Losing your job can be a jarring, even devastating experience. Amidst the shock and stress, it can be hard to think clearly. But there are a few important steps you can take to make things easier for yourself once the dust has settled and you’re ready for the next phase of your career.
Keep it together
No matter how angry, depressed, or confused you may be, and regardless of whether you feel the reason for termination is valid, it’s essential to keep your act together and maintain a professional demeanor. Swearing, raising your voice, spewing personal attacks, or otherwise creating a scene accomplishes nothing and can ultimately make things worse.
“First, take a deep breath and compose yourself. Your mind is likely scattered, but it’s important to keep your wits about you,” says Karen Schneider, writer for Career Contessa. “Despite whatever you may be feeling, be sure to remain professional and leave emotion out of your reactions and responses.”
Retrieve your personal belongings
Depending on the circumstances of your termination, your employer may or may not allow you to retrieve your personal items yourself. Often, your employer will box them up and mail them to you.
Abby Eisenkraft, a retirement planning counselor with Choice Tax Solutions Inc., explains why some employers won’t permit you to return to your desk: they fear you may send out a nasty email blast or, even worse, delete critical work files.
If you are permitted to return to your desk, whether on your own or escorted by security, avoid the temptation to copy your entire computer drive or other large files. It could be a violation of your employment agreement, as your work products are often considered company property.
“All work created on behalf of the employer (that is not in the public domain) is typically the exclusive property of the employer,” says Ann-Marie Ahern, attorney at McCarthy, Lebit, Crystal & Liffman. “Most employers have employees sign very broad agreements at the onset of their employment defining and restricting use of confidential and proprietary company information. If an employee wants to use documents created during their employment, the safest path is to request permission.”
Return all company property to avoid liability
On a similar note, never take anything that isn’t yours from the workplace. Taking home office supplies is considered theft even when you’re actively employed, and helping yourself to pens and notepads after being terminated will be viewed even more harshly.
Perhaps most importantly, you’ll need to return keys or building access cards to avoid risk of liability. And if you have any company-owned equipment on your person, in your car, or at your home office, return it immediately.
Talk with human resources
Sit down with an HR representative to make sure you have all of your necessary paperwork, and ask about things like the date of your final paycheck and payment for unused vacation time.
“Ask your HR generalist to review all open items with you, including final pay schedule, any open PTO or vacation, and due severance, if applicable,” says Schneider.
You’ll also need to go over your employment contract, if you had one, to be sure you understand the terms and how these may affect your future job prospects.
“Asking for a copy of any agreements that may restrict your future opportunities is wise,” says Ahern. “People are often bound by non-compete agreements and non-solicitation agreements that they do not recall signing. Many terminated employees erroneously believe that these agreements do not apply if the separation is involuntary. Most of the time, however, these restrictive covenants apply regardless of the circumstances surrounding employment.”
Try to negotiate the terms of termination
Although it’s never wise (or productive) to beg or threaten your employer to give you your job back, Valerie Streif, senior advisor with Mentat, says you should try to negotiate the terms of the termination.
“Negotiating the language surrounding termination is also important for individuals to have for applying for future jobs,” she says. “If they can get a statement in writing regarding the terms of their firing that does not make them appear to be a risk to future employers, it will be extremely beneficial in their future job search. “
Ahern also suggests trying to obtain copies of any paperwork, including performance reviews and employee award citations that supports your good performance. Be advised, however, that you may be denied copies of some documentation.
Don’t sign anything upon termination
Ahern says it is important to avoid signing anything at the time of termination.
“Sometimes, you can waive rights or harm a potential claim by signing papers,” she says.
She adds that, even if you had not previously signed a non-compete or similar agreement, some employers may ask you to sign one upon termination.
It is best to wait until you’re able to think more clearly before signing any paperwork that could negatively affect you. And if you have any lingering concerns, you should consult an attorney who specializes in employment law.
Ask about healthcare coverage
You should ask your HR rep for paperwork to be set up with COBRA insurance (some employers will mail this to you). COBRA will allow you to maintain your current employer-provided health insurance – but at an increased cost and for a limited time. You should also inquire as to how long you can remain on your company’s insurance plan (as opposed to COBRA), as workers can often continue company healthcare coverage if they have an upcoming surgery or doctor appointment.
Streif notes that the employer is required to send COBRA election paperwork within 45 days of termination. From that point, the terminated employee has 60 days to elect coverage, which will begin on the day the prior coverage from the employer ends.
Avoid liquidating your retirement account if possible
Eisenkraft advises against liquidating retirement accounts unless it is absolutely necessary. “During the 2008 recession, many clients came in with paperwork reflecting distributions from their 401k/pension accounts. Not good,” she says. “That money is earmarked to be used for later in life, when you need to eat when you are not working!” “It’s difficult to see the forest through the trees when you are terminated,” Eisenkraft adds. “Many emotions are running high (embarrassment, anger, despair) but it’s best to tap other resources and use the retirement account as a very last resort.”
Read more: Check B2C Contributor Profile: Kate Daniel