The Joys of Getting Fired

Former FBI head James Comey was grumpy about being fired but he handled it well, at first. Then his boss took after him and publicly characterized the event in a way that Comey found offensive. So Comey ramped it up and disputed the account in an attempt to get his boss fired. Now they are involved in an angry tit for tat of mutual recrimination.

Getting fired inspires you toward a higher degree of excellence, and it teaches you important lessons about getting overly attached to a single path for your career.In the private sector, this is not unusual but it is always regrettable. You don’t want to do this or have it happen to you. If you get fired, you want to move on as soon as possible, looking forward to your next job and your better life. You want to look back and say: you know, that was actually a good thing.

Possible? Absolutely.

The truth is that getting fired is one of the best things that can ever happen to you, if you look at it the right way. There is certainly no reason to consider it the end of the world. It can be the beginning of great things. It sounds like a cliche but it is actually true. Getting fired inspires you toward a higher degree of excellence, and it teaches you important lessons about getting overly attached to a single path for your career.

Here’s a quick story about a person I fired from a position. After I told him, he behaved very badly, as people tend to do. I get that. Still, he had talent. I could tell. He just didn’t quite have his act together, mainly because it was the first real job he ever had. A few months later, I got a call from his next prospective employer. I was blunt: yes, I fired him, with cause. However, I went on, I suspect that this was a wake-up call. You now have an employee ready to work really hard and with a great spirit. I did the hard part. You get the benefit.

In response to my comments, the company did hire him. And, sure enough, he became an enormous success. Getting fired was great for him. It was essential from my point of view. Now he can look back and honestly say: this was a great experience.

Labor Is a Two-Way Choice

The key to understanding this is to zoom in on the nature of a labor contract. It is an agreement based on the expectation of mutual cooperation that betters the lot of both the employer and the employee. In a world without scarcity, the employer would rather do all work alone and not have to hire anyone. This would save resources, and, in any case, most employers figure that they can do a better job than anyone than they can hire, and, often, they are right.

In order for there to be peace amidst this arrangement, there must be mutual benefit, always.The very existence of institutions that are larger than sole proprietorships grows out of the need to divide the labor. Even if the employer is the best sweeper, web development, accountant, and marketing expert in the world, it is to his advantage to specialize in one area while farming out the other tasks, even if these tasks will not be done as well by others.

Every employer, then, regards the hiring decision with a combination of dread (no one wants to waste money!) and relief (finally I can get something done around here!).

The employee is doing no favors to the employer merely by working there, nor is the employer to be regarded as a generous distributor of funds, much less someone who is under some positive moral obligation to dish out. The employee is there because the nature of the world and the ubiquity of the scarcity of time and resources make it necessary. In order for there to be peace amidst this arrangement, there must be mutual benefit, always.

Breaking Up Is Easy to Do

Doesn’t the reason you are fired matter? Not really.When that mutual benefit ceases to exist, it is in the interest of both parties to dissolve the relationship. The employee can leave for greener pastures. In the same way, the boss can stop paying the employee in exchange for services that he no longer believes are a benefit to the company. To be fired only means that the employer takes the initiative in ceasing to fund further engagement. Both or either side of this exchange could be wrong, of course, but all human decision-making is speculative, and we can only act on the information we have.

Why would anyone want to hang around at a dinner party at which he is not wanted? It’s the same way with a labor contract. If you aren’t wanted, you should walk away and consider yourself better off as a result. No lawsuits, no complaints, no bitterness, no acts of vengeance. Just a clean and happy break.

Doesn’t the reason you are fired matter? Not really. The employer doesn’t always know the reason. He just knows it is not working out from his point of view, and he is perfectly within his rights to terminate the prior agreement.

Why I Was Fired

Let me tell of the time I was fired. When I was in clothing sales, I was one of the top-ranked salesmen on the floor, but I didn’t always see eye to eye with the owner-boss. One Christmas season, he told all the salespeople that all alterations had to be promised out three weeks from the date they were sold. That struck me as outrageous.

Sure enough, within the next hour, I had a customer come in to buy seven pricey suits, on the condition that all alterations were to be done within the week. Now, I should have gone to the boss and asked him. He would have said no, I’m quite sure.

