Should I Make Changes If I Have Been Fired?

A question to Ask the Workplace Doctors about how to respond better to workplace conflicts and problems. 

Question:
Unfortunately, I lost my job recently due to my temper tantrum. There were MANY factors that contributed to this, but ultimately, I understand that I was the one at fault because I should’ve handled the situation professionally, addressed any concerns immediately and should’ve NEVER tolerated rude behaviors of others repeatedly.

However, I can’t help but still feel angry because I tolerated the unkindness and injustice from several people ever since I started working there. I was stuck working in the same room with one employee pretty much all day. She did not have a pleasant personality and constantly badmouthed other employees. She made problems out of nothing. She would curse and throw her tantrums when she was under pressure to meet deadlines. When someone came in the room just to greet me (sometimes both of us), she would get so angry that she complained about it to the owner. This list goes on. Everyone knew how she is, but decided to keep her around anyway, because despite her difficult personality, she’s good at her job.

Now moving on to the general manager. My first week there, he falsely accused me of mishandling a product. The first employee that I mentioned was in the room when this happened and decided to tell our manager who tried to resolve this issue. Ultimately, the general manager apologized to me. And ever since this incident, I felt like he held a grudge against me. There was also another employee who got upset over a parking spot that DID NOT have a reserved sign. No one ever complained about my work performance, but it was always about some petty BS.

The day I lost my temper was when I felt like I was being pushed around. Our manager was in the room with us and told me to go grab a specific measuring tool from another department. When I went to the other department and asked for the measuring tool, one employee pointed to an empty box and said “‘our manager’s name’ should have it in his office’s cabinet”… Apparently, I slammed the box onto the table and walked out of there very upset. Came back to the room and told the manager what happened. The employees told the manager about my “aggressive” behavior and that’s how I got fired….

Clearly, I was wrong. I should’ve never behaved that way, but I just wanted to explain why I acted irrationally in that short amount of time. I should’ve communicated more effectively, but at the same time, it’s just not me to run to the manager and tattletale or complain about minor stupid shit.

I don’t know what it is, but it seems like someone always has a problem with you if they see you minding your business and just focus on your work. Is it because I’m the youngest there so everyone else felt the need to make me feel alienated and push me to my breaking point? Or is it because I came off too bubbly that cause many to be drawn to me and making the party-poopers envious? Or is there something wrong with me?

Should I change certain aspects of myself to accommodate others? How do I rise above constant complainers? And how do I cope when personalities clash? I ended up resigning my prior jobs due to similar issues, but now that I got kicked out instead of leaving on my own, it’s humiliating and heartbreaking. and I’m having a really difficult time finding another job. I just feel so.. lost.

Response:
Being fired from a job or even reassigned or removed from a project can make anyone feel rejected, bewildered and resentful about how unfair it seems. However, you are taking a good approach, by letting the negative incident inspire self-analysis that can lead to something better in the future.

I will provide some general thoughts, but your best assistance will come from talking to one or more people who know you well enough to give you some realistic critique of the effect of your personality and your communications style and habits. Talk to friends or relatives who have been effective in their own work and who will give you some coaching advice, rather than just agreeing with you or criticizing you. If you have access to professional counseling or career counselling, take advantage of it. Your work should add a positive element to your life, not be a continual source of negative feelings. Look for ways to have that positive aspect in your life.

You will also find it helpful to research our Ask the Workplace Doctors archives and look for the categories that relate to conflict at work, being fired or receiving a disciplinary action. You will find some situations similar to yours and some that are not—but there are many common threads throughout.

Here are some thoughts that can be helpful as you move forward to another job—one that will give you a salary you can depend upon and a work life that will be enjoyable.
1. Firing someone isn’t an easy decision. In any organization with several managers, as you describe, there is usually a process that must be followed. Usually there are requirements for discussions or counseling about behavior or performance. Or, as perhaps in your situation, something happens that seems so severe (a major failure of performance or a major violation of rules or policies) that there can be no delay.

You say you were fired after you had a “temper tantrum”. You said, “Apparently, I slammed the box onto the table and walked out of there very upset. Came back to the room and told the manager what happened. The employees told the manager about my “aggressive” behavior and that’s how I got fired.”

That description certainly doesn’t sound as though you threatened people, yelled angrily or threw things around the room. So, either you seemed much, much more frightening to people than you realized or your managers added that incident to a list of other incidents and received approval to terminate your employment.

