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Learn From a Pink Slip

    A month after landing a job as an account executive at a New York public-relations firm, Michael Goon was fired. The company was vague about the reasons why, but the shock inspired the 25-year-old to reflect on how he could have been a better employee.

    "I wanted to make sure that I wouldn't mess up again," says Mr. Goon.

    He wrangled a meeting with the CEO of New York-based Kaplow Public Relations, who asked him upfront why he had been let go. Mr. Goon mentioned his shortcomings and outlined a plan on how he would achieve some ambitious goals that included personal remedies like being more "focused" and "goal-oriented."

    The company took a chance on Mr. Goon and hired him. After 10 months of hard work, he was promoted to senior account executive.

    Being laid off or fired may make you feel like a terminal failure. But the experience can be used in a productive way, say experts, even if your performance had nothing to do with your layoff. You can use the transition to create a list of resolutions that can be applied to your next job or even used as a template for a new career.

    Be honest with yourself and factor in personal compatibility with co-workers and management. "If you survived to the third or fourth round of layoffs, the company was probably cutting to the bone," says Tim Honn, president of Fortis Recruiting Solutions in Lisle, Ill. "But if you were one of the first to be let go, maybe you should ask yourself if you were in the right job to begin with or the right company."

    You may have been hired into a job where the expectations were completely different from the job description.

    Base your self-assessment on whether you were meeting the goals of the company and not your own expectations, says Stephen Xavier, CEO of Cornerstone Executive Development Group, an executive coaching firm in Chapel Hill, N.C. He believes that as many as a third of employees who are fired don't know why they were let go or are in denial about the real reasons. It's important to accept any mistakes you've made so you can get past them.

    Dig through performance reviews for clues and trends. Years of working overtime with no promotion and several pay cuts may have taken a perceptible toll on your performance and attitude at work. Your company also may have raised the performance bar as a way to justify deeper cuts so there may have been unrealistic expectations.

    The most useful feedback will come from your boss. Maintain civility during the exit interview and ask for some candid feedback about yourself and specifics about why you were let go.

    "It's important that you get that information while still there in person," says Mr. Xavier. "Because once you leave the company, human-resources departments will shut that door to limit their liability."

    Don't dwell for too long on what you could have done differently, however. Get what you need from the experience and use it to find a company with a better cultural and professional fit. It's important to invest all of your energy in moving forward, says Mr. Honn. 

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