everything you need to know about getting fired

Getting fired is scary and stressful. Not only has your source of income been yanked away from you, but you might be left with questions about what to do next, how to talk about it in future job interviews, and even whether what your employer did was legal. Here’s a quick primer on what you need to know about getting fired.

I was fired without any warning. Is that legal?

Generally, yes. No law in the U.S. requires employees receive a warning before being fired. Good employers will typically warn employees before firing them, in order to make sure they have a chance to improve and because they don’t want other employees worrying that they could be fired out of the blue – but that’s up to the employer’s own policy and isn’t governed by law.

Does my employer have to have a good reason for firing me?

Your employer can fire you for any reason at all or for no reason, as long as it’s not because of your race, religion, nationality, sex, marital status, disability, and or other protected characteristic. You can be fired because your boss just doesn’t like you or because the CEO wants to bring in her cousin’s neighbor to take your place.

There are two exceptions: First, if you have a contract, which most workers in the U.S. don’t, your company is bound to the terms it lays out, including around separation. Second, if you work in Montana, you’re in the one state in the country that requires firings to be for “good cause.”

Will I be eligible to collect unemployment benefits?

It depends. State laws vary, but most states allow fired employees to collect unemployment benefits as long as they weren’t fired for intentional misconduct or for violating clearly stated workplace rules. For example, being fired for poor performance won’t generally make you ineligible to collect benefits, but excessive absenteeism often will disqualify you.

Does my employer have to pay me severance?

No law in the U.S. requires severance payments, so it’s up to individual employers. However, you can certainly try to negotiate a severance package. You’ll generally have more bargaining power for severance if your employer is concerned that you might sue for something (for example, if you had cause to think you had been discriminated against on the basis of race, sex, or another protected characteristic) because severance is typically accompanied by general release of future claims against the employer. Your chances of severance can also go up if the employer thinks they have done you wrong in some other way, such as moved you into a position that you didn’t have the skills for or fired you soon after you moved from out-of-state for the job. In that case, reasonable employers are likely to want to provide severance to cushion the blow.

Should I list the job on my resume in the future?

It depends. If you were only at the job for a short period of time (say, less than six months), listing it will probably do more harm than good. A few months at a job won’t be useful in showing any real accomplishments or advancement, and including it will likely raise questions about why you left so soon. On the other hand, if you were at the job for longer, you may prefer to list it so that you don’t have to answer questions about what you were doing during that time period.

How should I talk about the firing if it comes up in an interview?

Be prepared with a few sentences that explain what happened. Most interviewers will only be a brief explanation and won’t expect you to present a detailed account of what happened. For example, you might simply say, “Actually, I was let go. The workload was very high, and I didn’t speak up about that soon enough. I ended up making some mistakes because of the volume. It taught me a lesson about the need to communicate better when the workload is high and to get on the same page as my manager about priorities if we’re in a triage mode.” Or in another type of situation, you might say, “It turned out to be the wrong fit. The job required expertise in web design, which is not my strength, and ultimately we agreed that they need someone with that background in the role.”

What’s really crucial here is being able to talk about the situation calmly and non-defensively. If you seem bitter and angry, that’s going to be a red flag. On the other hand, if you seem to have learned from the experience and understand what went wrong, that can assuage any concerns from the interviewer.

{ 59 comments… read them below }

  1. BRR*

    As someone who has (unfortunately) some experience being fired this is really great advice. I would add to the last point about explaining it that if you are using a reference from the company they should be saying things along the same lines as you. Example, “While Wakeen’s skills in web design weren’t a strong match for what we needed in the role, I was impressed with his work in A,B, and C (which are hopefully all things that would be helpful in the role you’re applying for).”

    1. BRR*

      And for unemployment, apply and always appeal if rejected*.

      *Some exceptions such as if you were let go after a week as you usually have to work at an employer for a set amount of time.

  2. Development Professional*

    This reminds me of a resume I saw recently where the person had listed every job for the last 20 years (it was 4 pages) and for each one, she had a line below the title that was “reason for leaving.” And the reasons ran the gamut from being laid off after a merger to wanting a job that had less travel. It was such an odd choice, and one of the few times I’ve looked at a resume where I thought, oh TMI!

