You are not completely powerless. Here’s how to make a graceful exit without burning any bridges.

You would think that getting fired is out of your control and that there isn’t much you can do to influence such a seemingly catastrophic event.

But you are not completely powerless. How you handle your dismissal, termination, downsizing, rightsizing, reduction in force or whatever your soon-to-be-former employer calls it is important to your self-esteem, your reputation and your future employability. Here’s what to do:

Compose yourself. Take a deep breath. Let it out. Count to 10 if you have to. The point is to not lash out, which never helps (and can hurt).

Compartmentalize your fear, anger and disbelief. It takes effort, but try to schedule your venting for later, when you’re in the company of loved ones.

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Claim your rights. Do you have severance pay coming? Unused vacation or sick days? Now is the time to find out. Some companies offer help getting a new job. This is also a good time to ask what sort of reference your employer plans to give you.

Compliment your boss. This may sound ridiculous, but it shows maturity. All you have to say is, “Thank you. I learned a lot working here.” Even if all you learned is that you never want to work for those people again.

Clear out with class. Gather your stuff and walk away with your head held high. Wish your boss and co-workers well. Remember, they are part of your network, and networking is how you get a new job.

There are also a few things you should not do. Do not be insulted if an “escort” stays with you while you pack up and leave; it’s standard practice at many companies. Do not tell the boss he/she is a jerk, even if he/she is. And do not plead to keep your job — when you’re let go, let go.

Finally, try to remember that getting fired happens to most everyone. Try to learn from it. If you’re canned for cause (tardiness, poor performance, bad attitude), now is the time to take an honest look at your behaviors. You may be in the wrong job for you. You may have other unaddressed issues; now’s the time to fix them.

Karen Burns is the author of The Amazing Adventures of Working Girl: Real-Life Career Advice You Can Actually Use. Email her at