As painful as it might be, you will find it helpful to view yourself, throughout your work history and especially this last job, from the perspective of coworkers, supervisors and managers. I sometimes suggest that people pretend to be one of those people and describe themselves. You think of yourself as bubbly, focused on work and just trying to do a good job. How might others describe you, instead? How would your manager have described you in your first few days on the job, later in your work, your final few days? Did anything change in your behavior and performance from day one until the last day?

In your next job, what can you do to keep your first-day attitude day after day, in spite of frustrations and irritations? One thing you can do is to keep reminding yourself that you need the salary and that employment isn’t easy to find—or that you enjoy the work and want to continue doing it. Another thing you can do is to simply make a commitment that as problems develop between you and your manager or you and your coworkers, you will either talk about them and try to resolve them, or you will tolerate the situation and refocus on work while you’re there, then go home and put it out of your mind. I’ll mention more about that at the end of this response.

2. You mention problems with other employees, especially one person who you think of as a problem, but who is tolerated by others. That’s always frustrating but seems to be a common situation. I can’t understand it any better than you can, because I’ve never understood how some employees seem to get their hooks into their work to such an extent than even though everyone wishes they would act differently, no one is willing to make them change.

One frequent reason for tolerating unpleasant behavior is because of the tenure of the employee involved. When someone has been generally effective for many years, it’s difficult to justify firing them for behavioral issues. That is why the first two years of someone’s employment is so important. When an employee is relatively new, it is much easier for managers to end a problem employee’s job, before things gets worse. If an employee can hang on for two or three years, they can establish their value at doing tasks that are needed for the company to continue and their behavior starts being tolerated as a necessary evil. It’s not right, but it’s the way things often happen.

That is why I teach new supervisors the concept of early intervention about problems. When it comes to correcting problem behavior or performance, the earlier the easier. I don’t know your tenure at the last job, but it could be your managers felt there had been enough issues that it was easier to deal with you early-on than to wait until you had been employed so long, you’d be hard to fire.

3. A reality of most employment is that rarely is it the actual tasks of the job that wear you down, it’s the people you work with or the people you encounter as part of your work. Unfortunately, when you are applying for a job, there is no way to know about the personalities of the people with whom you will be interacting. However, you might be able to identify the kind of workplace you think would be ideal for your personality and aim toward a job that would fit you better. You may be in a community where work options are severely limited, but if you do have options, think carefully about your “ideal” work environment.

Would you do better in a bustling workplace or a small office or more confined work space? Do you want to move around, handling a lot of different tasks, or are you happy if you are sitting and focusing on one thing at a time? Do you like to have a casual relationship with your supervisor, so you can chat about things every day or do you prefer a workplace where the supervisor is a bit distant and mostly communicates through email and by phone? You will find it helpful to talk these things out with someone who knows you.

4. You are correct that communicating effectively about problems is better than letting them build up. That is one reason it is so important to maintain a good working relationship with your manager, from day one, so you can quickly ask for assistance in understanding how to correct problems, before they get to a crisis point. It’s also the reason for communicating with coworkers in a courteous way about things that can cause long-term hostilities, if left unresolved. Sometimes, just explaining that you did something irritating unintentionally and won’t do it again, can clear up a misunderstanding and calm anger.

Or, if someone does something to you that you can’t ignore and you don’t want it to happen again, talk to them about it right away. “Maria, you just now walked off when I was asking you a question. I wasn’t trying to upset you, I was trying to find out what I needed to do. What caused you to walk away as if you didn’t want to talk to me?”

Sometimes it may seem that you are apologizing when you think the other person was more in the wrong than you were. But, it’s not selling your soul to at least acknowledge some error on your part. Doing so will gain you many more supporters than pushing back and stubbornly insisting you were right (or stubbornly insisting you weren’t the only one in the wrong.) At least that way, you don’t get a reputation for being hostile and angry all the time.

On the other hand, if you feel a coworker does something that a reasonable person would say is bullying, harassing or doing something to keep you from getting your work done, it’s appropriate to more strongly tell the person to stop doing it, or if that hasn’t worked or you think it won’t work, to talk to your manager about it.

“Mark, that’s the second time you’ve made fun of me when I was talking. I don’t want you to do that again. It’s embarrassing to me. Please stop.” Or, “Mr. Evans, I need your help. Mark makes fun of me when I talk to a customer on the phone and it’s so distracting I can barely think. I’ve asked him to stop, but he won’t. What should I do next?”

