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

If you suspect you’re in danger of being fired, you don’t just need to sit back and wait for it to happen. If you’re proactive about addressing it, you have a pretty good chance of making the situation better for yourself. I’m not saying you can magically keep your job, but you might be able to turn a pretty unpleasant situation into something much more manageable.

Over at Inc. today, I talk about how you might be able to handle the situation proactively and get a better outcome. You can read it here.

{ 70 comments… read them below }

  1. zlionsfan*

    This is pretty much the script I used when I was talking to recruiters during my job search after I was fired several years ago. When they asked me about my previous position, I basically said that it didn’t end the way I would have liked, and when they asked what I would do if I found myself in a similar situation, what I told them is what you described.

    I don’t know for sure what impact that had on the process, but I did get a new job fairly quickly, so even though it might not have helped much, it sure didn’t hurt!

    1. The IT Manager*

      I’m sorry to hear that, BRR. We’re rooting for you to move on to a better fit.

      1. Mike Hornbeck*

        i have a serious question. I was treated by a manager at my job and i was fired is that legal? she called me a dog and told me she would put hers hands on me.

  2. Ed*

    I would be nervous being this candid but I agree it would be by far the best situation for both parties. I would personally be relieved to hear your script from an employee I was planning on firing.

  3. AshleyH*

    As someone who has the unfortunate responsibility of firing people occasionally, if I had someone be this proactive and candid it would be AMAZING! I would definitely work with them for a smooth transition!

  4. grasshopper*

    What about severance? I know that if you’re fired “with cause” you don’t have to get a package, but is it possible that some people might prefer to get fired so that have the chance at getting a package? Or is this advice just a “you can’t fire me, I quit” scenario?

    1. BRR*

      Well legally you’re really not entitled to severance (I think there is an exception for mass layoffs but don’t quote me). If you’re thinking unemployment I know there is wording where you ask to have the company not contest it and get it in writing.

      1. Mike Hornbeck*

        i have a serious question. I was treated by a manager at my job and i was fired is that legal? she called me a dog and told me she would put hers hands on me.

  5. Amber Rose*

    This was basically the advice I gave my husband. It had mixed results. They haven’t fired him, but they also refuse to give constructive feedback. I feel like they enjoy having him constantly afraid for his job. Woo shitty management!

    1. Concerned Citizen*

      Well, living in fear is no way to live at all! He should just find a new opportunity and get away from the fear mongers. In fact someone please tell me why anyone would REALLY think that controlling with fear, intimidation, or just being a jerk would REALLY get them anywhere in the long run. I have seen things come back to roost on such people!

      1. Ruffingit*

        For the first few months I was at my job, my power hungry manager threatened my job and that of my two colleagues regularly. I finally went to him and said “If you’re going to fire me that’s ok, just do so, but please stop threatening my job.” He is still a total ass, but he hasn’t threatened my job since. I think it did help to let him know I wasn’t afraid of that. Took the wind out of his sails a bit. People who get off on threatening someone’s livelihood are jerks. Don’t give them the satisfaction of being afraid.

        1. The_artist_formerly_known_as_Anon-2*


          Yep – once you make your management aware that the worst thing they can do is fire you .. you move on, they’re still stuck in “Loserville” – when you’re 23 and have no responsibilities – the world is at your feet.
          Those wanting to bring you down have the “world” of their little office.

          Keep that in mind – you’ll be fine.

  6. TT*

    I would think that a good manager would be willing to work with an employee if they followed the advice. But there are some folks who just really, really get off on keeping staff nervous and scared.

    1. Anonymous*

      Exactly unfortunately we live in a world where people who hate themselves and have self esteem issues are able to get positions where they have power over people and use that power to control, manipulate, and keep people scared when all they are trying to do is make a honest living

  7. Allison*

    Does anyone know how to deal with paranoia about getting fired? My manager keeps telling me I do good work and I believe her when she says it, but I can’t help but wonder . . . when people go into a meeting looking all serious, are they meeting to figure out what to do about me? When people are whispering about a problem, am I the problem they’re whispering about? I try to tell myself no one’s gonna talk about me out in the open, but still, the fear lingers. It may be because I was fired from my first job, and I’ve tried to be better since then – better work ethic, better attitude, better time management, and holding myself to high standards, but I’m always worried it won’t be enough.