So I didn’t: I went ahead and promised the suits out. At closing time, the boss found the tickets and threw all seven suits at me and demanded to know “who is going to alter these?”

I said, “I will,” and I promptly hit the sewing machines and began to sew. I had them all finished by 9pm that evening. I brought the completed clothing into him and said that I would deliver them to the customer personally in the morning. My boss said, that’s great, and added: “after that, I won’t need your services anymore.”

Just or Unjust?

Was he wrong or right? He was wrong that firing me was good for his business. But he was right that he could not countenance an insubordinate employee, and just as a tip to the worker: there is no surer way to make yourself unwelcome than to be insubordinate. Even from a business point of view, he needed a staff that would follow his orders, right or wrong. Hey, it’s not my style but it was his clothing store, for goodness sake.

Being fired does not mean that your time with the company was a waste.Within a few days, I had another job. I ended up as a manager in another store and we outcompeted his store in every season that followed.

Being fired does not mean that your time with the company was a waste. In the time you were there, both you and your boss benefited in some way. Conditions changing doesn’t negate that reality. The boss gained a worker. And you gained valuable experience — and one of the most valuable experiences is the shock of being fired. Sometimes it is the best way to get a person’s attention. We all need improvement, and experiencing outright rejection provides a poignant reminder of this fact, and an impetus to change.

You might feel anger and even hatred. You might want to curse out your boss. You might plan a lawsuit (which seems to be everyone’s first reaction).

Instead, you need to do something completely counterintuitive. Take a deep breath and say something you don’t really want to say. You need to thank your boss for having had confidence in you and for giving you the opportunity to work there. You need to say this as sincerely as you can. And when you see your boss at the grocery store or sports event in the future, you should bound up to him as if he were an old friend and thank him again.

If you do this, there might come a time in the future — in fact, almost certainly — when this person will be in a position to recommend you for a job. He is far more likely to do so. In fact, he might be so impressed at your magnanimity that he will offer you your job back. You can politely turn him down, if you so wish. The point is that there is nothing productive about resentment or hate, any more than you should hate the convenience store from which you no longer buy milk. You once benefited from the exchange and you no longer perceive the advantage in doing so. Big deal.

Most Workers Are In Debt

If it makes it any easier, let us remember that you were most likely paid more than you contributed to the firm. Wages work this way. I can recall that I worked with some jerk who refused to straighten inventory in the back room. “For minimum wage, I won’t do this,” he said.

In a free market, we would hop from job to job without any problem.But the truth is that he was paid far more than he gave back. Employers often pay wages in advance of productivity, hoping that they are making some kind of investment in the future. It is only later that you become productive enough to make it worth it for him, at which point he has to raise your wage in the anticipation of future productivity. So there is a sense in which everyone is indebted to the employer. (By the way, this dude was fired within the week.)

The worst fate to befall the American labor market came after World War II when employees began to think of all jobs as lifetime jobs — the way they are in economically backward and decaying Europe today.

In a free market, we would hop from job to job without any problem. Employers would freely hire and fire, trying people out the way we try on shoes, and employees would be the same way. In this way, we are most likely to find the right fit, and our places of work would become less contentious places of happiness and peace.

The Right to Fire and Quite

Nothing is more absurd than the attempt to restrict the right to fire. Voluntarism goes both ways. The employee can leave, and the employer can fire. Any other system, such as one that would restrict either action, is an act of coercion that diminishes the well-being of both sides.

Being fired reminds us of our obligations, the contractual nature of work, and the need for agreement and voluntarism in all social relations. As to the Comey-Trump debacle, the whole thing is complicated because this was not normal employment. Comey figured he couldn’t be fired and his boss wasn’t using his own money to pay the wage. It’s rather delightful that their cat fight is happening out in the open!

More realistically, think of the kids and their job experiences. Most will get fired from at least one job or several in their early work years. Being fired reminds us of our obligations, the contractual nature of work, and the need for agreement and voluntarism in all social relations. The act of getting fired underscores the existence of the freedom of association, which is the key to social peace and a foundation of a growing economy. Do your part and take it well.

And then what? Take what you have learned and move on. Be more amazing next time. You are more likely to crush it at your next job. Then you can always look back with a sneaky sense and think: just look what those guys are missing!