5. You also asked if being younger than others at work causes them to be resentful. That can be a contributing factor, if those with whom you have a bad relationship are much older or more experienced than you. Younger employees sometimes are viewed as being overly-aggressive, arrogant or lacking in a sense of respect for what others have done. The older employees who feel that way were often viewed similarly when they were new employees. The age and experience conflict can be reduced or eliminated by being respectful of tenure and experience, waiting to be included, rather than pushing into work groups, and otherwise showing that you don’t have a know-it-all, entitled attitude.

6. You apparently had an ongoing conflict with your general manager. You may have been unfairly targeted by him, because of embarrassment over needing to apologize for an error on his part. However, once again, effective communications can help in those situations. Often, after a negative event, employees shut down when they’re around the manager. They resent what happened and it shows. But, if you treat the situation as an unfortunate misunderstanding and give the manager the chance to see you as a good employee who isn’t going to hold a grudge, such situations often can become a
positive thing. I realize that’s easier for me to say than for someone to do, but it’s a reality of life and work.

7. You say you have never had complaints about your performance, so that is something good to hold onto as you consider your next job. If what caused you problems were things you consider to be trivial or petty matters, you just need to put more effort into three areas:

(1.) Build positive relationships with coworkers. Rarely do coworkers complain about minor things, if their friends are involved or if it involves coworkers they like fairly well. You don’t have to be bubbly, gregarious, witty or attention-seeking, to have people think well of you. Smile when you come to work and leave; ask how people are doing and ask about their families; keep a pleasant tone, even in conflict; don’t gossip or complain about others; offer assistance when possible; apologize when it’s appropriate; be cooperative and appreciative.

(2.) Learn the rules as well as the cultural norms of the company and stick with them. If you violate them, apologize, promise to not do it again and keep moving forward. A corrective comment from a boss or even a chewing out, doesn’t merit sulking over it, being angry about it or remembering it forever. If it happens, just learn from it and move on. If you sit where someone else always sits, park where someone else parks, or do something else that gets a negative reaction, ask what you did wrong, keep a pleasant tone and say you didn’t realize it and won’t do it again. Humility is a great characteristic at work, especially for newer employees.

(3.) Build a positive working relationship with your managers. Your managers want the work to be done well and in a way that doesn’t create problems for them or others. That’s a fairly easy thing to do, if you can take ego and emotions out of your work or at least control them. When you are hired, you have a job description. Fulfill it. When you are interviewed, you usually get a glimpse into how your company and your managers will want you to behave as well as perform. Do things in the way you know is wanted. And if you still get in trouble, talk about it right way to find out what behavior or performance was wanted instead of what you did.

You include in your question, several statements that show you are willing to be introspective about what you may have contributed to the problems. The fact that you wrote about it indicates you are willing to make some adjustments and changes. Those are huge steps toward having a better experience in your next work.

Also keep in mind that you may have been in a workplace in which few efforts were made to coach you to a better level of work. You may have had some poor managers and some unpleasant coworkers and nothing you could have done would have helped appreciably. You may be lucky to have it over with, so you can find a better place. On the other hand, probably some new employees there have been able to make it work, in spite of those conditions, so make a personal commitment to be more resilient about set-backs, in the future.

The bottom line is that you will be going to someplace new, at some time. Plan for that time and place and do some self-coaching about it. When did things start going bad in other places? If you had it to do over again, what would you do differently? What might you say, instead of what you said? What might you do, instead of what you did? Keep in mind that you only have control over yourself and your reactions to things, even though you can try to influence changes in others.

Then, when you start your next job, be mindful, from day one and after that, about the best ways to behave and perform. When tempted to do something other than the best thing, take control of yourself and do things the right way. That may sound a bit overly-simplistic, but it can be very effective.

At the same time, remember that work is not your entire life—even though it pays for the rest of your life. Develop a good life away from work. Exercise, eat well, learn, share, appreciate, and be a contributing part of your circle of family and friends. Having a fulfilling life that has significance away from work is the best way to manage some of the frustrations that are present in every workplace.

Best wishes to you now and in the future. If you have the time and wish to do so, let us know about your successes in your next job. I hope you will find a good place soon, so you can show the best that you have to offer.

Tina Rowe
Ask the Workplace Doctors