Why Losing a Job Is a Lot Like Ending a Relationship

“I Can’t Believe This Is Happening!”

Why Losing a Job Is a Lot Like Ending a Relationship…
…and Why I Believe You Will Survive


Remember Mad Libs®? Let’s play for a minute. You go first.

I thought everything was going smoothly with my _________________________ (noun). My _______________ (noun) seemed happy with me. We ________________________ (verb) well together. I planned to stay with my ________________________ (noun) for a long time.

Then, things got weird. It seemed like my __________________ (noun) was no longer happy with me and picked on everything I did. I got the sense that my ____________________ (noun) did not want me around anymore and was looking for ways to ______________________________ (verb).

Finally, my _______________ (noun) came to me and told me it was over. I was devastated! I did not deserve this! I’m a good person and a great _______________________ (noun). My ______________ (noun) has no right to do this to me! I’m scared. WHAT CAN I DO NOW?? Please help me.

Every week of my professional life as an employment lawyer, I have this conversation multiple times with new clients. See if your answers match those of my clients:

I thought everything was going smoothly with my job (noun). My supervisor (noun) seemed happy with me. We worked (verb) well together. I planned to stay with my company (noun) for a long time.

Then, things got weird. It seemed like my supervisor (noun) was no longer happy with me and picked on everything I did. I got the sense that my supervisor (noun) did not want me around anymore and was looking for ways to end our relationship (verb).

Finally, my supervisor (noun) came to me and told me it was over. I was devastated! I did not deserve this! I’m a good person and a great employee (noun). My supervisor (noun) has no right to do this to me! I’m scared. WHAT CAN I DO NOW?? Please help me.

Every time I hear this story, I am crushed and upset for the hardworking and sometimes tearful person sitting across from me who wants nothing more than to do good work, please his/her employer, pay the bills, and do it all again tomorrow. I try to be empathetic as I explain that the majority of employees are “at will” — which means that the employee may be fired for any reason or for no reason – just not for an unlawful reason. I explore whether the individual has additional job protection due to being part of a unionized workforce; due to being a government employee; due to having an employment contract; due to the practices and policies of the employer; or due to some other source of legal rights that alter the nature of the at-will relationship. I analyze the legality of the employer’s actions from every possible angle and see if the termination violated the law.

Sometimes, I have to have the difficult discussion in which I explain that what is unfair is not always unlawful. I ask my clients to envision a football field with a “0” at one end and a “100” at the other. I explain that people who work at the zero are in absolute job heaven – things could not be better. I explain that people who work at the 100 are enduring unlawful actions at the hands of their employers. And then I explain that anyone working between those yard markers is in a situation that can be anywhere from mildly unpleasant to downright horrible – but not necessarily unlawful.

Many people are, understandably, dismayed when I say this. It is not necessarily a source of comfort to hear that you can work hard, perform well, and still be fired for no reason. People are not always relieved to hear that they do not have a cause of action against their former employer when they are terminated. There is no “whew” factor, like when you go to the doctor and learn that that mysterious symptom actually is not cancer.

That is when my practical side springs into action. My clients and I discuss options, negotiation points, leverage and strategies. We talk about what we can do and how I may be able to help.

And before we close, I try to provide encouragement and comfort to the people who are putting their trust in me, my legal analysis and my advice. I want them to know that I understand what they feel and that they actually not only will get through this, but they will do even better work-wise when they get to the other side of the situation. I often do this by showing them that if they have survived a breakup of a relationship (and who hasn’t?), they have already gone through the emotions of surviving a job loss. They have already done the work of healing and moving forward. It was simply in a different context. This gives them a bit more self-confidence and perspective on the situation and, if I’m lucky, it gets them to chuckle.

Let’s go back to my Mad Lib®. Following my analogy of the end of a romantic relationship, the Mad Lib would read like this:

I thought everything was going smoothly with my romantic relationship (noun). My boyfriend/girlfriend (noun) seemed happy with me. We got along (verb) well together. I planned to stay with my boyfriend/girlfriend (noun) for a long time.

Then, things got weird. It seemed like my boyfriend/girlfriend (noun) was no longer happy with me and picked on everything I did. I got the sense that my boyfriend/girlfriend (noun) did not want me around anymore and was looking for ways to end our relationship (verb).

Finally, my boyfriend/girlfriend (noun) came to me and told me it was over. I was devastated! I did not deserve this! I’m a good person and a great romantic partner (noun). My boyfriend/girlfriend (noun) has no right to do this to me! I’m scared. WHAT CAN I DO NOW?? Please help me.

Pretty easily interchangeable, yes? So are the emotions, and so are the basic emotional skills for surviving the situation. No, things we go through in life are not always fair. But yes, we can survive them and come out stronger.

And then, weeks or months later, I get the absolute pleasure of receiving an email from a client, writing to tell me how happy s/he is with his/her new _______________ (noun); that s/he cannot believe she was upset when the old ____________________ (noun) ended, because the new ________________ (noun) is so much better…and that s/he is grateful for the advice I gave him/her just a few weeks or months earlier.

My day is made…
 
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