    1. Development Professional*

      I guess my point is, she was trying to explain that she wasn’t fired, I guess? But it just looked so odd. I would have rather had a conversation about a firing!

      1. BRR*

        Were there a lot of gaps in their resume? This seems like the one time I would want an ATS so I could explain why I left because it doesn’t belong on a resume. Although if they had tons of gaps with a reason for each one it would still be off putting.

        1. Development Professional*

          No! That’s part of why it was so weird. She did have sort of a lot of jobs for the number of years of experience she had, so my guess was that it was to try to mitigate what might look like job hopping. The thing is, it didn’t really work. It still sort of looked like she didn’t stay with things very long, either for her own reasons or for her employers’ reasons.

          1. F.*

            I had a similar resume. The reasons were things like “new manager didn’t like me and fired me and my boss,” etc. I rejected the person as one who would probably be far too much maintenance for a simple admin. asst. position for which I had a number of better qualified candidates. It turns out I dodged a major bullet. This person wrote a number of snarky/borderline aggressive emails telling me that I had made a big mistake and that I would never find anyone as perfect as she for the position. Then a few months later, I found her review at the website for the trailer park where I live. She had applied to move in, but didn’t like the rules. She verbally trashed management for daring to have rules that said dogs had to be leashed (not running loose) and were not allowed to bark excessively. SO glad I didn’t hire her!

      2. MsMaryMary*

        I’ve seen job applications that wanted a reason for leaving for every job, maybe she thought her resume should follow the same format?

        When I saw applications that wanted a reason for leaving each job, they also seemed to be the ones that wanted you to list every job from the last ten years. It got kind of ridiculous, especially for jobs I held in high school and college. Job: ice cream server. Reason for leaving: desired less sticky employment.

        1. Charlotte Collins*

          I recently completed one that required every job I’ve ever held. Since the place was a non-profit that relied on a lot of government grants, I kind of understood. But I didn’t have to give that much info to get clearance from the DHS!

    2. Algae*

      I had one of those once. It was 7 pages and one of the reasons for leaving was that s/he didn’t like the commute.

      It was for a position where s/he’d be liaising with audit officials, too, and I was the only one that said this person might not be the best person to talk with auditors. Everyone else thought it was fine.

      1. Lynn Whitehat*

        Yeah, you want your most taciturn employee talking to the auditors. Not TMI Tommy.

  3. Noah*

    Wow, the article is incredibly misleading. It’s true that there is no law generally requiring the payment of severance nor is there any law generally requiring notice of termination. EXCEPT IN THE CASE OF A OFFICE/PLANT CLOSING, in which case you are generally entitled to notice or severance.. This is a huge omission.

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      This article is about being fired, not laid off. You’re referring to the WARN Act, which requires 60 days of notice in the case of plant closings or mass layoffs (or severance in lieu of that notice) — but that’s about job eliminations, which is a different thing.

      1. Noah*

        This article, unlike most here, is written for non-management employees. From the perspective of a non-management employees, there is virtually no difference between being laid off and being fired. You are wrong if you think that a laid off employee would not look to this article to understand their rights and opportunities, which is why leaving out the WARN Act is a major omission. Or just stick to advising people in management roles.

        1. neverjaunty*

          From the perspective of non-management employees, there’s a huge difference between getting laid off and fired – and an article about “your rights if you are laid off” would be very different. If you’re suggesting AAM should have thrown in a line cautioning readers that they should be aware firing =! layoffs, that might be a point, but seriously – lecturing her about how she should stick to the kind of articles you mistakenly think are most of her blogging? What’s really your beef here?

        2. CS Rep By Day, Writer By Night*

          I’ve never had a management role, and I clearly understand the difference between being fired and laid off.

      2. Aswin MK*

        Interesting! In India, my country, some companies often don’t understand the difference between “firing” and “laying off”. I have been in companies where employees have been asked to leave and stated that they were “fired” when they were actually laid off.

