Good People Get Fired, But a “Failure Résumé” Won’t Help You Land a New Job

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Here’s a basic workplace truth: Good people frequently get fired.

Steve Jobs got fired from Apple, eventually returning to build it into the high-flying, trend-setting company that it is today. Oprah Winfrey, Walt Disney, and Harry Potter author JK Rowling all got fired, too.

Listing all the famous people who once were “involuntarily terminated” is something that helps boost the spirits of people who just got canned, but take it from me when I tell you that no matter how much you try to sugarcoat it … getting fired really, really sucks

I’ve had lots of jobs, and the more jobs you have the greater the odds that your number will come up and you’ll get canned, too.

It’s happened to me before, and at the end of 2018, it happened again. As you might imagine, it didn’t make for a very Happy New Year.

Yes, it really sucked.

Should you confess to failure?

When I was younger, I would have had an emotional reaction to this event and gone through the 5 stages — anger, denial, depression, bargaining, acceptance — but now, it’s just another hurdle to get past.

But that’s easier said than done, and that’s why I was interested in the concept of the “failure résumé” that Tim Herrera recently wrote about in The New York Times.

Here’s the idea as he explained it:

“Whereas your normal résumé organizes your successes, accomplishments and your overall progress, your failure résumé tracks the times you didn’t quite hit the mark, along with what lessons you learned.

And why would we want to track our failures? As Herrera puts it:

“Because you learn much more from failure than success, and honestly analyzing one’s failures can lead to the type of introspection that helps us grow — as well as show that the path to success isn’t a straight line.”

Well, he’s right about that. People DO tend to learn a lot more from their failures, as someone noted in a really insightful post over at Fistful of Talent titled Smart Leaders Know That Letting People Fail Can Help Them Improve and Grow.

“No greater failure”

As that writer pointed out:

“People need to “fail” if they are to truly grow, and the greatest and most meaningful learning experiences usually come from those times when things don’t go very well. … Want to build better employees who will take smart risks? Letting them fail on occasion, and having them learn from their failure, is a good way to get there.”

For many people, there’s no greater failure than getting fired — even if it’s not your fault and there was nothing you could have done to stop it. I know that people like Liz Ryan make the case that you should just go out and find another job, but again, that’s easier said than done.

It also doesn’t account for the fact that most people pour their self-worth into their work. If they need to leave their job, they want to walk away with their pride and self-worth intact, and on their own terms their own schedule.

However, the reality is that when you get fired, you usually get very little of that … if you get any at all.

If you dig into this New York Times piece on the “failure résumé,” you’ll notice that this trend seems to be popular among academics, particularly people with a Ph.D, and that they encourage others to publish their “failure résumé” the way you would a traditional, accomplishment-based one.

But the example of a “failure résumé” that The Times points to is pretty scary. It seems like a classic case of TMI and something that you would never, ever want to share publicly.

Another way to track your shortcomings

I like the notion of tracking the hows and whys of personal failure, but I would never want to broadcast it to the world … and the unforgiving and judgmental eyeballs of every idiot who can type just well enough to use social media.

My version of a “failure résumé” is a comprehensive list I keep of jobs I’ve applied for — when, where, and what happened. This is just as humbling as publishing a résumé of my failures, if not quite so public. It also gives me great insight into my personal recruiting and hiring process.

Guess what I’ve found? When I did it 10 years ago, my direct mail marketing success rate was about 10 percent. That is, I got an interview from 10 percent of the 120 plus companies I applied to.

That wasn’t bad, I thought, but today it’s a different story.

I’ve been looking for a full-time job for two years and have reached out to about 175 companies … and my direct mail success rate is down in the 1-2 percent range. The odd part of this is that today I’m even more experienced than I was 10 years ago, and with a lot more perspective and insight. Plus, I know that my skills have improved as well.

Getting better all the time

Some people, like fine wine, get better with age.

What has changed, however, is that today I’m  “overqualified” — aka, too old, too experienced, too expensive — and I can’t get the time of day from recruiters and talent managers for a great many jobs I’m clearly qualified to at least interview for.

Plus, the overall candidate experience seems to be a whole lot worse as well.

There’s a part of me that feels that publishing a “failure résumé” would be incredibly liberating. But that’s my optimistic side speaking. My pragmatic side sees the “failure résumé” as just an out for TA pros to use against candidates who are already fighting a system they feel is stacked against them.

As more than one friend of mine has told me, “Wow, I thought everybody was fighting to find good candidates today. What does it say if someone like you can’t get hired with all the skills and great experience you bring to the table?”

I appreciate the support, but I do know one thing: Lots of good people get fired, and a “failure résumé” may help keep you focused on how to improve yourself, but publicly sharing that information is suicidal in today’s recruiting  environment.

I wish it wasn’t so, because a very public failure résumé” DOES have its merits. Unfortunately, none of them have anything to do with getting hired somewhere. 

A version of this article originally appeared on the Fistful of Talent blog.

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