Good People Get Fired, But Is a “Failure Résumé” the Best Way to Cope With It?

John Hollon candidate experience, Career Advice, Communication, Email, Employment Branding and Culture, Job Market, Networking, Resumes, Selection, Social Media, Talent Acquisition 4 Comments

Here’s a workplace truism that’s hard to dispute: Good people frequently get fired.

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

Pointing out all the famous people who once were “involuntarily terminated” is something that helps to boost the spirits of people who just lost their job,  but take it from me when I tell you that no matter how much you try to sugar coat it … getting fired really, really sucks

I’ve had a lot of jobs, and the more jobs you have the greater the odds are that your number will come up and the workplace reaper will get you, too.

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

Should you fess up 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 that I’m older, I just consider it 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 here at FOT titled Smart Leaders Know That Letting People Fail Can Help Them Improve and Grow.

“No greater personal 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.”

In my book, there’s no greater personal 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 that’s easier said than done.

It also doesn’t account for the fact that most people put a chunk of their self-worth into their work. If they need to leave their job, they want to leave it with their pride and self-worth intact — on their own terms and on 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 people to publish their “failure résumé” the way you would one that was accomplishment based.

But, the published 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 for any reason.

Another way to track your shortcomings

I like the notion of tracking the hows and whys of personal failure, but I would never, ever 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 from this? When I did it around 10 years ago, I was able to see that my direct mail marketing success rate was about 10 percent. That is, I got a solid response or interview from one out of 10 of the 120 plus companies I reached out to.

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

I’ve been looking for a full-time job for two years and have reached out to somewhere in the neighborhood of 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 have 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 thought to be “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 the optimistic side of me coming out. My pragmatic side sees the “failure résumé” as just another thing for jaded and overwhelmed TA pros to use against candidates who are already fighting against 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 can’t disagree with that assessment, but I do know one thing: Yes, lot 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 and hiring 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. 

John Hollon

John Hollon is an award-winning journalist and nationally recognized expert on leadership, talent management, and smart workforce practices. He currently is Editor-at-Large at ERE Media. He also was founding Editor of the popular talent management website TLNT.com, and before that, Editor of Workforce Management magazine and workforce.com.
John also held editing positions at the Los Angeles Herald Examiner and the Orange County Register, and was top editor for Gannett at two statewide papers —Montana’s Great Falls Tribune and The Honolulu Advertiser. He also has deep experience in magazine and online publishing as editorial director at Fancy Publications, VP of Editorial at Pets.com, and Editor of the San Diego Business Journal.
In addition, John is an adjunct professor in the College of Communications at California State University, Fullerton, and a board member at the Kronos Workforce Institute. He holds an MBA from Pepperdine University’s Graziado School of Business & Management, and lives in Southern California.

Comments 4

  1. Love this post John. I’m so tired of hearing about the talent shortage while “overqualified” people struggle to find a new opportunity, even at levels well below their capabilities. My failure resume is impressive! But for now I’ll keep that impressiveness to myself.

  2. Suckers play to be too open about how your failures led to you being unemployed. Only 10% of all hiring entities, maybe less will be open to that.

    You’d like to think the world is deeper than that, but they’re not. Plus, sometimes people fail because the company, manager and team was dysfunctional, and nobody wants to hear anyone put any of it on others when they’re thinking about hiring them.

    KD

  3. Good people get fired or failed if the excellent results on the job cause embarrassment to higher-level managers. They may think that you must be cutting corners to hit your goals so easily. They would rather get rid of you than ask “How did you do it? We’d like you to teach everyone else to do what you’re doing.”

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