By Beau J Frail, AIA, Principal Architect at Activate Architecture
Things don’t always go as we’ve planned—rather they rarely do in my experience. When I was fired from an architecture office I had worked at for two years back in 2017, I was shaken up and had to quickly evaluate what my next career steps would be.
That office of around 30 people fired at least 6 people the year I was let go and typically quickly replaced them. Unfortunately an office environment where you are more likely to be fired than promoted is not a healthy workplace culture, nor sustainable growth strategy. Whatever reason a company has for letting employees go, it collectively adds up to millions of people fired in the United States every year (almost 20 million people were laid off or discharged in 2016 according to the US Department of Labor). Yet it can be a professional experience we are ill-prepared for—like I was—and feel very lonely despite the large number of people fired every year. I hope that sharing my story will be helpful in case you ever face the difficulty of being laid off.
Don’t expect a clear reason for being fired. Employers are not required to share their reason for letting you go (in Texas at least). I was told I wasn’t a “good fit” and nothing more. When they fired me, I asked for constructive feedback so I could grow, but sadly that was not given to me. The office I worked at had an office meeting the same day I was let go and told everyone they were sad I was leaving, making it look like my choice and not owning up to the fact that they use employee firing and replacement as a business strategy. Regardless of any reasons you’re given or what story gets told afterwards, stay encouraged and know your best opportunities are yet to come!
Take time to read all documents and wait to sign them until you’re ready. You might be given a Severance Agreement and/or a letter with a Copyright/ Digital Files Conditions clause. I felt confused and thought I was required to sign the letter with the copyright clause immediately. Take your time to review all documents and ask when and if you are required to sign anything. I can’t stress this enough! You usually have a few weeks to consider the severance and you should highly consider consulting with an Employment Attorney. My severance agreement had a non-disparagement clause, which only protected the office and not me from disparaging remarks. Which means if I would have accepted the severance I wouldn’t have been able to say anything negative (hence truthful) about the office. I’m glad I didn’t sign the severance agreement, yet that’s a personal choice for you to make and you also have the ability to ask for clauses to be edited in the agreement before signing.
You could be escorted out of the building. Your office email account and access to office files will likely be shut down immediately (sometimes while you’re being fired). I considered my coworkers my office family, which made the formal firing process and being escorted out of the building feel very corporate and cold to me. They even said they would bring my bag down from my desk right then and courier my other personal belongings to me that night. I understand this formality is a safeguard in the chance of an dramatic exit of a disgruntled employee, but it really drove home to me the negative emotional space the office maintained from the higher-ups, pervasive in both the daily workplace and in the firing process. This helped shape the values I looked for in future office environments—making sure a new workplace puts employee needs at the heart of the their goals and procedures.
COBRA, Unemployment, New Job — oh my! There are a few things you’ll want to jump on right away. You will have the option to continue your health coverage through electing COBRA. You would pay the monthly premium to the office and can continue COBRA for up to 18 months (confirm this with your HR representative and Health Insurance Company). Alternatively you could enroll in the Healthcare Marketplace within 60 days of losing coverage. You may receive payment for your unused vacation and personal days, so ask about this if it’s not mentioned. You can also enroll to receive unemployment benefits with your state, for example I enrolled with the Texas Workforce Commission. Of course, looking over job boards and leveraging your professional network will be useful in finding a new job.
Moving forward. Being fired for me produced feelings of loss, being devalued, and grief. Do your best to emotionally prepare for this time, as you may experience feeling the loss of a daily connection to your work family and related feelings of unfounded but ever present shame and very valid disappointment and betrayal. Everyone will process things differently and in their own time. Eventually accept being fired as a part of your past, forgive your former employers, and use this challenge as an opportunity for growth, reflection, and moving on to something better suited for you.
I hope you will not have to experience being laid off from any workplace. In the chance you do, I hope sharing my story has helped prepare you for that event.