Everyone has had at least one bad breakup in their love life, or at least, if they haven’t, they should. Not that I wish it on anyone. It’s just such an important experience to have. Usually, it’s a catalyst for growth and self-reflection, which ultimately yields greater wisdom and maturity. The same can be said for breaking up with your employer. I have had the great fortune to have experienced all permutations of the business breakup in that I have been both “the leaver” and, “the let go.” In fact, I have experienced many types of leaving scenarios like the “let’s agree you should leave,” as well as the “I am leaving for greener pastures” and even the “I have nowhere to go but I gotta get outta here.”
Being the leaver is obviously very empowering, because in most cases, you have taken charge of a less than ideal, or even a failing situation. You have taken a very brave and necessary step in recognizing that something isn’t working and you’ve ended it. It’s a risk whether you have a job lined up or not. As the saying goes, the devil you know is always better than the one you don’t. Leaving is hard, though, even when a situation is bad. But it’s courageous and it makes you stronger.
What is surprising to me, however, is also how empowering being let go can be. Although, let me assure you, it did not feel that way when it happened. In fact, the empowerment phase came much, much later. Everyone talks about the financial implication of being let go unexpectedly. You hear about the injustice of it and the trials of searching for a job in a down economy, but you rarely if ever hear anyone talk about the emotional toll. I want to take a second here to share mine with you.
The opportunity that came before me in 2010 was the kind of career move you can’t pass up. Where I was a manager of communications for a smallish company with supervisory responsibility for one employee, this new opportunity was to oversee the PR function for nine separate subsidiaries of a large company, with supervisory responsibility for seven employees. Without trying to seem dramatic here, receiving that offer was one of the biggest accomplishments of my career and it changed my life.
This opportunity was more than a title change and a fatter paycheck. It was a validation of my past work history and a down payment on my future abilities – a validation and recognition that my employer at the time was never going to give me. I had not fully recognized how stagnant and underappreciated, as well as underutilized, I felt until the chance to move on in such a big way was before me.
At the new job, I was floored by the trust and respect for my judgment from the get go. I was asked to weigh in on heady, impactful decisions. They always wanted my input and advice. They trusted my instincts, my knowledge and gave me an incredible chance to rise to the occasion. Though I hadn’t been given the chance to work at this level before, they believed in me and I felt that I was holding my own.
I was let go just 10 month later, under a new CEO who knew that the quickest, easiest way to achieve higher profits was to cut costs, and they felt I was a cost they could do without. They assured me this decision was no reflection on my performance and to prove it, gave me a performance bonus for my ten months, plus an incredibly generous severance package. Maybe they felt bad about letting a good employee go. Maybe they felt they were at legal risk for doing so.
Despite the cash, which was extraordinarily helpful, I cried every day for about three months. No matter how often a colleague from the company assured me it was no reflection on me, I couldn’t help but take it personally and secretly I resented the friends and colleagues who were not let go. For months I recalled specific conversations I had with my team, my assistant, my boss and others and wondered whether I said something along the way that built a case against me. Did I meddle too much in decisions? Did I not meddle enough? Did they think my judgment was spot on or in left field? Did I not produce enough? Not engage enough? Was I too yes man? Too no man? They all assured me my judgment was solid and that I had made important contributions to the organization in that short time, but being let go plants a very persistent seed of doubt in you and I let mine germinate way to long.
For months I bargained with myself how I would approach things differently, were I given the chance to go back. I prayed for that chance to go back – like a lover longing to be taken back by an ex who wronged her. I played out conversations I would have, planned out different strategies I would take. I saw myself dazzling them at every turn, right into a promotion into top leadership. I was like Walter Mitty on coke. For a long time I believed I would go back if asked, certain it was something I did, that I could fix if given another chance.
This month marks 19 months since it happened. I have now been away from the job 9 months longer than I actually had the job, but it’s only now that I can finally say that I am over it and better off. I learned while talking to a colleague still at the company, that more layoffs had indeed happened, and more good folks were let go as part of their profits over people strategy, and it finally settled in that it indeed was not me, but them. I got off the phone that day feeling more relieved and settled and secure in myself than I had since initially getting the offer.
What I learned from this is the power of self-doubt. In the last year it had done a real number on me. I had foolishly let that job define me and my self-worth, so of course being let go meant I was somehow worth less. This feeling permeated through everything I did – writing a proposal, a cover letter or even counseling a client. I found myself downplaying my advice before it even left my tongue. It took me awhile to realize that I am still the same person who got the job in the first place and the layoff was not about me. Now I know that my experience and my judgment are mine and cannot be taken away or measured by who my current employer is.
My advice to anyone on the verge of a layoff or in the midst of one – is know that it’s not you, it’s them, and you are still everything you were when they hired you, if not more, plus a tad more humble and a little wiser.