‘Leaving to Pursue Other Opportunities’

Larry Kamer
No one likes to talk about it much, but at some point in your PR career you may be let go or even get fired.  It’s particularly tough the first time it happens, and it’s not exactly the kind of thing you prepare for.  As Ron has pointed out elsewhere in this blog, it’s likely you’ll have seven or more jobs in your career.  It’s unlikely that all of those transitions are going to be voluntary.

Is there a good way to handle such a difficult situation in a way that allows you to keep your future prospects, and your self-respect, intact?

Don’t do what I did when I found myself getting the boot for the first time.  In the early 1980s I was working on a political campaign.  The candidate decided to change campaign managers.  As the #2 guy, I was going to be part of the purge.  It happens in politics.

But I decided I didn’t want to get fired.  So I basically disappeared.   I figured if the new guy couldn’t find me, he couldn’t fire me.  I was right, for a time.  After a week of dodging messages and not returning calls, I presented myself to the new boss and was of course canned.  In retrospect, he was a lot nicer about the whole thing than he had a right to be.

In the last 25 years, I’ve managed large staffs at Fleishman-Hillard, MS&L, and the Glover Park Group.  I started, ran, and sold a PR firm with about 35 employees.  Unfortunately, separating people from employment has always been part of my responsibilities.  (Managers in the agency world don’t get trained very well in this area, which often adds to the difficulty, but that’s a topic for another time).

Generally people get let go for one of two reasons:  performance or firm economics.  Transparency and communication make it a lot easier on both parties in either case, and can help you feel a lot more confident in the decision and yourself if it ever happens.

If your performance is lacking, the meeting where you’re let go shouldn’t be the first time it gets on your radar.  Well-managed firms will have an institutionalized performance review process that also allow problems to be raised and solved long before they become terminal. 

Don’t take a passive attitude about reviews.  Many managers find the whole review process to be a chore, distracting from billable work, or not something they’re particularly good at. I always paid more attention to employees who didn’t wait for me to raise issues. 

You can’t be clueless, either.  If you were smart enough to get hired by a good firm, you should be smart enough to pick up on small signals that things may not be going well.  Don’t ignore these.  Do a gut-check with a trusted colleague or your immediate supervisor (or use resources like this blog).  Your boss will generally appreciate your being attuned to the issue and having the courage to raise it, even if you risk over-reacting a bit.  Be sparing in these requests.  You don’t want to look as if you need permission or approval to do every part of your job.

Firms don’t always do a great job at helping their employees understand agency economics, which are often treated as a dark secret.  They’re pretty simple.  If business slows, or the firm loses a big account or is faced some other sort of reversal, layoffs are often the most efficient way to claw back scarce dollars.  People are expensive, and become especially vulnerable if they’re at either extreme of the pay scale or tied to a vanishing account.

A few years ago a colleague and I had to lay off ten people in one day.  Even though we had both performed the unpleasant task before, it was tough, as it always is.  In each meeting, my colleague would repeat the same piece of advice:  “You can’t let this define you.”  At the time it seemed like an odd thing to say, but he was right.

It’s very hard for one person to stand up to the forces that drive layoffs.  And performance may well be in the eye of a boss who’s just never going to like you.  But if you’ve taken the initiative to identify and rectify problems, and it still isn’t going to work out, chances are the job wasn’t destined to be a good fit.  It’s small comfort when you get put out of work, but in the long run will help you be much more discerning about what you’re good at doing, what you enjoy, and the place where you’ll want spend your career.

Larry Kamer is a communications consultant specializing in risk and crisis management.  He is based in San Francisco.  Reach him at lkamer@kamergroup.com.

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