Skip to main contentA logo with &quat;the muse&quat; in dark blue text.
Advice / Succeeding at Work / Changing Jobs

The Hard Conversation You Need to Prep for if Your Job’s on the Line

person sitting at a desk talking on the phone looking stressed
Thomas Barwick/Getty Images

One of the most shocking conversations you will ever have in your job is when your boss tells you that you’re done working for the company. Maybe it’s a layoff that completely blindsides you. Maybe it’s a performance-related issue that you were aware of.

No matter the cause, the actual event can be a total shocker. While getting fired and getting laid off may involve different things, it’s important to handle the situation professionally either way. And one way to do that is to prepare for it before it happens. So if you’re concerned at all about losing your job in the near future, this is well worth a read.

Related: Laid Off Due to Coronavirus? Here’s What You Can Do Now

Because as challenging as it may be to stay focused and present in the conversation, that’s your goal. It might be difficult to think of it as such, but this is an important business discussion. Think negotiating your severance or termination package.

Here are seven tips on how to handle yourself and what to say when you’re at a loss for words.

1. Stay Present and Manage Your Emotions

I once heard a colleague rant that they wanted to get laid off in the next round of workforce reductions. They were vocal about how they would welcome the chance to get away from their team, their boss, their job. In the next round, as luck would have it, they got laid off.

But they didn’t run around and high five everyone declaring their happiness. They freaked out. They yelled. They told everyone how unfair the system was. They loudly declared they were not going to help transition their work to someone else. There was a tacit understanding among the managers that, “Yep, we made a good decision on that one.”

You don’t want to be that person.

Even if you hate your job and are pining for a layoff notice, a job loss can knock the wind right out of you. The choice to leave is no longer yours; someone has made the decision for you, and that can be hard to swallow.

Instead of ranting like my former colleague, take a long, slow exhale and ask for a minute to process the news. When you manage your emotions by pausing like this, you help yourself stay calm, and you give yourself a chance to be present for the rest of the inevitable conversation. And by not allowing yourself to react immediately, you preserve your hard-earned reputation.

2. Keep Your Dignity

A former employee was on a last-chance performance agreement. Basically, if they screwed up one more time, they’d be fired, and they knew it. Well, it wasn’t long before they screwed up. When I delivered the news of their termination, I could see the layers of shock, regret, and remorse on their face. They might’ve cried. They promised to change their behavior. They begged me to change the decision. (I didn’t.) It was cringeworthy, and I was embarrassed for them.

When managers are preparing for layoffs and termination, the process is well on its way by the time you get the message. The organization’s new head count has been calculated, the separation package prepared, and workspace charts changed. Begging for your job will almost never change the manager’s mind. So keep your dignity intact and focus on the rest of your conversation.

3. Get Your Stories Straight

Ask how the company plans to represent your separation from the company. When you seek your next gig, your employer and you want to be singing the same karaoke lyrics, if you know what I mean.

You can help inform this. A simple request will do it: “I want to be sure that when you reference how I departed the company, it doesn’t hurt my chances for my next job. Can we talk a bit about what you will say when others ask?” Ask for this in writing, so you have an official document that says you were laid off and not fired. If you’ve been fired, your employer might agree not to mention the termination and instead simply verify the dates you were employed by the organization.

4. Inquire About Getting Assistance Finding a New Role

Many companies hire consultants to help employees find new gigs. Ask what kind of support, if any, the organization plans to provide. Determine how long that support will last, and what kind of career coaching you’re eligible for. And, again, get it in writing if you can.

5. Ask if You’re Allowed to Apply for Other Positions Internally

Company policy may dictate this. Some places will let you do so right away. Others may impose a waiting period before rehiring or allowing you to freelance for the company in the future. If you were fired for performance-related issues, you probably don’t want to ask, and your employer probably hopes you won’t. But, if you’re being let go because of team restructuring, it’s worth asking what other opportunities may be available to you.

6. Take Care of You

Get the details on severance, health insurance, when you can expect your final paycheck will arrive; how you will be compensated for unused vacation, sick, or personal time; when you’ll be reimbursed for travel expenses; and how you’re expected to get all of your things home. Some offices will offer to ship items to you so that you don’t have to deal with the incredibly awkward and uncomfortable packing up your area while your employees work beside you.

If you have stock options, bonuses, sales commissions, tuition reimbursements, or other extras attached to your position, ask about those as well.

In a layoff, ask if you’re going to be expected to help transition the work, what the expectations are, and how long that period will last. And if you’re getting terminated, get clear on whether you’re expected to leave the building ASAP—and will have your access to email and Slack revoked immediately—or if you can take a few hours to get your things in order.

Once you’ve got a handle on these details, you can step away for a day or two, and test the areas where you’d like to negotiate. Perhaps you want more severance, a longer period in transition counseling, or a retention bonus for doing a super great job transitioning your work. Be prepared to justify any requests and outline a specific proposal for what you’d like to see.

7. Don’t Sign Anything

You’re going to come up with more questions over time. Let your manager know you’ll review all the information that’s provided. Let them know you’ll revert with any questions or clarification you need.

Until all the details are hashed out, don’t sign anything. Most employers want you to sign a general release that says you’ll bring no legal action against them. Your final payouts are contingent upon you signing the documents. If there was ever a good time to have an attorney read over a document before you sign it, this is it!

Unexpected moments like layoffs or terminations can feel like a devastating personal attack. And there’s no doubt, they can be difficult to process. When you’re able to step back, and ask for what you need, however, you’ll find a small sense of empowerment that might surprise you. No matter how hard the news is, stay cool, be a pro, and start thinking about your next move. And remember to take a couple of days before you hastily (and dramatically) post a major update on your social media channels.