    1. Treena Kravm*

      I think if you’ve followed all the normal advice: being proactive about asking for feedback, getting good feedback, doing your best work etc. then you probably need to talk about this with someone. It can really help to just vent, so even an EAP program might be useful. Good luck!

    2. Xanthippe Lannister Voorhees*

      I have a similar fear. I know I do good work and believe it when my boss praises me, but I’m the newest hire and in the least essential position so when the talk turns to budgets I’m always afraid I’ll be the first thing on the chopping block.

      1. Mike Hornbeck*

        i have a serious question. I was treated by a manager at my job and i was fired is that legal? she called me a dog and told me she would put hers hands on me.

    3. Nervous Accountant*

      This is me.

      In some cases, it has worked out to be me. The one being whispered about, talked to etc.

    4. Ruffingit*

      I was like this in previous jobs, but then I realized this: So what if they are talking about me and/or want to fire me? It is what it is and I can handle it. It helped my workplace paranoia to realize that I can handle it no matter what happens. I no longer live in fear because I also look at the bigger picture, which is that this is not the first job I’ve had and it won’t be the last.

  8. Lily in NYC*

    I saved my own butt when I sensed someone was trying to get me fired. My boss was leaving and this person was going to take over. She hated me because I didn’t bow at her feet (she was never my supervisor). She actually told another coworker that she expected “blind obedience” from her reports and another one got a bad review for smiling too much. She wrote me a fake performance review full of hilarious lies and started working with HR to dump me on the day my boss was going to leave.
    I knew better than to go to our HR dept. I went upstairs to the president’s office and told everything to the chief of staff . She got the fake review from HR and rebutted the claims point by point. Example: she wrote that I was late every day. The dummy didn’t realize our id badges clocked the times we opened doors (the badges unlocked the doors) and the Chief of Staff ran a report that proved I was early every day. Mean Lady got called to a meeting by the president, was told to leave me alone and then HR was told to rip up the fake review and to stop the termination process.
    If I had just left this to HR, I would have been fired. They didn’t even bother to make sure I was being fired for a valid reason and one person ended up getting written up for it (ha!).
    I had to work with Mean Lady for two years after that – and then the best day of my life – she got fired for fraud and was escorted out of the building in front of everyone. Someone else who hated her (everyone did) yelled “Good Riddance” as she walked by and then everyone started clapping.
    It was the craziest thing that has ever happened to me at a job.

    1. Nancie*

      This gives me fond memories of the time a investor-appointed CEO was fired for cause from a company I worked for.

      One of my coworkers brought in an entire sheet cake decorated with “good riddance” the next day.

      1. Rat Racer*

        My “once upon a time I had a crazy boss” was fired – but it was several months after I left the firm. Oh but sometimes I do wish I had hung in there for just a little while longer so that I could have waved her farewell as she packed up her desk. Probably not worth the extra 6 months of misery. Probably…

        1. The_artist_formerly_known_as_Anon-2*

          It isn’t, Rat Racer. Live for yourself, don’t worry about those you left behind – especially your tormenters.

      2. Realistic*

        My (new) boss denied agoraphobia was a “real thing” and so I didn’t need to telecommute 3 days a week in order to do my job the other 2 days a week. We worked in a mental health-related field!! I handed him my resignation while wearing a “people like you are the reason people like me need medication” t-shirt. He got fired 2 days after I resigned, in part because of the legal liabilities he opened the agency up to me around his harassment of me. I was told the rest of my team threw confetti and streamers when he was escorted out of the offices. I so wish I could have seen it!! (This was the guy who said of our homeless services division: “Why are we worried about the homeless in Guam — I mean, what a great place to be homeless, you just sleep on the beach!” ::facepalm::)

        1. The_artist_formerly_known_as_Anon-2*

          He probably got fired for driving you out the door ….

          If someone mercilessly “beats on” a good employee – and then that employee leaves – the boss could go next.
          Unlikely to happen while you’re still there, because middle/upper management must “save face” and stand by the manager.