        Can you give some good advice on how such candidates can answer tricky questions? For instance, employers in India are not too kind towards people leaving off jobs in their resume, even if they are for a few months, I have seen candidates being fired or reprimanded by MNCs for NOT giving complete information on their job history or worse “Falsifying” their job history (Seriously, they expect a candidate to list a job even if they worked there for 2-3 months and were laid off for no fault of their own). Worse, MNCs here employ private agencies to do a thorough check on the employee’s job history. Unfortunately, many good and honest candidates lose out on jobs because 1) They choose deliberately to leave out a company where they were laid off (even if it was for a period of 2-3 months) or 2) Were let go by their companies without any severence package or letter or experience.

        I can provide you of an example of a friend, who lost an offer from a reputed MNC just because he choose to NOT include a company, which laid him off, from his resume.

        His interview conversation went like this:
        Interviewer: You worked at ABC from July 2012 to May 2014 and joined XYZ on mid-August 2014 and are working there till date. What did you do during the period June 2014 till mid of August?

        Candidate: Hmm.. Well, I joined a company BCD, but was unfortunately laid off as they were doing poorly
        Interviewer: Hmm.. so you were fired?
        Candidate: Laid off??
        Interviewer: Doesn;t make much difference, they let you go either ways
        Candidate: ?????? I was “laid off”. I choose to NOT include this experience as 1) It was two months and 2) They didn;t provide me a proper letter of relieving/experience.
        Interviewer: Well, we required candidates to show honesty. Considering you opted to hide information from us, we would like to end this interview now. You may leave.
        This is an actual situation faced by one of my friends, who was laid off in 2014.

    2. Natalie*

      It probably wouldn’t have hurt to clarify in the article, but those laws refer to layoffs rather than firings. They’re distinctly different.

      1. Florida*

        I think it was pretty clear. There are people that think you need to be on a PIP, or get some sort of warning before you are fired. This article made it clear that that is not necessary.

  4. Call Me Anything But Late To Dinner*

    Depending on how long you have been in the workforce firing is becoming less of a big deal as long as it wasn’t for cause. Companies merge, downsize, relocate or just cut costs. Thanks to AAM and being prepared for the question it hasn’t precluded me getting interviews or a job. (YAY!)

    Still looking for a better job, but navigating the dreaded question hasn’t been a problem. Several times my interviewer has sympathized since they too at one time had been let go.

    1. Bookworm*

      I think you’re conflating lay-offs (the position was eliminated) with firings (the position is still there, but the person isn’t performing up-to-par).

      Layoffs are a lot easier to explain in future interviews, since they’re not a reflection of performance.

      1. starsaphire*

        Exactly; layoffs are quite common, and an interviewer shouldn’t take much notice.

        For me, every time I’ve been asked “Why did you leave Job Q?” I’ve answered, “We had several rounds of RIFs. I actually survived the first X rounds.”

        That layoff then actually looks *good* for me, rather than bad, because companies sometimes sweep away the dead weight in the first round — and because there were multiple RIFs close together, the problem was clearly with the company, not me! :)

  5. brebuzuf*

    I’m curious how future employers view a candidate who has been fired. I’m sure it depends on the candidate and the circumstances, but in the example you provided (I didn’t speak up early enough about my inability to handle the work load and I have learned from my mistake.), would an employer be more or less likely to move forward with such a candidate?

    I guess I’m wondering if most employers would take the stance that, here’s a candidate who has demonstrated the ability to learn from mistakes or would most take the safer route of just automatically ruling out a candidate who was fired. I also wonder if it matters if it comes up during the interview or during the background check (assuming the candidate made no attempt to hide a firing).

    1. some1*

      I also wonder if it matters if it comes up during the interview or during the background check (assuming the candidate made no attempt to hide a firing).

      I don’t think it’s shady if the job interview is the first time getting fired from a previous job comes up. If you get asked before that, better to be honest but you don’t have to proactively bring it up.

    2. Florida*

      I think a lot of how the employer views it depends on how you answer that question. If you confidently answer the question, and make it seem like this was a one-time situation that won’t be repeated here, then it’s OK.

      However, if you fumble around as if you haven’t reflected on it at all, that’s not going to help you out any.

