True Story: I Got Fired

Photo credit: Big Stock/AntonioGuillem

Welcome to True Story, our series where we hope to shine a light on all things career related — the good, the bad, the tragic and the funny. We’ll share anonymous, real, true stories from people who have taken risks, personally and professionally, and lived to tell the tale. This is what the workplace is really like. Have something to share? Reach out on Twitter: @bullit_me.

Some of us have recurring nightmares about losing all our teeth. Some of us have recurring nightmares about falling. Some of us have recurring nightmares about giving a speech…only to realize we’re stark naked in front of a room of strangers. Sometimes, the nightmare is about losing your job: and sometimes, the nightmare is real.

Since 2008, getting laid off has become a very real fear for Americans, especially those of us in entry level positions or new jobs. And, although hiring has improved over the past few years, there’s still a lot of uncertainty in many industries. San Francisco has been a beacon for recent grads, with an unemployment rate well below the national average and the promise of companies offering perks on perks on perks (in addition to, you know, a paycheck). Among the Valley’s plethora of tech companies and startups, business is booming, and if you can hack it against San Francisco’s steep rent and cost of living, you can make it anywhere.

However, not even San Francisco can offer fully fail-safe employment. We spoke to Erin, a 20-something marketing pro originally from the East Coast, about her experience getting laid off in one of the most expensive cities in the world. Getting laid off is brutal; navigating how to pay your rent when you only get two-weeks severance? Even worse.

If you’ve only been laid off in your nightmares, congratulations. However, even the most high-performing, all-star employees are subject to company downsizing and cash flow issues. Erin was one of those cases: this is her story.

Two years ago, I was working for a start-up in the travel industry in San Francisco. I loved the company and felt like it was my second family. It was a small, tight-knit group of people who truly cared about my wellbeing. I had all the things that people say are really important to have in a job: passion for the company, a sense of autonomy, a work best friend, etc. I saw myself staying with the company for at least a couple years, which is a lot in San Francisco — it’s unusual to stay at a startup for such a long time. It was the first job in my life where I felt at home.

I worked there for a year and change before the company downsized, and I was let go. I never saw it coming. The atmosphere prior to the lay-offs was fairly positive: there had been a lot of hiring throughout the year and a lot of investment in my department (the marketing team). As the lead of content marketing, I had never been told no when I wanted to try something out. I managed quite a large budget — so large that I often felt less-than-confident in my strategy and marketing decisions because there was so much money involved. I was given free reign to experiment and try to push our content into more people’s hands, autonomy I both enjoyed and which gave me anxiety.

The company was on our series C stage of funding, and it seemed like smooth sailing. The founders were confident in their fund-raising and seemed very transparent about how things were going. At least once a month, we’d meet for a business update and talk as a group about how things were going, investment-wise. There was never a shred of doubt or a clue that things weren’t going well. At some point during the year, a competitor from the travel industry contacted me with a job offer and tried to poach me away. The offer came with a higher salary and more seniority, but I had confidence in the direction the startup was headed and felt loyal to the team. So, I stayed where I was.

Then things rapidly changed. I distinctly remember getting a strange text message asking me to come into work from a manager who wasn’t my manager on a day that wasn’t a work day. My partner on the technical team received a similar message to come in at noon, and I was told to come in at 10AM. That was the first red flag. The next morning I wore an outfit that I hoped was polished and professional. I didn’t know what to expect.

I drove to work and walked in the backdoor a few minutes before my meeting. The first thing I saw was my direct manager standing there with a trash bag in his hand. Many of my coworkers were there too, and no one was saying anything. I started to crack jokes because I was so stressed out and nervous. One guy started to pull all the kombucha and fancy drinks out of the fridge and stuffing granola bars in his bag. He said, “Might as well take what we can get before the end.” Yikes.

Then the founder told us to come in and sit down. He explained that it was entirely his fault, and that the funding “fell through.” The company received a fraction of what he had expected, and he had to let all of us go: they could no longer afford to keep us. I looked around and 90% of the marketing team was sitting around me. Among the five of us, we were the team bringing in more money than anyone in the entire company. It was shocking for all of us. My (now former) coworkers were taking it in stride, and I burst into tears like a small child. Then we were given trash bags and told to clean up our things.

No one specifically stated it to the founder, but we were all feeling misled. We went to lunch after to commiserate (because what else do you do when you don’t have a job?) and everyone was in shock. We had been led to believe it was all fine: just last month the company had made its first million dollars in profit and we were rewarded with a four-day retreat to Puerto Vallarta. Does that seem like a company that needs to make extensive layoffs?

I was devastated personally for a couple of days after receiving the news. I cried a lot and felt like it was an affront to everything I had done. We were given extremely minimal (2-weeks) severance pay, which does not give you a wide margin of error in San Francisco, the city where everything costs a literal arm and a leg. It was rough.

At first I wasn’t too concerned because I have a decent amount of connections. To the company’s credit, they were very generous in giving references. I had been a top performer and had done some highly visible, successful projects. My former coworkers reached out to their networks extensively on my behalf, and I interviewed at some of the best companies out there. But, when a Facebook interview process takes 3 months and you have no source of income otherwise, it’s painful. I took a part-time job to maintain my sanity and to have some cash coming in in addition to the unemployment stipend that I was getting. That was a huge eye opener to qualify for unemployment benefits — I never realized that it was such a complicated process. If you leave the state, for example, you are disqualified from receiving benefits for that week. It was a learning experience in the hIghly unpredictable and extremely complicated bureaucracy that so many Americans face for so much longer than I did.

My biggest takeaway from the experience? Being upset is perfectly okay. But, you can be upset and take action at the same time. My parents didn’t really have a clear understanding of what working for a startup entailed, and that the company not getting funded is actually a pretty common reason for people losing their jobs. So, they gave me some tough love. My mom said to me, “I understand that you’re upset but that doesn’t mean you can’t look for a job.” Thanks mom!

I gave myself a deadline of June 1 (I was laid off in early March) to find a new job in San Francisco; otherwise I would have moved back to the East Coast to regroup. Putting that pressure on myself gave me something to focus on and a goal to reach for, which was probably the only thing that kept me sane. That, and getting part-time work. It’s so important to stay busy.

In retrospect, if I hadn’t cared so much about what people had thought of me, I probably would have taken the offer from our competitor in a heartbeat. I would have made more money and taken a more senior role. I felt betrayed for staying loyal to the startup only to be tossed out like a rotten piece of garbage a month later. Lesson learned!

Since then, I’m highly wary of any startups. Now, I work at a more established company that allows me to be more creative and do something that wasn’t just strategy and numbers based. The job is a better fit for me, and infinitely more stable. Even though it can feel like the end of the world, there was a silver lining to being laid-off; I believe everything worked out for the better in the end.

Getting fired is the pits. If we’ve learned anything from Erin’s story, it’s to make sure your references are always standing by to help you out when times get tough. BULLIT can help you curate recommendations so when times of crisis do come up, you’re equipped to get yourself going!

Originally published at BULLIT.