Woman holding box of belongings in an office
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Molly Johnson-Jones is still haunted by memories of being fired seven years ago. In her early twenties, 18 months into a job as a retail analyst at an investment bank, she asked to work from home one day a week. “I suffer from an autoimmune disease, which can cause pain and swollen joints,” she explains. “The company said it was open to flexible working but, within 10 days of making the request, I was sacked.”

She says her boss invited her into a meeting room, asked her to sign a settlement package, which she did, and told her to leave immediately, blaming underperformance. “Up until that point, there hadn’t been a single hint that I could be doing better,” says Johnson-Jones. “I was escorted out of the building. It was really traumatic and I thought it was all my fault.”

The confusion around hirers’ flexible working policies that she encountered in her subsequent job hunt led her to start a business, London-based Flexa, in 2020. It connects jobseekers to a directory of companies verified to offer flexible working. “If I hadn’t been fired, I probably would have stubbornly carried on trying to progress in a ‘prestigious’ career.”

Johnson-Jones says the experience emboldened her to try to change the world of work. “I’m doing everything I can to create a working environment where everyone in my team can thrive in their own way, and Flexa’s mission is to empower other business leaders to do the same.”

Molly Johnson-Jones and her dog
Molly Johnson-Jones: ‘I probably would have stubbornly carried on trying to progress in a “prestigious” career’

Sarah Owen’s entrepreneurial journey also began after being sacked from a marketing job. “I called out a male colleague who was mistreating female staff, and the atmosphere towards me immediately changed,” she says. “I went from being a rising star in the company to being almost invisible.”

Owen was told there was “simply no role for her anymore”, she says, and given notice. Initially, she was ashamed and shocked — but then she got angry. “I didn’t want to let the situation define me so I pulled myself back up, took out a £10k loan and launched my own PR agency, Pumpkin.

Sarah Owen: ‘I didn’t want to let the situation define me’

“I realised I was stronger and more resilient than I thought.”

Being fired has shaped how Owen manages and leads her team of 14 at Pumpkin, launched in 1998. “I’ve set clear values, including being honest, fair and respectful. When we’ve had to let people go, it is always handled with compassion and sensitivity.”

She still faces double standards at work, however: “I have often been called bossy or pushy when a man would be called just confident or assertive.” And, generally, men who are average still survive and thrive more often than women who are good, she argues.

Data backs this up, showing that women are too often disproportionately affected by job cuts. In the pandemic, women’s workforce participation fell so sharply it was labelled the “she-cession”, with one in four women, globally, downsizing their careers or leaving work, according to McKinsey, the consultancy.

Sexism is still prevalent in the workplace, argues Catherine Mayer, author, campaigner, and entrepreneur. “Partly for your own sanity, you end up becoming almost desensitised to it.” She co-founded the UK’s Women’s Equality party, with Sandi Toksvig, in 2015 to campaign for gender equality in politics, and co-founded the Primadonna Festival, which celebrates creativity, in 2019.

Catherine Mayer
Catherine Mayer: ‘Taking legal action unexpectedly gave me a sense of community’ © Leo Cackett

Mayer was previously a senior editor, based in London, at Time magazine. After losing her job in 2015, Mayer sued the company for alleged sex and age discrimination, taking legal action in New York, where Time and its senior management were based.

Under the US legal system, the suit became public. “I feared the media response and potential reputational damage,” she says. But other women started to share their stories: “Taking legal action unexpectedly gave me a sense of community.”

The case came to an amicable resolution in 2018. “It was a horrible roller-coaster ride but it was worth every sleepless night,” she says. “If I had gone quietly, accepted the process, I would have been left with a sense of failure . . . In fighting back, I regained strength and confidence the experience had drained.

“I’d say I’m braver now, possibly even fearless in the work context.”

Practical pointers: how to rebound after a career setback

Reflect: “It’s important to take some time to process what’s happened so you can enter the next phase of your career with clarity and confidence,” says Joseph Liu, career change consultant and host of a podcast, Career Relaunch.

Seek support: Talk to someone, such as a career coach or trusted mentor, who will advise on next steps, says Corinne Mills, author of You’re Hired!: Standout CVs. “If you are exiting via a settlement agreement, [some] companies will fund this as an outplacement for you.”

Relaunch: “Use the time you now have between jobs to update your CV and LinkedIn profile,” says Liu.

Craft your narrative: At interviews, avoid long justifications about why you left your last employer. “Keep it brief, and upbeat, and focus on the positives of why they should hire you,” says Mills.

Reframe your mindset: “Adopt a forward-facing stance, away from your backward-looking feelings of regret, anger or embarrassment,” says Amy Edmondson, Professor of leadership and management at Harvard Business School and author of Right Kind of Wrong. “Finding new job opportunities happens more easily when you force yourself to have a positive attitude.”

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