          But if they see disaster ahead because the “golden egg goose” has left the building, they’ll act quickly – it doesn’t look like a Quid Pro Quo and the bad manager problem is resolved.

    2. puddin*

      Wow! That had to feel sooooo good! You also should really be proud of how you knew how to play the game and protect yourself.

      We did have a manager who was moved from one position to a special project. In the basement. With no direct reports. And no windows. The floor cheered all at once when the email came across. To be fair, he was a smart guy but just liked watching people squirm for some reason.

    3. Not So NewReader*

      Good for you for figuring out what to do and then actually doing it.

      Did you have an idea that the C of S would be supportive or was that a shot in the dark?

      1. Lily in NYC*

        Yes, I knew her pretty well from when she worked in our Mayor’s Office and I was sent to work on a big project there for a few months. I got along well with the people in the president’s office and I knew they hated the mean lady’s guts.

    4. Jeanne*

      Good for you.

      I had a boss who hated me. She attacked me in reviews and made my life hell. I tried to fight back. The reviews were a mess. She had no specifics of what I did wrong or what she wanted me to do better. I had meetings with her and HR. I had to escalate it and finally met with her and a higher HR person. I said that I knew it was legal to harass someone because you don’t like them but I was really disappointed that Company would allow it. They talked about paying me to stay home and job search. But shortly after my boss screwed up. She was caught lying in an email to me. She got promoted (blech) but at least she wasn’t my boss anymore.

      You have to try to stick up for yourself.

      1. Lily in NYC*

        It’s just the worst feeling when your boss hates you. I’m glad you got away from her. But boo that she got promoted.

  9. Brandy*

    Make sure you get everything important or personal off your computer and email. You won’t get time to if you do get fired.

    1. Long Time Reader First Time Poster*

      This is super good advice (also applicable if you are sensing a layoff is eminent) — typically you won’t be able to touch your computer after you come out of your meeting where they let you go.

      Having been laid off several times, I never keep anything personal on my laptop, never use my work email for anything personal, and keep an off-site backup with my portfolio work, copies of my reviews, and contact info for vendors/colleagues I might want to stay in contact with.

      I’m like the doomsday prepper of the workforce.

      1. BeenThere*

        This is me too! It really sucks to have left so many jobs as a result of lay offs. my confidence was destroyed after the third one. Until I found out through back channels it was 100% cost based.

      2. The_artist_formerly_known_as_Anon-2*

        I have a folder here at the house with the contact information of a number of contacts… always good to have.

  10. Rat Racer*

    OK I have a question: I am so very, very confused about this whole “Employment at Will” vs. “Employers worry about getting sued for firing someone.” My understanding is that unless an employee is fired for belonging to a protected class, or for whistle blowing or something, they don’t have any case to bring against their employer. It sounds to me like an employer could fire someone for poor performance, mediocre performance, one bad mistake, etc. Is the issue that employees will sue even if they were fired for perfectly legal reasons?

    I had to fire someone this year – actually I ended up laying her off, and it worked out well for the both of us. When I first told her that the sum of her constant mistakes and mishandlings led me to think that this job wasn’t the right fit, she threatened to sue. I just chalked it up to her being upset (and young). But could she have sued the company? Would a non-charlatan lawyer take on a case like that?

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      With at-will employment in the U.S., an employer can fire for any reason at all or for no reason … unless their reason was a protected characteristic (they fired you because of your race, religion, sex, disability, etc.), or unless it was retaliation against you for making a good faith complaint about harassment or discrimination.

      Employers who worry about getting sued even though they fired for a legal reason are worrying about it because:

      – they did a terrible job of giving feedback/warning the person and thus the person doesn’t believe the reason is the real one … and they assume they since they were never told there were serious problems before, the real reason must be because of their race/sex/disability/etc.

      – they did a terrible job documenting the issues and thus worry that if the person alleges illegal discrimination, they won’t be able to prove otherwise

      – they don’t understand the law (this is really common)

    2. Ask a Manager* Post author

      Oh, and to answer your question about your employee who threatened to sue: Did she say on what grounds? It sounds like she might have just assumed she could sue if she felt the firing was “unfair,” which isn’t correct (but lots of people don’t understand that).

