Always leave ’em smiling. My father instilled this wisdom in me from a very young age.
Leaving things on a good note after a grade-school tap recital or thanking a college professor? Easy. Departing gracefully after stomaching bad news at work? Not so much.
In 2016, I was suddenly laid off from a magazine job I adored. I had two choices: I could scream and burst into tears in the HR department or march to the editor-in-chief’s office, thank him for hiring me and let him know how much I enjoyed working there. I chose the latter. Four years and a successful freelance career later, I’m glad I did.
The ordeal taught me a valuable lesson: Rejection can be a good thing if you use it as an opportunity to learn. The pros agree.
“The humility that comes from rejection will actually serve you well in the long run, if you can channel it as a source of motivation for growth, change and evolution,” said Dr. Sabrina Romanoff, a clinical psychologist at Lenox Hill Hospital. “If we were protected from rejection, we would rob ourselves from the metamorphism that occurs when we are introspective.”
Below, experts weigh in on exactly what to do in light of a career knock back.
You’re laid off or furloughed
Being let go — especially unexpectedly — can be a real blow, but it’s also the chance for immense self-growth. Channel that contestant on “The Bachelorette” who got snubbed at the rose ceremony and wished the winners the best rather than sulking off in a huff. (He’s probably the one happily married now.)
“Research shows that the last impression is the one people remember most vividly, so leave your boss with a positive, hopeful feeling, not one of anger, sadness or guilt,” said Riya Kuo, a global career coach to unconventional leaders. “Show empathy for the uncomfortable position they’re also in, thank them for their contributions to your career and share specific ways they can help you accomplish what you want to do next.”
Don’t forget to ask for a reference, too.
You’re turned down for a promotion
Take a deep breath. First things first, it’s important to remember that this may not be a reflection of your work but the result of the company’s internal structure and/or balance sheet.
“Ask your manager for some specific, actionable steps or deliverables you can make between now and reconsideration of the promotion/raise, as well as a defined timeline,” said Kuo. “Understand from them how you can best help them help you, such as regularly providing them with more ammo like concrete wins, closed deals or customer praise.”
When you advance in your career, it makes your manager look good, so getting concrete feedback on their expectations for your role can “make that part of their job easier for them,” said Kuo. “Reiterate your willingness to grow in your role: A boss that feels positive and optimistic about you is more likely to put energy into helping you get that promotion or raise.”
Keep in mind, too, that this can be a wake-up call for reassessing how much longer you want to stay in this particular job.
“Be sure to ask for the specific reason why you were turned down for a promotion or a raise, then reflect on whether you proved you deserved it or not,” said Leroy Ware, co-founder and chief technology officer of Knack.io, a full-service recruiting agency for engineers and other highly specialized candidates. If you feel your work merited the new title or extra dough, you may need to “move on to the hundreds of new opportunities elsewhere.”
You’re rejected for a project you really wanted
Red rover, red rover, let everybody but you come over. Coping with the disappointment of seemingly your whole team being selected to work on a project that excites you or having another team member being chosen over you can be tough.
Instead of being negative, “take a look at what you have been assigned, identify elements there where you can showcase that skill set, pour your heart and soul into it, and demonstrate to your boss that you have the qualifications for the next project,” said Jessica Zweig, CEO of SimplyBe agency and author of “Be: A No Bulls - - t Guide to Increasing Your Self Worth and Net Worth by Simply Being Yourself” (Sounds True/Macmillan, out Feb. 16, 2021).
“For example, if you’re a content writer at an organization, but you really want to focus on design, look for elements in the project where you’ve been assigned that will showcase your artistic skills,” she said. Then, next time a project in the design realm pops up, you’ll be able to show you’ve got the chops to handle it.
You’re rejected for a job you know you’d excel at
Sure enough, those endless rounds of interviews ended in a big fat pass. What now?
The key here is turning dismissal into the start of a professional relationship.
“The word ‘no’ can often just mean ‘not right now,’ so thank them for their time, letting them know you’d absolutely love to keep the door open if anything changes or opens up for future opportunities,” said Ashley Stahl, career expert and author of “You Turn: Get Unstuck, Discover Your Direction, Design Your Dream Career” (BenBella Books, out Jan. 26, 2021).
Now is also the time to inquire if any freelance opportunities are available. Chances are, if they put you through the interview wringer, they think highly of you and, if nothing else, they may feel bad about rejecting you after all those interviews, tests and even checking your references.
After you’ve said your piece, take a few minutes to recap any takeaways from the interview process and try to jot down something personal about the interviewer(s) for your own records. “In a few months, you can send them an article or something you know they’d be interested in to stay in touch and build a professional relationship,” suggested Stahl.
You’re turned down for a freelance gig
In this situation, Zweig is all about her mantra: “It’s not a rejection, just a redirection.”
She stresses keeping your head up, knowing you’ll find a better fit down the line.
As with the job-interview rejection scenario, you can also try to convert the “no” into other gigs for the company.
Also, ask for intros to other departments where you might be a better fit. You can also ask for specific feedback on why you were rejected, so you can try to tailor future work proposals, including a sharp idea or two for other projects when you reply to their rejection e-mail.