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What to Do if You're Laid Off

April 1, 1999
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Related Topics: Work/Life Balance, Downsizing, Your HR Career, Featured Article
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It cannot be overemphasized how much in the industrialized world people’s identities are hooked into what they do for a living. If that is threatened, everything they take themselves to be is threatened. How you are seen by society, how much respect you get, what level of intelligence you are seen to have—all are tagged by what kind of job you have. If you are at a party and you tell people you are an electrical engineer, you will get one kind of reaction. If you tell them you are a piecework seamstress, you will get another kind. And if you have no job at all, you will distinctly feel the reactions whether they are spoken or not. Society pressures us to fashion an image of ourselves by dangling the carrot of importance and worth in front of us and by threatening us from behind with the stick of humiliation if we fail to measure up.

It’s important to remember that you are one among millions of people who, at one time or another, have found themselves in this position. In fact, ask around. See if you can find a single person who has not been out of work, and looking and feeling lousy about himself. Yet many of these people have gone on to even better jobs than they had before, and they are more satisfied with their lives. As a bonus, the whole process of reviving their depressed state of mind, revving up their energy and taking charge of their life has caused them to mature in ways they could not have expected.

Unfortunately, life is not just smooth sailing. Most of us have obstacles to overcome, and how we do that determines not only the quality of our character, but the quality of our very life. Anything that turns our life upside down seems catastrophic at first. What we don’t realize is that the effort we make to overcome adversity reveals to us capacities and resources we never knew we had...

Downsizing Can Be a Gift
Losing your job can be a gift in disguise. Often, we need a jarring shove out of our comfort zones, those places in life and work that we can easily nestle into and never attempt to leave. There may be no troubling challenges, no problems and no new decisions to be made, but there is also no personal growth, no excitement, no new ideas or skills and no way to activate our capabilities. You don’t find out the stuff you are made of when you stay with the familiar.

Imagine walking in the desert. The sand is blowing, the heat is stifling, there is only enough water to extinguish your thirst, but not enough to set up a home or grow crops. Yet you stay anyway because you "know the desert." Does this make sense? I realize this example is extreme, but the point is important. As long as we don’t take the risk to step out of the familiar, we will continue wandering around the featureless landscape we are used to.

When you get laid off completely against your will, life is thrusting you into a strange new environment. To shift to another metaphor, you will either sink or swim. Most people would rather do anything than sink, so they will dig deep inside of themselves and learn to swim. And then they will feel invigorated by the effort. They will find that they actually like using these new swimming muscles. In time, they come to appreciate the fact that they were thrown into the water without a life preserver because it got them to use and develop these muscles they never knew they had.

The Real Payoff
The idea that downsizing ends a person’s career, financial stability and work future appears to be a myth. A nationwide survey conducted by Interim Services Inc. based in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, shows:

  • Sixty-two percent of those who lost or left a job because of downsizing feel that they are now better off professionally than they used to be.
  • More than 44 percent employed adults who lost a job due to downsizing view the experience as having opened new opportunities.
  • More than half (54 percent) say they can balance their work and personal lives better now.

What To Do As You Prepare For Your Next Move
How do you make your next move? Here are some suggestions to help.