    3. neverjaunty*

      I don’t know that you can generalize to ‘most employers’. Being fired is obviously a negative, but it depends on so many things, like how long ago the firing was, how long you were there, if the mistake was an error of judgment and inexperience vs. very bad workplace conduct, and all kinds of things. Also, it would matter where you got fired from. There are employers that are famously dysfunctional or volatile, and getting fired from one of those places might very well mean that you just happened to be walking past when the boss was in a foul mood – I certainly wouldn’t hold it against such an applicant.

  6. Weekday Warrior*

    Until reading this blog I always thought “fired” automatically meant with cause, and everything else was “laid off”, whether a plant closing or being bumped to make way for a nephew. Maybe because I’m Canadian?

    I’ve also been really impressed by numerous commenters here who were fired for cause but clearly take responsibility and have learned from the situation. It makes me much more likely to delve deeper into applicants in the same boat. “I learned and grew” really strengthens someone’s experience.

    1. Natalie*

      As far as I have always used it, “laid off” means the position was eliminated – no one is going to replace you because they’re not going to have a Teapot Designer Grade II or whatever anymore – so the nephew example would be a firing. Fired for a dumb reason, but fired nonetheless.

      Some of the difference may have to do with your contracts, which we generally don’t have down here.

    2. BRR*

      I’m not sure about Canadian law but that might create a difference in terminology. In the US the standard definitions are:
      -Laid off: Usually the result of closing a division or reducing head count. An employee who was laid off might be a great employee but there’s just no longer a position at the company that requires their skills.
      -Fired with cause: Usually this means something egregious like stealing, assaulting someone, etc.
      -Fired [is it just fired or fired without cause then?]: Just not a great match, poor work quality, etc.
      -Let go is a nicer way of saying fired.

      EvilHRLady had an article about not passing over fired before. The big idea of it being why would you let someone else dictate if someone is a good employee? Thing of some of the bad managers people write in about. If they fired a person, would you really care what they thought?

      1. Weekday Warrior*

        The important take away I think is never go out of your way to use the term “fired” as it has a lot of negative weight, even if not for cause.

        1. some1*

          Right: getting fired always means “I lost my job” but “I lost my job” doesn’t always mean “I got fired”

  7. AnotherAlison*

    I’m curious if you can clarify what might be considered quitting vs. being fired? I’m sure it’s normally sorted out in the unemployment office, but if an employee walks off a job (like, storming out in anger), and you tell them not to come back, did they quit? Is a no call/no show quitting?

    1. K.*

      Maybe that’s quitting without eligibility for rehire? Like, they left on their own but the company wouldn’t ever consider taking them back.

    2. Adam V*

      I’d call that quitting – you’re essentially leaving the company of your own volition. But technically, the company could be said to be firing you for a violation of company rules (typically there’s a rule about being fired after X no-call/no-shows) ?

      Either way, you’d likely be ineligible for unemployment, I’d think.

    3. F.*

      That can be a touchy situation, and someone with a background in employment law would be better to answer this, but there is a concept called “constructive dismissal” which is when an employee resigns because the employer created (or allowed) a hostile work environment (per the legal definition of “hostile work environment”). There are also circumstances where an employer forces a resignation (resign or be fired), and that has its own set of technicalities. Paging one of our resident employment attorneys, please?

      1. Ask a Manager* Post author

        In most states, if the employer forces you to resign, unemployment won’t count it as a resignation (you’ll still be eligible for benefits).

        If conditions at your office were so bad that they don’t think a reasonable person could have continued working there (constructive dismissal), you’ll generally be eligible for benefits. The bar for that can be higher than people think it will be, though.

    4. Ask a Manager* Post author

      It would really depend on the details. If someone acts in a way that a reasonable person would believe they were quitting, unemployment agencies will usually consider that a resignation. In a case like storming out in anger, it would depend on exactly what they did/said. In most states, if they cursed, threw things, screamed at people, or otherwise caused a disruptive scene, unemployment isn’t likely to get hung up on whether they quit or not; they’re likely to deny them benefits because either they quit (denial of benefits) or they behaved egregiously enough to be fired for real cause (denial of benefits).

