As I think back on my recent time in the unemployment arena, losing my job didn’t come as a total surprise. There were obvious signs along the way in the final months with my last employer. Changes in the company’s top leadership and repeated references to their new direction echoed throughout the organization. Downsizing and outsourcing was occurring at a feverish pace in every division of the company.
My team was at the forefront of the action as we were summoned during those last months to participate in the emotionally draining process. My staff and I became well versed in the company’s separation benefits, the announcement phase and the counseling sessions for hundreds of employees. The standing joke in HR was, "Get ready. We're going to be next."
I got a call from corporate human resources on a Friday afternoon with specific instructions to reserve several small conference rooms for Monday. Cancel all meetings, make sure everyone was in-house and available for a "visiting officer" to meet with them at predetermined half-hour increments of time. Everything was beautifully orchestrated and nothing was left to chance. Even an e-mail message was sent out to the staff outlining Monday’s activities. Insurance, I suppose, in the event that I didn’t carry out my instructions.
My heart raced all that weekend. I repeatedly thought how 25 years of loyal service for some staff members would be reduced to one half-hour meeting. But I was hopeful regarding my own situation. I had invested 12 good years into the company, and I was entitled to stay.
Monday morning found me face to face with my destiny--in one of the rooms I had reserved, nervously making eye contact with a corporate VP of HR and an attorney from the employee relations area.
I remember everything about that morning. Nervousness on their faces. Quick clammy handshakes across the desk. I tried to lighten things a bit with some comment that the process had to have been very difficult, realizing in mid-sentence that saying that would be tougher than I imagined.
I was offered a piece of paper with separation dates, amounts, COBRA costs and outplacement. Before I could utter a word, an external outplacement counselor led me to another small conference room to talk--or to vent, as he offered. He asked me repeatedly, "So, how do you feel?"
I knew his training and experience prepared him for tantrums, anger, pain and tears. But I couldn’t do that, and that really bothered him. The last act of any control I was given was the complimentary gesture of choosing, or abstaining to make the announcement of my forthcoming departure to my staff. I relinquished that task to the VP and I left for home, carefully formulating the words as I drove along to say to my family.
Dealing with Reality
The days leading up to my last date on the payroll seemed endless, as time virtually stood still. My daily activities included attempts at unpolished and random networking, unfocused phone calls, lengthy r sum s, rambling cover letters with typos. I had no focus in what I wanted to do next with my career.
I told my closest friends, neighbors and church members about my fate. I vividly remember my friend Tom approaching me to confirm what he heard. He asked point blank: "What happened?" I gave him the story about the restructuring of HR at the company. After about three minutes of this story, Tom interrupted me and asked again, "But what happened?" Again, I tried to tell him I was restructured out.
He stopped me and said, "Mike, you were fired." He moved his face close to mine and said it again. Without giving me a chance to respond, Tom demanded that I repeat the words: I was fired.
He made me commit to repeating that phrase as many times as possible to myself and to anyone who asked about my situation. He assured me that by admitting this, I could move on with my life. As Tom later explained, in his 25 years as a chemist, he was reorganized out of three companies. When he came to the realization that the reasons for his departure weren’t personal, his recovery period began without the personal pain.
To get a jump on things, I pre-registered with my state’s unemployment services. Two weeks after my separation day, I received an invitation to attend my first unemployment registration and information session. The instructions required that I bring two forms of ID and my last pay stubs.
My expectations of a very personal session turned out to be far from that. It turned out to be a 2-hour mass meeting of 100 unemployed people. We filled out form after form followed by a review of our IDs with an examiner. We were also required to attend a one-hour presentation and tour of the outplacement services offered to us by the state.
The job-search room was an open space with four computers--two of which didn’t work--and two printers. The noise level was extremely high because of the high traffic of folks who were reviewing the job openings posted on the room’s walls. Some state staffers were always discussing the details of the planned "strike" if a contract with the workers couldn’t be reached soon. This place became my home away from home.
All things considered, I grew to appreciate that tiny office. This cramped place was where I met a cross-section of America’s diversity. Unemployment definitely does not discriminate. People from all walks of life filtered through this place. There were blue-collar workers, temps, students, executives, disabled persons and seasonal workers. I even met a couple aspiring actors. All of us were brought together by the need to work and the constant race to beat the expiration of our 26 weeks of unemployment funds.
Casting the Net
The art of networking seems so easy when you read any of the thousands of reference books for job seekers. I made lists of former co-workers, peers, bosses, vendors and old adversaries. I practiced my best "how are you, how have you been" lines. The small talk slowly escalated to a "I’ve been fired and now I’m in the job market" plea. My approach was to rekindle relationships and acquire leads at the same time.
Well, that was the plan, as I envisioned. The networking road wasn’t quite that smooth.
In most cases, heartfelt sympathy and agreement to help in any manner was rendered up front. Sometimes, I got the implied "go away, don’t bother me" reaction. Some friends reacted to me as if my situation was contagious, and by speaking with me they certainly would catch it.
However, in a few soul-searching conversations, I discovered that I wasn’t the only one out there in the search process. A few friends were also a step or two away from being in the aisles of the job market.
While 15 interviews were a direct result of my personal contacts through friends and acquaintances, some friends couldn’t supply openings, interviews or contacts, and they made that clear up front. But these calls opened up doors that were, at times, much more helpful.
