Pink-Slipped After 40: How to Handle Being Fired

All that wisdom and experience (and salary!) can make you a target for firing. But it can also help you cope with the pink slip, keep your dignity, and move on after the lay-off.

By Mary Lou Quinlan
Mary Lou Quinlan
Photograph: Photo courtesy of Mary Lou Quinlan

Deconstructing Layoffs

Ever heard someone say, "Being fired was the best thing that ever happened to me?" Well, I’ve missed out on that post-layoff afterglow, because with a 30-year career under my belt, I was never booted. And now that I’m my own boss, I guess I’ll never know the joy firsthand.

Still, I have to confess that I’ve fired dozens of colleagues and employees and, sadly, many of them were friends. I had good reasons — cost cuts, performance issues, wrong place/wrong time. But I can’t forget those difficult meetings that I always seemed to open by saying "Please close the door." Most of my victims bounced back and (I hope) moved on to better places. Others may still have a Mary Lou voodoo doll in a bottom file drawer.

My history is on just one side of the desk, but I’ve spoken to many women who wanted to deconstruct what happened when the boom fell. While a firing affects each of us differently, I see some common threads in the midlife experience. First comes disbelief, even if there’s also the relief of escaping a job gone bad or just one that’s gone on too long.

Next comes the realization that we are competing in a job market that’s vastly different from the one we remember from the last time we polished up a resume. Technology has accelerated, opportunities (at least at the highest levels) are fewer, and, of course, we’re competing against younger colleagues who are — or appear to be — willing to work more hours for less pay. But if our age and experience can make us more vulnerable, they can also be good buffers to despair. I asked MORE readers to tell me how they’ve handled this kind of news, and how they’ve gotten up and moved on.

Happy Birthday — You’re Fired

Shara Mitchell built a successful career the good-girl way. From her early days as a banker, she worked hard to rise to a senior vice president job at Old National Bank, in Evansville, Indiana. She relished being a top performer, improving efficiencies, and earning nice raises year after year. This past summer, Mitchell completed a major project, clocking many 80-plus-hour weeks. She didn’t see the end coming.

On Mitchell’s 45th birthday, her boss rescheduled their regular monthly meeting at the last minute. Mitchell didn’t think much of it until she approached her boss’s office and noticed the human resources representative sitting there. Despite her excellent performance, Mitchell was told, she was out; her division was being consolidated. "Some birthday present," she says. "I felt mortified, traumatized, and violated. It literally broke my heart."

Months later, Mitchell is still puzzling over what went wrong. Was it her age, her salary level, that she was outspoken in a largely low-key culture? It doesn’t comfort her to realize that there were signs along the way, and that she could have read them differently. "Meetings were canceled; my input and recommendations were no longer solicited," she recalls. "I had three bosses in 14 months, and three were let go. I wish I’d left when my last boss was let go."

Her family, friends, and even former customers have been supportive. And Mitchell has needed that support; coping with this loss has been like coping with a death. "I have to go through the four stages: denial, anger, grief, and acceptance," she says. "I am between anger and grief right now.

In the future, Mitchell hopes to sell her years of experience and maturity to another employer. But in the meantime, she’s grateful for the perspective she’s gained over those years. "If this had happened in my 20s or 30s, it might have made me fearful or dampened my drive," she says. "But I’ve dealt with other trauma in my life and survived it. I know I will survive this one."

The Best Defense?

Not every firing takes you by surprise. But even if you’re able to read the signs, the best you can do in some cases is simply to face reality. Just over three years ago, Eileen Boylen, 52, of Walpole, Massachusetts, who handled the marketing for a nonprofit company, did see the writing on the wall.

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