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Most of us have been fired at some time or another – but only a few admit it. The rest are in denial or gloss over the truth to keep their CVs unblemished. We might have been sacked from a job, an account, a project, by a client – or even from a newspaper column. But life continues, new opportunities arise and, as Nietzsche stated: “That which doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.”
I have been given the boot on more than one occasion but the experience has only encouraged me to try harder. As Steve Jobs said: “Getting fired from Apple was the best thing that could have happened to me.” He went off and founded neXT, then Pixar, and then returned to Apple, and made it vastly more successful than it had ever been.
For him, losing his role at the company he founded was a stimulus to make a new start. I can empathise. As a stockbroking analyst in the 1980s I was passed over for promotion by my then boss (now chairman of the Pru). I don’t really blame him – I was never cut out to be a bank employee. I left shortly afterwards and took up entrepreneurial activities, and have never regretted my move.
There are definitely occasions when losing a job can seem like a huge sense of relief. Earlier in my career I was axed when working as a laboratory assistant at St Mary’s Hospital in Paddington. In truth I was glad to go: my task consisted of analysing human excrement – not the best occupation I’ve ever had.
In spite of the fantasy of The Apprentice, no one at a senior level is actually fired these days. They invariably sign compromise agreements while everyone keeps quiet and pretends nothing went wrong. The alternative can be the grinding misery of an employment tribunal: vast quantities of wasted time, legal fees and – too often – outright lies. Meanwhile, human resources departments spend their lives dreaming up euphemisms for dismissal: “let go”; “restructured”; “downsized”; “discharged”; “relieved of duties” – not that anyone is fooled. Often the executioner says, “It’s nothing personal,” but to the victim it’s always personal. They can feel humiliated – but it can also lead to an honest reappraisal.
Recently, I turned down an investment because I discovered why the proposed chief executive had left his previous job after just two years. He had been asked to go because of “anger management” issues – a fact that was not revealed in his business plan. Such omissions and reinterpretations of history are why employers now use specialists to verify résumés and references. Getting a new appointment wrong can be ferociously expensive, so employers must be more careful than ever.
In truth, hiring and sometimes laying off staff has always been a reality in the private sector and is a necessary evil if our system is to keep functioning. Companies rise and fall, and the fortunes of their workers ride with that economic rollercoaster. Even socially-motivated organisations understand this: look at the 10 per cent workforce cut announced by the Co-op’s financial services arm.
Mass redundancies can seem very unfair to those who are given the chop. But in a corporate rescue the alternative can be complete liquidation – the whole organisation shutting down and the entire workforce being thrown on the street. Ultimately, unproductive jobs don’t last – they just lead to more pain later on. Intelligent citizens know real jobs are not natural phenomena invented for the general benefit of society. They are a byproduct of someone’s urge to build a business and create wealth for themselves.
Jobs for life are a trap, anyway. To learn and to experience all the world has to offer, it makes sense to change jobs at intervals and consider switching careers if things turn bad.
There are endless new vocations for those with get up and go. Even celebrities get sacked – look at Chris Evans and Piers Morgan. But look too at how they have reinvented their lives with new challenges. More and more people are becoming contractors or self-employed, anyway, for the freedom it offers. And one of the best things about working for yourself is that no one can fire you.
The writer is chairman of the UK’s Channel 4 and runs Risk Capital Partners, a private equity firm.
■ONLINE DISCUSSION AND POLL: Join the debate at www.ft.com/gettingfired