help! I think I’m going to be fired

A reader writes:

I am having a hard time in my job, and I’m worried I’m going to be fired. I’m doing my best, but I just can’t seem to meet my manager’s expectations. I’m still trying to improve, but I’m sensing that she might be losing patience with me. Is it better to quit now or wait and end up getting fired?


What a tough spot to be in. But the good news (if you can call it that) is that you don’t need to just sit and wait. You can take some control over the situation by having a candid conversation with your manager. Here’s how.

1. Go to your manager with your guard down. Tell her that you know she hasn’t been happy with your performance and that you’d like her advice on how to improve. Be clear in your own head that this conversation is not about defending yourself, even if you ultimately become convinced she’s wrong in her assessment. Rather, this step is simply about hearing what she’s saying, correct or not, because even if she’s objectively wrong, you need to fully grasp her answer in order to figure out the best step for yourself.

2. Whether or not you think your manager’s assessment is correct, the reality is that her assessment likely has more weight than your own in determining whether you ultimately succeed in your job. So, now that you know her take, ask yourself: Can you do what’s being asked? And do you want to do what’s being asked? There’s no shame in deciding you can’t or don’t want to. The key is to be honest with yourself about it.

3. In some cases, truly hearing your manager’s feedback and trying to implement it will help you turn things around, so don’t discount this possibility.

4. But in other cases, you may decide that you can’t do what your manage expects. In that case, there’s an untraditional—but often surprisingly effective—approach you might consider. Go back to her and say something like: “I appreciate you being candid with me about your concerns. I’m going to continue to do my best, but it sounds like we should be realistic about the possibility this won’t work out. I wonder if we can make arrangements now to plan for a transition that will be as smooth as possible for both of us. Would you be willing to work with me while I conduct a job search? That will help me, and it will give you time to search for a replacement and have a smooth transition, and I can be as involved as you’d like in bringing the new person up to speed.”

Many managers are likely to hear this with relief. No one wants to fire someone if it can be avoided. By making it easy for your boss to end the relationship and offering terms that help you both, you’re maximizing the chance that she’ll work with you in the way you’ve proposed. You get some grace time to find a new job, you won’t have to explain a firing in future job searches, and you’ll gain more control over the situation.

(But a key disclaimer: You should take your knowledge of your company and manager into account before doing this, because some might respond with, “It sounds like you’re resigning, and we’ll accept that.” Proceed with caution, and let your knowledge of your employer be your guide.)

Overall, though, the key to all of this is to listen with an open mind and be honest with yourself. Don’t ignore warning signs in the hope that you can somehow muddle through. Be proactive, know there’s no shame in things not working out, and tackle the situation head-on.

{ 25 comments… read them below }

  1. De Minimis*

    Thought it was good advice…been in a similar situation.

    I would add though if a person is fairly new to their job they may not have a good sense of how their boss might react to their proposing a transition plan, in that case I’d recommend they do as best they can to improve, but at least begin to search for another job, just in case.

    I don’t know if quitting without another job lined up is ever a good idea, except in the most extreme of situations.

  2. Ursula*

    I have a coworker who often comes to me saying that she’s sure she’s going to be fired by one of her bosses because of some perceived shortness in emails or something along those lines. I always give her just this advice – talk to them. “I get the feeling that you’re not happy with my work lately. Is that true? What can I do to remedy the situation?” She has a strong track record of really good, solid work.
    The truth is that it is much easier to find a solution together than it is to hire an unknown quantity, particularly when an employer knows that you’ve got it in you to be great.
    I went through a couple of months recently when I know I was doing shoddy work – not following up, being late with projects. I slapped myself in the face, figured out what I was doing wrong, came up with a solution and initiated a conversation with my manager about it. I think he was relieved to not have to bring it up with me and pleased that recognized it and had a solution.

    1. Ruffingit*

      Yeah, that was my thought as well. Transition plan is fine, but I can’t see an employer doing that for a long period of time if they’re already unhappy with your work. Seems to me you’d be better off at least having some interviews lined up already before suggesting the transition plan and quite honestly, I’ve never known any employer who would do this. Most of the ones I’ve encountered (both my own and through friends) don’t care to have you help transition a new employee in your place. They’re not happy with your work already so they don’t want you to assist with a new employee lest you “poison” them with the same issues they don’t like about you and/or tell them bad things about the employer, etc.