  1. Try not to panic.
    Panic causes a person to lose perspective. It puts us in exactly the wrong frame of mind for making decisions and taking appropriate actions. We just want to run, and it is usually in the wrong direction. Instead of reality determining our direction, fear determines it.
    So, first, we need to calm our fears so we’ll be ready to handle whatever comes along. One way to diffuse your panic is with hard facts. Even in dire circumstances most people manage to find a myriad of ways to keep a roof over their head, their car running and their children in school. In short, they get by. All the while, they do what it takes to find their next job. The important thing is to search for ways to calm you down, and allay your worst fears and most catastrophic expectations. One thing that can help is learning to have faith. A belief system that supports you in times of crisis can make a big difference.
  1. Do a reality check.
    What is it about the human mind that makes it jump to the worst conclusion, and makes it picture the most catastrophic scenario when faced with bad news? The logical side of our brain, which would quickly toss these panicky thoughts out the window, seems to go out of commission just when we need it. Our emotional side takes over, and the intensity increases. When this happens, we need to discipline ourselves and conduct a reality check so we can stay grounded.
    • Remind yourself that you are a capable person. Just because you lost a job does not mean you have lost your natural abilities or your talents. Tape a list of past successes to the wall in a prominent place to keep yourself aware of all that you have done before and can do.
    • Start looking for the diamond in the silt. Since things are up in the air anyway, this may be the perfect time to make some changes. Perhaps there is a new company springing up that sounds exciting, and you would like to take a chance on it. Or there is a new industry is opening up where you could to apply your skills in challenging and innovative ways. Start picturing these scenarios as real and possible.
    • Begin to remind yourself of who you really are at your core. You may feel you are invisible within this culture if you are out of work, but don’t become invisible to yourself. It is important to maintain a strong sense of your own identity, both for your own peace of mind and because it will serve you well to project that when you go on a job interview.
    • Get some perspective on how long it takes to find another job. There is no point in setting yourself up for disappointment. If you’ve got it wedged into your brain that you should have a new job within five working days, and then that doesn’t materialize, you are going to be left disappointed and scared about your future. But what if it typically takes three months to find a new job in your field? Then you have scared yourself for nothing. Develop a realistic perspective that lets you know what the norm is and gives you a context in which to plan your moves.
    • Remember other tough times in your life. Perhaps you were in the depths of despair, or angry over an injustice, or terrified that your whole life would come tumbling down around your ankles. Think back to the very worst day. It was awful. You were miserable. Then came the second day and you were still pretty miserable, but there was a five-minute window of time when you felt okay. On the third day, it was 10 minutes. As time went by, and you moved on in your life, the whole thing became nothing but one big unhappy memory. Somehow you overcame it all. It may have taken time, but you did it. If you conquered your problems then, you will do it today.
  1. Guard against depression.
    Depression is a drastic downswing in mood. It is characterized by feelings of extreme dejection and hopelessness. It injects us with an attitude of defeatism, and we cannot help but begin to view the future as bleak. Depressed people negate everything that happens to them, even if it is good. Within that frame of mind, it is almost impossible to spot and utilize a good opportunity when it comes along.
    When you haven’t got a reliable job to go to, it is easy to spiral downward into a deep depression. The physical and psychological symptoms can include feelings of worthlessness, unrealistic worries, lack of motivation, crying fits, poor or overactive appetite, guilt, insomnia and an inability to concentrate, among others.
  1. Stay physically healthy.
    You are more vulnerable to illness when absorbed by pessimistic thoughts about your future or bitterness about the past. More than ever, you need to eat, exercise, and rest properly. You also need to be careful that you don’t let destructive behaviors immobilize you...

Guard Against Fall-Out Behaviors

  1. Avoid bitterness and backbiting.
    What’s done is done. Don’t increase the hostility by keeping it alive in your mind. It will only come back around and hit you in the head when you are least expecting it. This means you cannot give in to the temptation to berate your former employer or anyone else you believe is at fault. It may feel satisfying at the time to vent your anger, frustration and sense of being wronged, but this kind of thing only damages your reputation and makes you look petty. Let it go so you can move on.
  1. Learn from your mistakes.
    Mistakes are meant to be learning aids, not just another thing to beat yourself up with. They teach us what not to do. The mistakes we pay attention to are the ones we don’t have to go on repeating.
  1. Don’t jump at the wrong job too soon.
    When fear governs, we do crazy things, like snapping up the wrong job because our fear makes us believe that any job is better than no job at all. Don’t jump before you know where you will land, or you might find yourself in the same position you were in before: doing something you don’t like, in a soulless environment, with unpleasant people who don’t know how to treat each other.
    If you jump too soon, you could also find yourself out of a job again within months because you didn’t research the company. But this time, you may end up with more anger and fear and less money than before.
  2. Don’t slow down your job search just because you have a few possible opportunities.
    Job hunting is no fun. We can all agree on that. Most of us want to stop the process the first chance we get. This is not a good idea. Until you are positive the position has been awarded to you, you need to keep your search strategy in gear.
    Actually, the time you feel good because the fish seem to be biting is exactly when you should be out there conducting more interviews, even if you are "certain" you are about to be hired somewhere. It is at this time that we are our best at selling ourselves. So go on as many interviews as possible because you will make your best impression. You never know, you might find something even better or make contacts for future jobs.

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