How to Survive a Layoff
It was an April morning, and I was running late and rushing to get to work. My boss met me at the elevator, but that wasn’t unusual. He sometimes pulled me aside to talk about personnel matters. He led me back to the big boss’s office, where I was told to take a seat while the door closed behind me. I was coldly handed a thick packet of papers and a check, and quickly escorted out the back door after being told I was out of a job. I was not allowed to return to the office where I worked more than 20 years to say goodbye to colleagues or friends or to collect my belongings. I was told my personal items would be shipped to me. Abruptly, after two decades working long, loyal hours for the company, I was let go due to “restructuring.” My life as I knew it changed in an instant.
Losing a job can be one of the most traumatic events a person can go through in their lifetime, according to HealthStatus. It ranks among the top five, right up there with the death of a loved one, divorce, catastrophic illness and moving.
“I’ve seen people cry, some people get angry. Some people expect it,” says Shelley, a human resources specialist in Sacramento who spoke to Comstock’s on the condition her last name not be used. “Ninety percent of the time, it’s not personal. It’s just we have too many people in this role, or we don’t need this role anymore, so we’re consolidating and restructuring.”
Companies in the United States laid off nearly 22 million workers in 2018, and nearly 55,000 are let go each day. Verizon has dismissed 44,000 employees. Toys R Us 30,000 and Wells Fargo 26,000, according to the latest data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. The news industry has lost 25 percent of its workforce in the past decade, according to the Pew Research Center. One in four American workers will experience a job loss at some point in their careers, says outsourcing company Airtasker. Some will experience multiple layoffs.
We all know someone who has lost their job. Even though U.S. unemployment is at a record low, a Harris Poll released in August 2019 found that 48 percent of American workers have “layoff anxiety,” worried about when they will get the axe. And the figure is 61 percent among younger workers (18-45).
“Losing a job is extremely challenging, but it’s important to try to be objective and positive. While it’s tough, it can be an opportunity to think about what you want to do next and what you need to do to take that step,” says Blake Barnes, a senior director at LinkedIn.
How does one overcome a job loss? “For some people, there’s a certain amount of shame and embarrassment, especially if you were with a company with a long work history and your identity is tied up with your job,” says Maria Heidkamp, director of program development for the John J. Heldrich Center for Workforce Development at Rutgers University.
Several people declined to be interviewed for this story because of that continued stigma. John, for instance, was laid off three times, but each time he successfully hustled to find a new job. Now approaching his fifth year in a good position, he’s coming up for review and didn’t want to jeopardize it by talking about his past. Joan says she was let go without reason because her boss wanted to put her friend in Joan’s spot. Joan was hurt but ended up getting a better job. Still, she didn’t want to relive that painful past.
For many, losing a job is not just about losing income. It can affect one’s career, identity and family. There’s also the social and emotional factor. Many Americans spend more time with their coworkers than their families during the work week. A job loss can feel like losing part of an extended family.
“I had plenty of notice of what was going to happen, but it was still really difficult,” says Kerry Shearer, a former broadcaster and Sacramento County worker who, like many others, lost his job during the Great Recession of 2008.
After You Get the Bad News
Ed Fletcher, a former reporter at The Sacramento Bee, was in a unique position. As head of the Pacific Media Workers Guild, he had to “hold the hand or talk to” coworkers who lost their jobs as the newspaper continued to downsize. Then, he was let go in 2018.
“They’re mostly cutting for salary,” Fletcher says. “What managers don’t know is that a layoff is a morale killer to staff.”
HR experts like Shelley say many workers who were spared during a layoff feel survivor’s guilt. They also have that underlying gut feeling they may be next.
“As an HR person, I hate layoffs,” Shelley says. “I hate them. I know there’s a person and a family who’s dependent on that income.”
The first advice job counselors and HR managers give is to take time to process what just happened.
“If you lose your job or were let go, you do have to give yourself some time to grieve from that loss and acknowledge that transitions are difficult,” Heidkamp says.
The second thing to do after a job loss is to get going. Apply for unemployment right away, Shelley says; many workers don’t know they can collect severance and unemployment at the same time. You also may have to sign up for new health care. Heidkamp advises to start a job search immediately and treat it as a full-time job. Check job sites such as Indeed, Glassdoor, CareerBuilder, LinkedIn and ZipRecruiter.
