Heather, a sales professional in the health insurance industry, got the mother of all accidental e-mails last year.
"A representative from HR accidentally cc'd me in a letter discussing plans for my termination," the San Diego resident said. "Within moments of sending the e-mail she tried to recall it, but that only drew more attention to it. The cat was out of the bag."
For Doug, a financial analyst from Greensboro, N.C., the tipoff was finding his own position listed online. For Eric, an advertising professional in Phoenix, it was stumbling upon a new seating chart his boss had left in the copier -- minus Eric's name. And Valerie, a social media marketing professional in Denver, received a premature note of condolence from a friend of her manager -- on Twitter.
There aren't any statistics on the number of employees who've been subject to such sloppy information leaks since the recession began. But I didn't have to look far to find workers who'd learned of their impending layoff from an errant e-mail, ill-timed job listing or confidential document mistakenly left in a public printer.
Just last month, this kind of "soft firing" happened to two friends of mine at two different companies. Last September, it happened to the entire staff of a prominent ad agency.
Shocking and upsetting as it may be, there's a right way and a wrong way to deal with a soft firing like this. So let's talk about what you should do, who you should tell and what you should fight for if you find yourself on the losing end of such a bean spilling.
Take some time to compose yourself, but don't wait too long. To keep your job, you have to act quickly, said Cynthia Shapiro, author of "Corporate Confidential" and "What Does Somebody Have to Do to Get a Job Around Here?"
"You can negotiate your way through this," said Shapiro, a former human resources executive who's now a business and career consultant. "I've helped people get their job back even two weeks after the layoff."
Her advice? Go to the person who sent the e-mail or left the document in the printer and say, "I couldn't help but notice this. Is there anything that can be done to change the outcome?"
If the person you're speaking with wasn't the decision maker, ask who was and speak to them. And if you don't know who left the telltale doc in the color copier, talk to your boss.
Diplomacy will get you far. So will remaining calm. Hysteria has no place in this discussion.
"You want to say that it's because you love the company and you want to stay, not because you need the job and don't want to be unemployed," Shapiro said.
You also want to have this conversation in a private setting, as discretion is key.
"You need to let them know you're not going to tell anyone else about this," Shapiro said.
Because it's easier to find a job when you already have one, see if you can buy yourself a little time at your existing job. Shapiro suggests negotiating a 20 percent pay cut or a four-day workweek.
"Companies don't necessarily want to say that they're giving employees a 20 percent pay cut because they're afraid of what that's going to do to morale," Shapiro said. But if you're the one making the suggestion, they just might bite.