reset passwords and figure out processes compared to you just writing it down.

          If the firing manager neglects to get those beforehand, just how is it the responsibility of the person being fired to volunteer them?

    2. bob*

      Mmmmmm… I’d have to say if they’re at the point of actually firing you (not just a lay off) you probably won’t change their minds at all by that point and they probably won’t care.

      1. LP*

        I agree – they’re still going to fire you. But if everything is in order when you leave, it looks like you’ve been super organised. I’ve seen staff leave (though it was voluntary) with poorly organised information and customers left hanging. This caused a lot of hassle for management and it affected the reference they received. This probably applies more for lay-offs or voluntary departure rather than firing though. They may not notice if you leave everything well organised, but they will care if it’s not.

        1. Long Time Admin*

          LP, I get what you’re saying. I’ve made many a Desk Manual for jobs that I left. One time, I had a long term temp job, which I was leaving for a permanent job. The company hired a new temp before I left, so that I could train her (almost unheard of!), and she was so grateful for the Desk Manual that she brought me flowers. Made me cry, too. I wanted to stay and work with her, she was so nice.

          I just think back to all the jobs and temp assignments I’ve had where there was practically no helpful instruction or information, and it makes me glad for every time I’ve done it.

    3. KellyK*

      I think those are excellent things to do when you’re leaving voluntarily. Mike has a point that you shouldn’t do free work for a company that’s firing, you, though. If getting those things in order doesn’t impact the other things you need to work on or result in you doing extra, free work, sure, it’s a good thing to do.

  12. Anonymous*

    I have a lot of experience with this subject. I also work in IT and am involved in most firings and lay-offs. I move around a lot between jobs on contracts and have been involved in a few hundred of these over just the past few years. These are my initial thoughts:

    1. Don’t sign anything the day of the termination. Ask for a copy to take home and tell ’em you’ll stop in tomorrow. If they insist on having you sign it now or won’t give you a copy, I would have serious doubts about ever signing it.
    2. Think twice about being offered the chance to resign. I witnessed several people doing this and then the company successfully stopped them from getting unemployment. One person was out of work for 6 months and lost her house. And forced to resign is only a hair better than fired to employers.
    3. Take your possessions home but not all of them. I would empty your drawers but leave a picture or two on your desk. It only takes a second to throw a couple of things in your purse and walk out. An empty desk looks odd and you don’t want to draw attention to yourself during mass lay-offs.
    4. If they ask you to do ANYTHING, ask for something in return. What do you have to lose? Are they gonna fire you or lay you off a second time? Sign a non-disclosure agreement? Sure, if you continue my benefits another 3 months.
    5. If you’re leaving on somewhat good terms and have a lot of vacation I’ve seen people get their employment extended instead of getting a lump sum payment. Aside from keeping your benefits, the best part is you’re officially still employed while you job hunt.

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      “If they ask you to do ANYTHING, ask for something in return. What do you have to lose? Are they gonna fire you or lay you off a second time? Sign a non-disclosure agreement? Sure, if you continue my benefits another 3 months.”

      Yes. This. Be polite and pleasant, but there is no reason that you should sign anything without getting something in exchange, like severance or extended benefits.

  13. class factotum*

    In 1996, I was a temp employee at the World Bank. I subbed for a secretary in the China department and spent a lot of time on her internet, as I had only about two hours of work a day. (I don’t know if the actual secretaries had 8 hours of work or if everyone was underworked and overpaid, but I didn’t notice the regular secretaries working too hard.)

    She had bookmarked several porn sites. I can never unsee what I saw. And I will always wonder why someone that stupid had a $70,000 a year job doing almost nothing.

    1. Mike C.*

      A strong belief in the idea that they’ll never be caught drives lots of people to do some really dumb things.

  14. Rachel*

    I would recommend that everyone (whether they think they’ll be fired or not), keep a list of personal items that are in your office at all times. That way if you get fired and say aren’t allowed back in, you don’t have to remember what was yours. Or if something happens to you. It will also help avoid any discussion of what really belongs to you if you have a list ready. That way people can’t accuse you of taking more just because you’re angry.

    1. Anonymous*

      I guess that is useful for some, but to me a list seems like overkill. They can have anything on my desk. There is nothing here of any value that is not in my bag.

  15. White Knight*

    So here’s something you might be able to do in the face of work place privacy: If you have access to a USB stick, and your employer allows personal USB connections as a policy, then I’d recommend that you download one of the free versions of Linux, or install your favourite version of Windows on the USB stick and insert that into your work place computer. I would then suggest you boot the operating system from the USB stick; anything like Internet, email and all matters that you want private and personal are accessed to, or from, from that device. This way, so long as _You_ own the device, and you control what data and information you wish to assign to that USB device, your personal data and your privacy will remain personal to you. You might wish to encrypt your internet connection to and from your personal data and I’d recommend using software called TOR.

    Here is a link to download free Linux operating systems: http://www.pendrivelinux.com/#From-Windows
    (Linux are no longer the ugly, clumsy, difficult to use operating systems, these days they have sophisticated user interfaces, that are easy to use).

    Here is a link to download Tor: https://www.torproject.org/download/download.html.en

    Final point, never use your employers information technology for your personal use.

  16. Welsh Gal xx*


    I have a question to ask to find out some opinions because I may be facing disclipinary or getting fired!

    I was out with some work collegues due to a leaving party which involved some of us getting ready at work and having some drinks while we waited on our taxi to take us to the local club.

    I drank more than I should of and I was working at 8am the next morning. Before I got into work I had vomitted several times and on arrival to work I continusly vomitted.

    My boss knew we had all been out the night before and asked me how I was when she came in around 11am. I told her id been sick several times and felt crap! She said I could go home as I wasnt feeling well.

    I am now worried my job is on the line. Is there a possibility I could get fired? When in contact with my boss today, as she told me to let her know how I was feeling the next day, she seemed okay with me, not acting out of the ordinary. Should I be worried for my job?


Comments are closed.