In one sense, the only difference between being fired from a job or laid off is semantics. Both descriptions mean a worker is no longer considered employed by the company, and he or she is no longer going to receive regular employee wages or benefits. Some employers may see laid off as a nicer alternative to fired, but under certain employment laws, the terms are considered to be two separate conditions of termination.
Generally speaking, an employee can be fired or involuntary terminated for violating company policies or failing to perform up to established standards. In certain US states that have an "at will employment" policy, an employer can fire an employee for little or no cause during a stated probationary period. An employee can also be fired for harassing co-workers, excessive absenteeism, or reporting to work in an intoxicated state. An employee terminated because of his or her personal actions or performance can be considered "fired," with little to no expectation of reinstatement at a later date.
An employee can be laid off for any number of reasons outside his or her control. The company may be experiencing an economic downturn or a cyclical slump in revenue. An entire department may be let go if a product line is discontinued, or certain employees may be released until their skills are more in demand. The implication of the term is that the company may rehire the employee in the future if conditions change. The company, however, may see the termination as permanent and should counsel the employee to seek other employment opportunities.
There is also a legal difference between "fired" and "laid off" where unemployment benefits are concerned. An employee who is fired for personal misconduct or ethical violations often does not qualify for unemployment benefits following termination, but an employee fired for poor job performance or absenteeism may still qualify. The same holds true for an employee who has been laid off, since the conditions surrounding his or her unemployment were not necessarily a result of personal misconduct.
The real distinction when it comes to unemployment status is between voluntary and involuntary termination. An employee can decide to voluntarily quit a position for any number of personal reasons, or even as a preemptive strike against an imminent firing or layoff. Some employers may encourage unwanted employees to "voluntarily" quit rather than face the extra paperwork involved in an involuntary termination or firing. Extreme measures to force an employee to quit, known as constructive termination, are considered illegal, but an employer can make the work environment so uncomfortable that an employee chooses to voluntarily quit.
Being laid off or fired or pink slipped or downsized still adds up to being unemployed, but it is often easier to use that first, nicer word on a resume or job application rather than the harsher "fired," even though a former employer might see the circumstances a little differently. Under some circumstances, getting fired by an employer may be preferable financially to voluntary termination or layoff, but many potential employers would rather see evidence of a lay-off rather than a firing for personal misconduct or company policy violations.