      But if she was alleging that your reason was an illegally discriminatory one, it’s possible that she could have gotten a lawyer to take it on. At that point, you’d respond with evidence that it wasn’t (which is where documentation becomes really helpful).

      1. Rat Racer*

        She felt it was unfair because, although I had been giving her lots of feedback and telling her that her work wasn’t meeting my expectations (and why) I did not say: “…and this is becoming a pattern and a serious problem that needs to be addressed. If you continue to make these kinds of errors in quality and judgment, I will have to put you on a PIP” or something to that effect. Chalk it up to my inexperience as a manager – next time, I will know that it’s not enough to give constructive criticism and say “Let’s brainstorm strategies to prevent this from happening again.”

        For the record, the threat of the lawsuit was not because I fired her, but because I finally said “This really isn’t working out, and I think you should think seriously about whether this is the right job for you.” I was hoping that she would start looking for another job that was more suited to her capabilities. I wasn’t intending to fire her on the spot, although I was intending to put her on a PIP if we couldn’t negotiate some kind of alternative transition deal.

        As for documentation – would the redlined documents I sent back to her count as documentation? Do you need documentation before you put someone on a PIP? Can you be sued for putting someone on a PIP?

        1. Ask a Manager* Post author

          There’s never any legal requirement for documentation; it’s just useful to have if you do happen to get sued, because it makes it a lot easier to demonstrate that there were real performance concerns.

          You can get sued for any adverse employment action (firing, demotion, disciplinary steps, etc.) that’s based on someone’s race, sex, religion, disability, or other protected characteristic. But your chances are far better of avoiding legal action if you put someone on a PIP before firing them because that means that you’ll have been clear with them about the problems and what you need to see from them, and they therefore will be far less likely to think that the “real” reason you fired them was because of race/sex/etc.

      2. Rat Racer*

        So, no, she never claimed discrimination. I think that she was just upset and felt that she was being treated unfairly.

    3. baseballfan*

      People can sue for anything, regardless of merit. Of course, a good lawyer won’t want to take a case that will turn out to be a waste of time, but some think they can dream up a convincing argument, and/or are hoping for a settlement.

      And all lawsuits, regardless of merit, take up time and money to deal with. Companies have better places they would like to spend both.

      1. fposte*

        And some get paid by the hour rather than working on contingency, which means that they can, if they’re not ethical, run up quite the bill for a lost cause.

      2. Rat Racer*

        Which is one of the things that really bothers me about our justice system. You can wreak total havoc by suing someone or even threatening to sue, even if you don’t have a leg to stand on.

        Hypothetically, if she had sued (and I don’t think she seriously considered it, once she got past her initial outrage) I wonder if it would have had repercussions for me as her manager. Could I get fired if my fired employee sues the company and I didn’t do a good enough job of documenting her poor performance? Even if I was acting on the advice of our own HR department?

        Right – I get it – the answer is “Yes” because your employer can fire you for any reason. Maybe the better question is DO employers fire managers if their employees sue for wrongful termination?

        1. fposte*

          And remember “wrongful termination” means “fired for a reason forbidden by the law.” It doesn’t mean “fired for a reason the employer didn’t prove.”

        2. Sue Wilson*

          Considering that good companies build the possibility of suit into their long-term planning, I’d much rather have people be able to get into court, which is often far more prohibitive monetarily than you would think, especially since contingency lawyers are rarer and rarer these days, than to have people who do have good cases not being to sue for them. Bad cases get thrown out in the complaint stage or summary judgment, before a ton of money has been expended, and most cases, 90% or more, don’t ever make it to trial.

          1. Ms. Smarty pants*

            Not true. There are good cases that get summary judgment! The Feds do that all the time. God help you if you are discriminated against and work for the Feds. The EEOC and the courts are against you, no matter the merits of your case. I have seen cases thrown out even when the have solid case law and legal precident. Then again the house always wins!

    4. The_artist_formerly_known_as_Anon-2*

      Rat Racer,

      Most companies have a handbook detailing procedures for progressive discipline, PIPs, and even expected conduct in the workplace.