“There’s a lot of evidence that getting moving quickly is critical to not becoming long-term unemployed, which is six months or more,” Heidkamp says.
LinkedIn’s Barnes adds, “We’ve found if you’re one of the first to apply for a job, you’re actually four times more likely to land it.”
Heidkamp recommends not waiting until learning of pending layoffs. Workers should keep their resume, skills and social media updated and always have an ear out for new job opportunities.
“While you have the time off, take courses on the skills you lack, (like) Excel, web posting,” says Heidkamp.
Some people don’t like asking for help, but career experts strongly recommend tapping into your network of friends, family and acquaintances as part of the search.
“Eighty-five percent of people say the people they’re connected with were key to helping them land their job. … You never know if a friend is connected to someone who works at your dream company,” Barnes says.
Fletcher took a fun approach. He let everyone know of his change in work status on social media and invited people to “take Ed to lunch.” Many accepted his offer, including Sacramento Kings executives and social media and public relations experts. Fletcher now is the president of the board of directors for Sacramento Valley Spark and working on his dream project, “Do the Dance,” a documentary about a scandalous indecency trial of a nightclub with bottomless dancers in Orangevale in the 1960s.
The Job Search Has Changed
Job seekers may be surprised to find the job search has changed from the last time they sought employment. Instead of hiring managers, HR executives now often weed out potential employees first by reading through resumes and cover letters. Automated tracking systems, which Jobscan says are used by 98 percent of Fortune 500 companies, scan resumes looking for keywords for the position. If the software that filters an application doesn’t find keywords or skills, there likely won’t be an interview.
While job hunting, Heidkamp suggests taking courses online, at the local library or community college. LinkedIn is a good source to help research companies, salaries and commute times, and it offers webinars to freshen skills. My best friend went back to school to take web design classes after a mass layoff from a major clothing retailer. She landed a new job in a completely different and fun field — cruise ships.
(This story first appeared in the February issue of Comstock's magazine)
Don’t be reluctant to take a part-time or consulting position while you’re searching (but make sure it doesn’t jeopardize your unemployment benefits). It gets you in the door. I once quit a full-time reporting job at a small company for a three-month temporary job at The Associated Press, and I was hired full time the first week.
The interview process also has changed. An Office Team survey found 63 percent of HR managers use Skype, Zoom or other video interviews to screen candidates. Be sure to study the company and its managers and practice beforehand to see how you appear on camera. (Put the dog outside to avoid barking and have someone watch your child.)
Be prepared for the zinger question, experts say. Potential employees now ask about your weaknesses, failures or the most embarrassing thing you’ve ever done. They already know what you’ve done by your resume. These days, companies want to know if you’re not only skilled and experienced for the position, but whether you fit into their office culture. Barnes with LinkedIn stresses “practice, practice, practice” for an interview.
And don’t worry about what to tell a prospective employer about your layoff. They know most times it’s not a worker’s fault. You can simply say, “My company had a restructuring, and now I’m excited to pursue new opportunities.” Turn your negatives into an opportunity. And don’t trash your former employer; many people get hired back by their former company.
Make Time for Yourself Too
A job search is hard work and can be soul crushing. Have coffee with someone who has reached out to you. Take mental health days during your search, or plan a different adventure each week to explore small towns, go hiking or kayaking. Now free of the 8-to-5 grind, you may actually have time to rediscover your old interests or hobbies, and those can help inspire a new profession. Losing a job is traumatic, but it’s also a time to reexamine your life and what you really want to do.
For Shearer, his layoff from the Sacramento County Department of Health forced him to consider a career switch. He decided to become an entrepreneur and use his social media skills to help others. Shearer, known professionally as The Livestream Expert, travels the country training city and government agencies and marketing teams how to use video effectively and communicate with the public via livestreaming.
“I realized this unwanted situation could in fact be a blessing in disguise, and that’s how it turned out to be. I’ve been able to make a very good living over the past nine years of being an entrepreneur,” Shearer says.
Fletcher adds, “It’s definitely a huge transition in your life. For people who have been at a place for more than a decade, it can sting. But it can certainly propel you into the person you were meant to be.”