Is there a difference between being laid off and being fired?
Yes, there is.
Being fired means being removed from your job because of something you did, like poor performance, misconduct, bad behavior, or violating the terms of employment. If you’re fired from a job, it’s not likely that you would be rehired by that company in the future.
Being laid off means being removed from your job through no fault of your own. You might be laid off because the company you work for is having financial problems, is downsizing, is being or has been acquired (layoffs eliminate redundant positions), or is reorganizing. Unlike being fired, employees who are laid off may be eligible to be rehired at a later date.
In both cases you have been terminated. This is a neutral term used to indicate you’ve left your job, though it doesn’t tell someone whether you were laid off, fired, or retired.
What it means to be terminated
Termination is a general term used to refer to the end of a worker’s employment with a company. For example, if you were on a 12-month contract, the end of contract and your departure from the job is your job’s termination.
Termination can be involuntary (you were fired or laid off) or it can be voluntary (you quit or retire or complete a contract).
What if I was fired or laid off for the wrong reasons?
Discrimination in the workplace is very real, and sometimes people are fired or laid off for discriminatory reasons—like race, pregnancy, parental status, gender, sexual orientation, age, or disability—under the guise of poor performance or downsizing. This is called wrongful termination or wrongful dismissal.
You might tell your boss you’re expecting only to be “let go” a month later because of a “reorg” (even though no one else is laid off). You might notice that you and several colleagues over the age of 40 are fired because of “poor performance” even though your numbers are stellar.
If you believe you have been terminated for discriminatory reasons, “The very first thing you should do is gather and preserve any evidence you can before your access is removed,” says employment attorney Susan Crumiller. “Hopefully you have been documenting as you go, but if not, collect any emails, performance reviews, online chat messages, whatever you can. Also, do your best to figure out what relationships you want to preserve and reach out to those people. It can be invaluable to have witnesses (or even just ears) inside the company after your departure.”
Armed with your evidence, contact the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) or a private employment attorney to discuss your options.
Does getting fired ruin your career? Can I say I was laid off if I was fired?
“Being fired does not ruin your career,” career coach Bessy Tam says. “Companies understand that there are always going to be changes in teams or expectations. Most importantly, you should always feel supported, heard, and encouraged in your current job. If that's not the case, then you would not have thrived in that company or team either way.”
As long as you can find a positive way to talk about your reasons for leaving a job when a potential employer asks, you can bounce back.
Is it better to resign before being dismissed?
Tam advises employees who are feeling like a firing or layoff is imminent not to jump ship just yet, but start looking at opportunities within the company or elsewhere while you’re still employed.
“If you feel that there's a misfit in your current job, make sure you don't resign before you're dismissed. You may potentially miss out on getting unemployment benefits, having an opportunity to change teams internally (if you like the company), or getting another job lined up externally. Create a plan to get feedback from others and work with your manager to improve yourself. At the same time network outside of your current job to line up an opportunity that's a better fit.”
Laid off vs. fired: how to explain it in an interview
In an interview, you’ll almost certainly be asked, why are you looking for a new job?
How to talk about being laid off
If you were laid off, the explanation will probably be an easy one.
I was laid off with 10 percent of the workforce when the company reorganized. While it was unexpected and I was disappointed to leave, I’m using this as an opportunity to expand my career.
My company was going through some financial troubles and laid off my team. But that just means I’m free to try something new.
Or maybe you were on a contract with a defined end date.
My last job with General Electric was a 12-month contract position. That ended last month, and I’m proud of the work I did there. I’m back on the job market, looking for a new and exciting opportunity.
How to talk about being fired
If you were fired, this is your chance to show a potential employer that you’re resourceful, that you don’t give up, that you can turn any bad situation into an opportunity.
Remember, “you don't need to mention being fired unless they ask,” Tam says. “But make sure you don't lie. Great companies often perform background checks by calling past employers so it's always better to be honest and thoughtful.”
If they do ask why you left or ask about a resume gap, be honest: “address the situation quickly but provide context as to why it happened objectively and what you did proactively to improve yourself.”
I left my last job because I was fired. I’m not proud of the situation, but I’ve had the time to think about my poor performance. I realize now that I should have been proactive about the problem instead of letting my pride get the best of me. In my next role, I’m going to take a hard-learned lesson and turn it into an opportunity. I am ready to identify issues early and become a proactive problem-solver.
Or maybe you were fired for misconduct.
I’ll be honest—I made mistakes in my last job. I'm not proud of my behavior, but I want to start over. I can't erase what I did, but I can do the right thing moving forward.
Or maybe it wasn’t your last job, but one early in your career.
I was actually let go from my first job. It was early in my career, and I did not conduct myself like a professional. However, in the job that followed at the company, where I work now, I have logged a spotless record and have even been promoted. I learned my lesson the hard way, but now I can take what I learned and be a better leader and role model for entry-level employees.
“Never blame your company, previous manager, or work,” Tam says. “If an interviewer hears how you bad-mouth your past company, they will expect that you will do the same in this company and may be flagged as a ‘toxic person.’ Great companies know that toxic people ruin workplace culture.”
If I'm suing my employer for wrongful dismissal, can I talk about that in an interview?
“Ninety-nine percent of the time, I would say ‘hard no’ to disclosing your legal action to a new employer, for strictly practical reasons,” says Crumiller. “The reality is that many companies will see you as a troublemaker. It is better to be vague and stay as positive as possible. Focus on the new company and how great you think they are and how excited you are for the opportunity.”
But, she says, if your former employer’s behavior was so undeniably horrible—so horrible they made headlines, for example—you may get away with talking about it. But “don’t trust your own judgment on this—ask a friend,” she says. “There is a lot of victim-blaming in our society. Practically speaking, in the job search, it is better and safer to keep things focused on your qualifications than to muddy the waters with extraneous facts.”
Additionally, if your case is or was public or picked up by the media, Crumiller says it’s “better to disclose proactively so it doesn’t seem like you’re hiding something.”
Need more help? Here are some more resources.
Can I collect unemployment if I’ve been fired? What if I was laid off?
Unemployment insurance is money that you can collect if you’ve lost your job “through no fault of your own.”
Unemployment benefits are regulated by state, not federally, and laws differ across the country. Generally, you can get a portion of your former pay for up to 26 weeks while you search for a new job, and some states require that you worked for your company for a certain period of time to qualify.
If you were laid off from a job because the company was downsizing or reorganizing, you likely qualify to collect unemployment in your state.
If you were fired from your job because of poor performance of bad behavior, you don’t likely qualify to collect unemployment benefits. You also won’t likely qualify if you simply quit your job or left to go back to school. But check your state's benefits to be sure.
If you need information about unemployment insurance for a job loss related to COVID-19, see this page from the U.S. Department of Labor.
About our sources
Susan Crumiller is the founder of Crumiller P.C., a feminist litigation firm dedicated to fighting gender and pregnancy discrimination in the workplace. Crumiller provides representation in all types of employee matters, including race discrimination, age discrimination, executive compensation, sexual harassment, negotiating severance, securing reasonable accommodations, family and medical leave, and employment agreements. The firm also has a clientele of small business owners it advises on employment matters.
Bessy Tam is a tech career coach helping high performing professionals from traditional backgrounds land dream non-technical jobs in tech. She's been in the tech industry for more than six years and has helped clients even during this pandemic land offers at Apple, Facebook, Google, LinkedIn, Salesforce, Trunk Club, L2, startups, and more.