      1. AnotherAlison*

        Thanks, that makes sense.

        It wasn’t a particularly disruptive scene, as it was only the boss and the employee present. As it has been relayed to me there wasn’t any cursing, but it was the employee yelling at the boss. Definitely not a heated debate about work things, which I would probably excuse, just the employee yelling a laundry list of complaints that he had built up over the last 6 months. . .objecting to the boss correcting his work (the apprentice), the boss saying he didn’t like a vacation spot the employee liked, and other really odd things to complain about. The employee wasn’t able to complete his work that day and he made no effort to come back to work. It took him about a week to get in touch & ask if he was fired, at which point the boss said, “No, you walked off the job, you quit.” He didn’t file for unemployment, but we thought he might. It seems like it would lean towards denial of benefits.

  8. Meg Murry*

    I think one of the places people get caught up is the line between “Is that legal? Can I sue for wrongful dismissal?” and “Will I be denied unemployment, and if so do I have a case for an appeal?” I’ve heard a lot of people talk about lawsuits and suing former employers, but when you dig deeper they are often actually talking about an unemployment appeal, not suing their former employer. The grounds for winning an unemployment appeal vary by state, but generally the bar is far far lower than winning a wrongful termination case.

  9. AnonAcademic*

    For anyone reading comments because you’ve recently been fired, I just want to say that getting fired from my first job out of college was one of the best things to happen in my career! It was a totally toxic and dysfunctional environment, I’d say 80% of the firing reflected mismanagement and maybe 20% was me legitimately not being a good fit for the job. I got another job 2 months later working for someone who became a long term academic mentor of mine whose recommendation helped me get into a Ph.D. program a few years later. It was most definitely for the best, which took a long time for me to realize since it was SUCH a huge shock to me as someone who was always an academic superstar and high performer at all previous (and subsequent) jobs. I don’t think I’ve ever doubted myself as much as I did while I was day drinking my way through unemployment and job searching but I survived, learned a hard lesson about life not being fair, and ended up more resilient in the end.

    1. BRR*

      I have a semi-similar history being fired from my first job out of college (at an employer I interned with doing literally the exact same thing so my work quality was known). I let the organization’s mission cloud my perspective on it being toxic and I moved on to a non-toxic employer with a huge pay increase. Otherwise I would have probably staid at toxic employer for a very long time. It also made my learn more about business norms in general and led me to AAM :).

    2. Jimbo*

      I was fired from my first “real job” and it ended up being a positive thing in the long run. It was absolutely devastating at the time but it made me stronger and ultimately moved me up the career ladder. But getting that next job can be tough. I folded every time it came up in an interview. I ended up taking a contract job because they ask a lot less questions (because they can cut you at any time). I stuck it out there for two years and the next interviewers barely even ask about the job I was fired from because it wasn’t as relevant. Now it never gets discussed.

      A really important lesson I learned is knowing where I stand at my job. I never saw it coming but the signs were everywhere. I was never formally sat down by HR but that is just a formality most places. I was fighting with my manager on a daily basis and it doesn’t take a genius to know who wins that battle. The same thing happened to a friend of mine during the recession. All managers were told to let one person go, anyone from the intern to the supervisor. It sounds like a no-brainer and one would assume a lot of interns were looking for work that week. But her manager let her, the most senior person on the team, go because she was such a pain to manage. It never pays to be a thorn in the side of the person that decides whether you get a raise or even keep your job.

    3. Marina*

      I was talking with a coworker a few weeks ago about the long-term benefits of being fired. We have another coworker who has never been fired (or let go), and at least for her it has made her very risk-averse. There’s a certain security and confidence level that comes with knowing you can recover from being fired.

  10. Dorian*

    I was once asked for my key and had the front door opened for me. I knew I made a mistake by taking this job within the first month of being there. I was stunned. I wasn’t happy, but I did not expect to be fired (although I was denied unemployment because the employer said I quit). I have never put this job on my resume, but what about a job application that will involve a background check? I think it should be listed – correct? I have been successfully employed for nearly 12 years since this happened.

