When it comes to helping people find jobs, it’s fair to say I’m somewhat of an expert. As it happens, I’m also a bit of an expert at getting fired. Call it what you like, but during my career I’ve been ‘retrenched’, ‘laid off’, ‘been made redundant’, ‘sacked’, ‘fired’ and once, all but physically actually ‘kicked out’. Meh, happens to the best of us. Sometimes more than once. Or twice.
So considering this, it would be remiss of me to not tell you how to avoid it happening to you. Not that there’s any guarantees, of course, but I can certainly tell you how to avoid the most common pitfalls. After all, it would be shame if you put all that effort into finding a job, took all my advice to finally get your foot in the door, only to be booted back out of it sooner than you would like.
1. Don’t stop for breath
My first big break in advertising came at Clemenger BBDO as a copywriter. It was a plumb gig and one I’d worked my butt off to finally snare. I literally worked in the mail room for three and half years trying to get a job in the creative department. I slogged it out, worked long hours, worked on creative briefs after hours, did everything imaginable to land that gig. Then I made a fatal mistake: I stopped for breath. And got the sack. You see, after all the effort I’d put in trying to land the job, I got a bit smug and complacent when I finally made it. Understandable that I took my foot off the gas after three and a half years of trying, but it made me very, very dispensable. I was young. Inexperienced. And the first one out the door when things changed.
Don't be dispensable. When you finally land that gig, do whatever you have to, to make yourself so valuable, they at the very least feel really, really bad when they fire you. It’s fair to say no one felt bad when they fired me. Actually, that’s not true, I don’t mind admitting I felt pretty bad. But I was the only one.
2. Don’t get sucked in
Probably one of the biggest mistakes I see now-a-days, and one I also made myself back in the day, was getting sucked in to doing what everyone else was doing. I wanted to fit in, so I tried to be a part of the gang. Which is a noble endeavour, and if you’re joining a motor cycle gang, probably fairly important. But not what I’d recommend doing in a regular job if you haven’t yet earned your stripes.
Like plenty of other places in life, there are double standards in the work place. Just because it’s OK for some people, or even all other people to do certain things, does not mean it’s ok for the new person to do those same things. It’s not unfair, it’s just life. Deal with it. If someone else gets in late, has a long lunch, mucks around on Facebook, or does literally anything other than give 100% effort 100% of the time, do not get sucked in and do the same thing.
Get in earlier, work later. Skip lunch. If you want the lesson in work life balance, go read ‘4 Hour Work Week’.
If you want a lesson in how to make yourself invaluable and the last one on the ‘to be fired’ list, do this. Forget work life balance and do literally everything humanly possible to impress the hell out of the powers that be. People are not impressed when you are late, or even on time for that matter. They’re not impressed when you do your job. They’re impressed when you do more than what is expected of you. Be that person. Not the one who gets sacked.
You know that old story about the two people who get attacked by a bear and one of them puts his sneakers on and his friend says “you won’t be able to outrun the bear”? And he says “I don’t have to outrun the bear, I just have to outrun you”. When it comes to downsizing (ie sacking people) your boss is the bear. Make sure you’ve outrun at least one other person.
3. Leave the politics to the politicians
I once had my creative director yell at me “Get the hell out of my agency”. And in the interest of accuracy, I can tell you he didn’t use the word ‘hell’ but a slightly more graphic one. My crime? Politics. I worked long hours and produced excellent work. I wasn’t exactly a super star, but I was a reliable work-horse. Then I made the critical, and terminal mistake of getting caught up in office politics. So when another member of the creative team, let’s call him ‘Andrew’, (because that was his name), ended up in the firing line due to office politics, I made the mistake of standing right next to him and got caught in the cross fire.
My advice? Don’t stand next to someone who is about to cop a bullet. Head down, bum up, mouth shut. Be Switzerland. Neutral. Stay out of it. And you may just stay in your job.
If all else fails
And finally, one piece of advice for when you do get fired, because, honestly, we live in a volatile and unpredictable world, and the creative industry is about as unstable as they come, so it’s pretty much bound to happen at least once in your career. When it happens, take it personally, but not too personally.
Take it personally enough to have a good, long hard look at yourself and see what you can learn and grow from. Sorry if that sounds a bit touchy feely. Do it anyway. You might learn something useful. Don’t take it too personally though. Getting fired does not necessarily make you rubbish at your job. There are all kinds of reasons you can get booted out, (and I’ve ticked most of those boxes), and not a single one of those reasons ever had anything to do with my talent or ability. So don’t take it too personally.
And finally, remember that it was your skill and enthusiasm that helped you land that job, and you can do it again if and when you have to. (If it was your rich, influential uncle who put in a good word for you, and not your skill and enthusiasm, either make sure you get some new skills and extra enthusiasm happening or stay in the good books with good old Uncle Pete.)
When I got sacked from my first job at the ripe old age of about 21, I was convinced I didn’t have enough talent or experience to find another opportunity and that my career was over. Like many other things since, I was wrong about that. Because the better part of a million years later, it turned out my career chugged along just fine, despite some of the unexpected detours along the way.