      Example = workplace bullying is not illegal, BUT – if the company policy states that everyone is entitled to a non-intimidating work atmosphere — and they don’t stick to that — well, you might have grounds for your unemployment claim if you’re forced out. Likewise, look up the term “constructive discharge”.

      They’re not illegal – not necessarily something you can sue over – but state unemployment officers look unkindly on companies who allow their management teams to engage in such antics.

  11. PontoonPirate*

    So I guess my question is, what happens if your boss agrees to the script but you can’t find a job in the agreed-upon time (assuming a realistically short time frame for such a transition)? You “quit,” and so you’re not eligible for unemployment, and you’re out of a job. If you’d been fired, you’d at least get unemployment.

    1. Partly Cloudy*

      Yeah…. Plus, all of this assumes that you’re dealing with a reasonable boss/company. Unfortunately, many people in this situation aren’t.

  12. Bottle*

    What if you were fired for extreme negligence or did sometime that harm your reputation and make the company not want to keep you anymore? Given that you are a nice employee who is never mean to anyone, how would you handle your firing with the company? How would you go about looking for future employment after the firing?

      1. Bottle*

        I was think of if I did something rep-hurting on my own time, but that action is not illegal–just makes people upset or shocked.

  13. Retail Lifer*

    This suggestion only works when you work for reasonable people. I don’t.

    Right now, I’m getting yelled at for the dumbest things all the time. Many of the issues people are freaking out about later turn out to be completely invalid and were just crazy overreactions to incorrect information. I can’t even have a conversation with my boss like the once suggested because I’m doing great work. I’m making all of my sales numbers and other goals so there’s nothing I can even ask about improving on. I get accolades one minute for making my numbers and then yelled at later on because I supposedly didn’t follow some policy or my employees are just massive screw-ups (neither are true but that didn’t stop the yelling or result in an apology after the fact).

    If I told my boss I knew it wasn’t working out, she would just ask for my resignation. Better luck to anyone else using this advice. It would probably work if you worked for sane people.

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      Hence the disclaimer at the end of the post to exactly that point :)

      (I realize you may have seen it; just wanted to point it out if you didn’t!)

  14. TZ*

    I’m a bit frustrated. With my recent employment, I (in my opinion) was working the best I could. I was constantly trying to improve myself as a worker and a person, and was dealing with what my employer threw at me. And anytime someone told me to focus in an area, I always did! I ALWAYS showed that I could improve and perform, which was why I loved the job.

    My recent employer decided that a shift bid was the best thing for everyone, and if you “didn’t like it” then to suck it up or quit. To put in perspective, the shift bid was a forced change to everyone’s work schedule that went by ranking. I had only been at employed at my job for several months and was part time so my ranking was lower. They ended up putting me on a graveyard schedule. While working with their employees wasn’t an option, I thought I would at least try my new work schedule. If the schedule was not working out, I would talk to them about my resignation notice. I was hoping I could try and work my schedule a bit longer to try and adjust my sleeping schedule OR find a different schedule that worked better (since so many people had quit prior to me). I need to work because I have a trip coming out (and bills to pay of course).

    So I went into my employer to talk to WHOEVER was in charge (it wasn’t clear who my supervisor was, manager, or any of that. seriously, I had gone in multiple times trying to talk to someone and the turnover rate at my job is high). When I finally found someone and put in my notice, they said it was FURTHER REASON to terminate me on the spot. Which is frustrating, because, I need to work. And here I thought that talking to my boss about a problem, and working out an agreement or understanding would’ve been the best solution.

    I’m frustrated because I had put in so much time and effort to work hard at this job, and even tried to deal with the shift change the best to my ability. I guess it wasn’t meant to be. Sorry for the lengthy paragraph, I just feel so kicked down for even trying.

    1. vw*

      Chin up! this too will pass. Good lesson to always know they can let you go immediately when you submit your resignation.

  15. office girl*

    I’m basically being bullied for standing up for myself. I got shouted at by non management and I stood up for myself, they tried to get me fired but couldn’t so now they’ve made lies up about me and I’m under investigation for the lies they told. These two men are targeting me because they don’t like it when people are not intimidated by them, they are also liked by higher management because they practically sit in their pockets. what do I do?

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