      I suppose there is some employer out there who would be accepting of a transition plan like this, but I don’t know any of them myself. I’d love to hear if this has actually worked for anyone.

      1. Leslie Yep*

        But aren’t you at least a bit better off than if you were fired outright? You are 2-3 months further into your job search, you have a relatively firm end date and time to save some additional money, and hopefully you have changed the narrative from being fired to mutually deciding it wasn’t the right fit.

        1. Ruffingit*

          Anything is better than being fired outright probably, but my point is that I’ve never known an employer to accept a transition plan generally because they don’t want the current “not working out/bad” employee to be involved with the new person they want to bring on board. Could be that there are employers that do this, I’ve just never seen it, which is why I asked if anyone has seen this actually work successfully.

          It’s also why I said that if the OP is going to suggest a transition plan, she should at least have some interviews lined up before doing it because it’s quite possible that the employer will say “Nope, leave now (or in two weeks).” I just don’t think suggesting a transition plan is the way to go until you have some possibilities of places YOU can transition to yourself because it’s a huge gamble on whether the employer will accept it. I do think the OP should talk to the employer though as Alison suggested. I’m just taking issue with the transition plan thing.

          1. Leslie Yep*

            Ah, I see. I have seen this work in my workplace, though you’re right, there’s often intentionally no overlap between the departing employee and the new one. It does allow for a nice long period of closing out work and creating a really strong transition plan/role guide.

          2. some1*

            I’ve seen companies actively look to replace a certain employee, and only plan to keep the employee around until a replacement is found, but the employee never knows about it.

            1. Jessa*

              Exactly. The issue if you try to transition is you can’t always predict what they are going to do about it. And they are going to do whatever they think is in their interest with or without warning you as to the timetable.

        2. De Minimis*

          I think if it’s possible for a person to collect unemployment, being fired outright is preferable to quitting without a job. A lot would depend on how much interest you receive from other employers during the transition period.

          I tend to agree that it’s best to already be looking for a while prior to even bringing up the idea of a transition plan, unless you have very solid evidence that your employer is likely to go along with the plan.

          I sort of had a de-facto transition plan at a former job. Nothing was said explicitly, but I was not given any projects for a few months prior to being let go [and attempts on my part to find new work did not seem to go anyplace.] I gather they were trying to give me time to find something else, which was decent of them. I think they also had a policy to not let people go before they completed at least one year, for fear that potential new employees would find out about it.

          1. Jennifer*

            You get unemployment for being laid off, but you don’t get it for being fired for cause (at least not in my state).

            1. Jamie*

              In Illinois you get it for being fired unless its a case of gross misconduct.

              I.e. if I’m a bad fit or even a slacker I would get it if let go. If I was fired for tagging the dock doors or punching someone n the face I would not. The bar for gross misconduct is really high – usually situations where law enforcement would be involved. Theft, vandalism, violence, etc.

      2. HR Lady*

        Ruffingit wrote ” I’ve never known any employer who would do this” [accept a transition plan]. I work in HR and I’ve seen transition plans work several times over the years. I think most of them were people who were not entry level – in other words, someone who isn’t easy to replace.

        Also, the “transition plans” always have an end date – we wouldn’t accept an open ended situation. That is, we don’t let the person say “I’ll keep working here until I find another job.” They’d have to negotiate a final date – typically one to two months after the discussion about the transition plan [with the understanding that they’ll leave sooner if they find a new job sooner]. But I’ve seen longer time periods for a higher-level employee.

        1. Ruffingit*

          It’s interesting to know there are places where this has been done and worked. And I can see the closed-ended thing as no one would want such a thing to go on indefinitely.

  3. Bryce*

    Alison, I really like the proposed script you lay out for a planned transition. I do have to say that it may be possible to negotiate being let go as opposed to quitting outright during the transition period, so that you can collect unemployment benefits. Some organizations will be OK with this, others won’t.

    (IMPORTANT! I am NOT a lawyer or HR expert; I am also not YOUR lawyer or HR expert; so talk to a lawyer or HR expert in your state before you take action.)

    If you’re concerned that it may “look bad” that you were fired as opposed to quitting, today’s economy means that Something Very Bad had to happen to make you quit without anything lined up.
    So, being let go doesn’t look as bad as it used to.

    During the transition, I’d take these steps:

    1. Get any medical, dental, vision things taken care of; e.g., your annual wellness exam, tooth cleanings, new glasses, etc. while you’re still employed and on your employer’s health plan.