One former peer sent me reading materials on career development. One offered to proof my cover letters and resume. Another friend checked in with my spouse to make sure that she was OK. One old friend sent me a light joke each week to brighten my spirits. Still another friend offered financial assistance if needed.
Another contact led me to a monthly job seekers group in Princeton, which I joined. This group met to exchange successes and failures, job leads, a cup of coffee and lots of moral support. These HR professionals were brought together on a playing field leveled by our need to "land" that next spot on our resumes. For me, the "net" in networking proved to be a "safety net" in my time of need.
Help from the Past
Lee Hecht Harrison was contracted through my former employer to provide me with outplacement assistance. The counselors were extremely supportive during the search process, and the resources available at the search center were topnotch. This was a world away from that tiny state search center.
The greatest service they offered was a job seekers' work team. This team membership was invaluable. We set aside time apart from our search schedules to meet each Tuesday to debrief each other on our successes and failures for each proceeding week. We also developed action plans for the coming week and we held each other accountable for achieving our goals.
As one member after another progressed through the team meetings and found a position, a breakfast celebration was held. This was a celebration for that team member and a time to share in the testimonies and discoveries of his or her personal search process. These "landing celebrations" were filled with power and emotion as we listened while team members reflected on their search.
One fellow on our team spent 14 months pursuing a marketing position. His final summary to the team was so powerful. His reflections led him to understand that everyone "needs" to be forced into a job search at some point in their careers. He described the search process as one that builds internal fortitude and regenerates personal focus on your career goals. He felt this unemployment condition which brought us--strangers form all parts of Corporate America--together as a team, forced us into a total reliance and dependence on each other which would make us succeed.
The interview period for me came like a tidal wave. After a direct mailing of 100 resumes, applying for another 50 openings on the Internet, and seven personal referrals, I began to land some interviews.
In a three-week span of time, I had 24 phone screens with most of my target companies. These screens produced 12 face-to-face interviews with HR departments, and an additional seven personal meetings directly with the hiring managers.
It became evident to me early on that a number of the new decision-makers in organizations today were probably born in the '70s. To this group, my stories of HR in the "old days" had to stay tucked in my memory banks and left only as bullets on my resume.
The approach I adopted was to not go too far back in time. A big mistake would be for me to share that at one time, personnel--I mean HR--actually covered payroll, staffing, training, employee relations, communications and benefits. I couldn’t let on that I lived and worked in that era. To the new HR professional, I sensed the old days were the ones where three or four HR employees shared a common printer and employees actually used and enjoyed 386Mhz computers.
Months four and five brought defining silence with long periods of nothing. Whoever said "silence is golden" was never unemployed.
I was at the mercy of the summer schedules in organizations and the vacations of decision-makers. The hard lesson here for me was the reality of the wait--the test of my patience. I was at the mercy of sparse staffs and just plain unavailability. I felt so unproductive and the days seemed endless. I put in five or six hours a day of calling contacts, e-mailing companies and leaving messages without any success.
It seemed I had been forgotten even in those best situations in which I was promised "final consideration" and assured that they'd call me, don't bother calling them. Lost in the shuffle, each Friday repeated itself as the answering machine at home went unused.
My comrades in the outplacement center said that summer, June into September, was a bad time to be unemployed. Still worse was November through January. Far worse was springtime through summer.
When is the best time? Could the entire year be lost? I now know that this is called the comma period. It's quite normal in the job seeker’s cycle of activity. It becomes the ultimate test of time and perseverance.
At the end of my sixth month, I faced the tripling of my monthly COBRA health and dental premiums. My state unemployment assistance payments came to an end, and my severance dwindled to dangerously low levels.
Several close colleagues had given me short-term consulting projects, which resulted in several small-income checks. Those small checks became literal lifesavers, covering school clothes for the kids, expenses for car maintenance, and fluctuations in higher-than-average summer utility bills.
Yet a wonderful interview opportunity developed at a large, successful pharmaceutical company in mid-July. The temperature on the day of the interview was expected to be around 100 degrees. I did my homework, researched the company, and prepared myself for any question that might be asked in every conceivable way. The attire was cleaned, ready and in place with a wonderful coordinated tie, starched shirt and all. I was ready. Bring it on.
All seven interviews within that company went well--or so I thought. However, I later was advised that I didn’t get the job.
For the first time in my working adult career, there was no income and all monies were outgoing. As my funds from all sources continued to evaporate rapidly, I remember writing the check for my COBRA expenses--it was a whopper. I had that check prewritten along with my check for my church offering in my wallet.
On Sunday, as I sat watching the ushers approach my pew, I tried desperately to justify not putting that check in the offering plate. I also came to the decision that I was not going to continue family health coverage, because both of those monies could be best allocated to mortgage or food. My wife wouldn’t be the wiser.
As the ushers came closer, I weakened. As the plate passed, I dropped the check in. My conversations and negotiations with God ended, and as usual, he won.
On Monday, I also reluctantly mailed the COBRA check for the continuation of my October family health-plan coverages. On Thursday, my wife discovered a lump. By the following Monday, she was in surgery. She came through it OK. I guess the things I’ve always thought I had control over, I really don’t. And the important things in my life don’t have a price tag and can’t be covered by an incoming or outgoing check.
I came to an agreement on a great offer from my current employer that same week.
Cartoon by Marc Tyler Nobleman.