  11. Recently Fired*

    I was recently fired without notice and I’m struggling with a way to explain it in interviews and could really use some advice.

    As a manager I was doing everything in my power to keep things running smoothly and upper management was well aware of the challenges, including the lack of necessary resources to reach particular performance goals. Despite that, I had no reason to believe my job was on the line because my manager never indicated so, plus I was doing my best to keep things running as smoothly as possible despite the lack of necessary resources.

    It might be helpful to note that my former direct reports have informed me that things really took a turn for the worst after I was let go and that more than one person was brought in to help with what I alone was doing. Also, without going into too much detail, I believe I was made to be the scapegoat because my manager was the one who created this situation when they made promises the department couldn’t keep.

    To add insult to injury, they are now increasing staffing and bringing in the resources I was asking for all along.

    How exactly do I explain this in interviews so it doesn’t sound like I’m placing all the blame on my former employer, even though I truly believe I was put in a no-win situation?

    1. Marina*

      “I did my best with the resources we had, but unfortunately I could not meet our department goals. I learned that after I left, they ended up bringing in multiple people to cover the work I’d been doing, increasing staffing by (amount) and (other resource) by (amount). The most important skill/knowledge I gained from that situation was…”

      Unfortunately to come off well to a potential employer, you have to sound like you’re taking some of the blame. It’s incredibly difficult to do when you’re bitter from a recent firing–for everyone I know who has lost a job like this, it’s taken a year-plus to really be able to sound neutral when talking about it. But of course you don’t have that kind of time when looking for a new job. So, practice practice practice your answer until you can sound like you’re keeping it objective and fact-based.

  12. Chaordic One*

    I find myself in a situation similar to RF’s. Things started going bad when my supervisor, the person who hired me, left for greener pastures. The first replacement was overwhelmed, then demoted and no longer my supervisor. The second replacement really didn’t understand the work and at the same time there were a lot of organizational changes which resulted in a lot of extra work being added to my responsibilities.

    I had started a job search before I was fired. Sometimes I suspect that perhaps a potential employer may have contacted the second replacement supervisor which, if it happened, didn’t help. On top of that, I kind of feel that I may well have been the victim of discrimination, although things like that are really difficult to prove and I’m not aware of there being any smoking gun and things like that are almost impossible to prove.

    Your response, Marina, is very good, very logical and very honest. It won’t work with all potential employers, but it is probably the best thing that one can say under the circumstances. If I get asked about being fired, I plan to use it (your helpful suggested response).

  13. Just curious*

    So if you are fired because your boss just doesn’t like you or because the CEO wants to bring in her cousin’s neighbor to take your place, how are you supposed to talk about that in an interview? I can see how the “lessons learned” bit is important for a legitimate firing, but what about firings the firee has no control over?

  14. Crayola*

    Sometimes…just once in while….out of touch managers / employers set unrealistic goals / too heavy of a workload that is impossible to achieve – What if you were fired for “poor performance” and was placed on a PIP or PIP (s) with the written condition you would be fired if your performance didn’t improve – are you still able to collect unemployment?

    1. Kim*

      I was placed on a PIP and let go for poor performance about two weeks ago. Luckily I am eligible to receive unemployment benefits. I’m trying to figure out how to explain to perspective employers why I was let go. I was working in sales and was terminated, because I wasn’t able to meet the metrics.

  15. James M*

    I resigned from a company. My manager got wind of it and literally raced me to HR trying to fire me before I could quit. It was weird. It got weirder when the HR manager caught on to the guy’s game and realized that I had put in my resignation before my manager ever raised a peep about anything with anyone. I’m pretty sure she felt manipulated, since the company had _all kinds_ of resources that could have been involved in conflict mitigation, and without wanting to sound arrogant, I was not an easy person to replace, at least in the recruiting terms that HR would see things in. Nothing did more to cement my desire to quit, and the end result was that they paid me the 2-weeks I had offered to work, and allowed me to resign on the spot anyway. I also happened to notice that the manager in question left the company very shortly after that. Still the weirdest thing in my career so far. Great company, highly toxic immediate work team.

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