    2. Look at any ways you can cut back your spending. Even little things like getting your coffee from home instead of Starbucks, brown-bagging it or switching to a more basic cable/phone plan help.

    3. Get your resume and LinkedIn profile tuned up.

    4. Talk to potential references to ask if they’d be comfortable giving you a solid reference. As far as your current boss goes, you can negotiate that when the time comes to leave, or you can also ask peers.

    5. Make sure you have things like interview suits, personal business cards, etc. lined up.

    6. Tell your family/friends about this situation so that they know what’s going on.

  4. Stephanie*

    OP, don’t quit first! As painful as this sounds, I think you’d be better off just getting fired. You can still collect unemployment if you quit, but usually the onus is on you to prove the situation untenable (e.g., they were about to fire you anyway, they were making you do illegal things, etc). With a firing, usually the state office just has to call the verify that you weren’t fired for embezzling funds or something. It does sound kind of dumb to do that for a tiny of amount of benefits, but that small amount can take off some of the financial strain. Plus, it’s really hard trying to explain why you just “left” a job in a right economy.

    In the meantime:
    1. Get an honest assessment of your performance and if you are on the way out.
    2. Get all your medical appointments out the way now. Your employer may not extend the insurance 30 days past your last day.
    3. I would get a suit, haircut, etc now while you still have income.
    4. Apply, apply, apply now. I managed to get an interview the day after my last day because I saw the writing on the wall.

    1. HR Lady*

      Just wanted to mention that in some states (including mine) it would be very hard to get unemployment if you quit. In the situation the OP described, if OP quit, he/she wouldn’t qualify for unemployment in my state (of course, I’m just basing this on the information the OP gave).

    2. Stephanie*

      *tight economy

      I’ve been in this situation before and ended up “quitting” because the only benefit to getting fired was that I got a COBRA subsidy. But half the time, employers assumed I was fired anyway. As HR Lady mentioned, I had a hell of a time proving to the UI office that my quitting was constructive discharge (I basically had to fax over the HR letter saying “quit or we fire you.”)

      I think it’s also a bit easier to spin a firing. Short of some jobs known for high turnover or burnout (attorney or management consultant jobs come to mind), it’s hard to spin quitting without sounding flaky (just since the employer doesn’t have both sides of the story).

  5. Karen*

    I think it’s great that you can sense that you think you might be fired. I was fired about 5 years ago, and boy do I wish I was “aware” of all the tell-tale signs. I was 28 at the time, and I guess a little too young to recognize the warning signs.

    Fast forward to the present, and when I reflect on the time spent on the job that fired me, all the warning signs were there. Certain projects were no longer being assigned to me. Management seemed to be a little bit more involved in my work. Note: I was never put on a PIP. and I wish that I was. Anyways, when I got fired they claimed “I was no longer a good fit.” …right, after 2 years they finally decided that??!!??

  6. Steve G*

    I think this is such a relevant question, reminds me of a coworker of mine who, with their not knowing it, keeps dodging the bullet. I know there situation would be so much better if they stopped pretended they are doing good work and just went to the Director and admitted that they aren’t comfortable doing part of the job and don’t know how to do other parts, etc. and start an open dialogue – as opposed to not doing much work and hoping the Director doesn’t realize it

  7. Sweet and Petite*

    It looks like you and I are in the same boat. I plan on hanging in there for as long as I can. Honestly, I don’t think the boss is going to keep me much longer, considering she suspended me until further notice(It was for something small. She told me to call her in two weeks. I asked corporate if it was justifiable. Right now, I’m waiting on a reply.). I have already began job searching, just in case she decides to set me free.

  8. jennifer*

    My immediate supervisor’s management technique is to threaten you that you might get fired everytime you do anything wrong…and how nice that there is no training involved. Also the business needs us to bring in more clients or our dept will need to be “downsized”. It is a law firm – we have the choice of taking a personal hit if clients dont return paperwork or come in, or venture into the streets of baltimore city – not compensated for meage or overtime – to get the paperwork done. AND if we dont kwep up with the current cases (which we already struggle with) we also get in trouble. Its a lose-lose situation and i am trying to get out asap – even by going back to my old job. To managers here : what is up with the no positicd feedbak only threaten to fire mgmt technique? Why use it and how serious are mgrs with their threats? I feel everyday that i could be fired on a whim, having nothing to do with my actual performance (in all honesty i am a great, intelligent, caring worker.)

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