The Layoff Lifeboat: How to Get Back to Work
October 24, 2007
Nobody wants to talk about layoffs. They're humbling, humiliating, draining and have a huge fiscal and professional drain on those that have been affected by them. But if you work in IT, it is rare to not know at least one person who has been down that road, and how hard it was for them to get back on their feet.
Joshua Muskovitz, a senior developer at SRC, headquartered in Orange, Calif. had the bad fortune to be laid off two months before 9/11.
"People were really excited to hire IT after 9/11," he quipped sarcastically. "The job market was devastated."
It took him a year to get back on his feet, and even that was an arduous process, beginning with teaching at the local ITT Technical school in Albany, N.Y., where he is based, which "paid almost to the penny what unemployment did, as in, not even close to enough" to taking on contract work before finally getting a full-time job with benefits.
In this year, he learned a lot. As if being unemployed isn't bad enough, there is a stigma attached to it.
"You have to constantly explain why you are unemployed. You have maybe a small window of time, a few weeks or a month, where people won't ask, though, so its best to get started looking as soon as you can," said Muskovitz.
Furthermore, as is often the case in IT layoffs, you are not alone in being laid off—often it is an entire department or company that is let go at the same time, which means that the market is flooded with people just like you.
"If you dally, they're going to get there first. You won't miss out on a job because you're not qualified, but it gets a little dog-eat-dog out there. Layoffs tend to come in cycles; they're anything but sporadic," said Muskovitz.
The good news is that advice on how to get back on your feet after being laid off isn't just for those who have recently lost their jobs—it can serve as protection if you ever do, and as anyone who has ever lost a job before knows, you can never play it too safe.
1. Look for the Signs
A little-discussed fact of job loss is that, quite often, the months and weeks leading up to a layoff weren't exactly the best of times. In fact, layoffs are rarely a sudden event.
"A company doesn't just look at the bank account one day and—gasp!—we didn't know we were running low! They knew it was coming. Everyone knows it coming, whether there is word of a big meeting or sale that could determine the future of the company or whether management is moping around," said Muskovitz. "It wasn't really a great job up until the very minute you got laid off."
As nihilistic a view as that statement may seem, the smartest move is to see these signs coming, and not wait until the axe finally drops to face the facts, whether that means getting back in touch with contacts, updating your resume or asking friends if their companies are hiring.
"On the day that you are laid off, or ideally before that, you want a Rolodex full of contacts. My big rally against open networking is that you can have 10 thousand contacts and not know any of them. Make sure you really know some people," said Muskovitz.
While no layoff is easy, getting gears into motion beforehand can help people get back on their feet faster, because the job market usually operates on a first come, first serve basis.
"If you really in your heart believe that the day is coming, don't wait until you are laid off to start looking for a job. On that day you are with a thousand other people. Be the first person," said Muskovitz.
2. Apply for Unemployment That Very Day
Even though it will be the very last thing that you will want to do—swallow your pride, get your papers together and march to the bureaucratic nightmare that your town's unemployment office will inevitably be—it has to be the first.
"Your benefits are based entirely on the day you go to apply. If you wait a day, you get one day les. You may not want to deal with it; you may be sure you are going to get a new job tomorrow, but you must," said Muskovitz.
There are other reasons as well, some of which vary by state.
"Here in Washington, there is a one-week period before you can start collecting. But, most layoffs happen on a Friday, so if you can get there on Friday, the week ends [on] Saturday, so those two days will count as seven" Robert Poulk, a Redmond-based senior enterprise systems troubleshooter, currently working on contract, who called himself all-too-seasoned in the ins and outs of unemployment.
Muskovitz, like others, made no bones about this process: applying for unemployment is "an awful, awful thing."
"People who apply for it are made to feel guilty about it, despite the fact that it is an entitlement. You have paid into this fund. It's your money, go get it," said Muskovitz. "It's really not a handout but it's very much treated that way."
Muskovitz admits that it was a bit of a culture shock to go from being a white collar professional to being ordered to look for a job every day, be able to constantly prove this or else your only source of income would be taken away. The job-placement services that are offered are not always technology-focused.
"The first rule, though, is to put your pride in the bank and go deliver pizzas if you must," he said.
3. Mope, Cry or Imbibe, But Stay Classy
After the initial trip to the unemployment office is made, it is sometimes okay to give yourself a day or so to decompress, especially if, like in Muskovtiz's case, it has been a "not very enjoyable" job.
"There is a lot of tension, and the next day, you're not raring to go. I gave myself a week or two to take a vacation, sit outside, look at the clouds and not work," said Muskovitz.
He had been able to buy himself a little bit of time by negotiating a severance package [See Tip 10] beforehand, but even if you have not done the same, it's okay to take a day to get your head together, especially if you have until the end of the month, for example, before your job is eliminated.
Yet even if you have advanced noticed, it's important not to flip your bosses or coworkers the proverbial bird or act in any way unprofessional.
"The most important thing to do is to realize that the company did not want to do this. It was a last resort. So serve out your time, be a professional and hopefully make some connections. Be the guy that left with class, because it keeps that door open for you if business conditions change," Jim Lanzalotto, vice president of strategy and marketing at Yoh Services, a provider of talent and outsourcing services based in Philadelphia, told eWEEK.
4. Cut Back On All Excess Expenses, Get Insurance
The unemployment office may be a sobering event, but the visit is rarely as mood-killing as receiving the first check itself. While the exact amount received varies from state to state, in general it approximates 50 percent or less than your weekly earnings, with a set maximum that also varies by where you life.
At best, once your severance (if any) runs out, you'll be living on half your prior income, and there will be no choice but to cut back on any and all excess expenses. "The longer you can hold out, the better for everyone," explains Muskovitz.
Health insurance must be arranged as well, and even though it will cost an arm and a leg (no pun intended), it is essential that you remain covered, or you will do yourself an unintentional disservice.
"Every time you change jobs, your new insurance will demand proof of continued coverage, or they will only give you limited benefits for a period of time," Muskovitz said.
5. Perfect Your Resume
In general, unemployment insurance lasts for 26 weeks (about six months), but in times of extended high unemployment, benefits may be extended by 13 weeks or more. Nevertheless, once you're done moping, arranging unemployment pay and health insurance, its time to get down to the brass tacks of job hunting and buff your resume to a high shine.
Of course, not everyone agrees that you should wait until you need a new job to get this in order, in fact many argue that you should be updating it even when your next job hunt may be years off.
"I really believe that the process of updating your resume should not be an event-driven thing. You should always be updating it, to be ready for both internal [and] external activities. Maybe there is a promotion you want, or a move to another department… Don't let anyone make you feel that you are disloyal to keep it updated. If you're in charge of your brand, this is your brochure," said Lanzalotto.
Your resume should be flawless; as this is not a place where mistakes are easily forgiven. There should be no typos, it should look clean and neat and it should be totally coherent.
"If they can't take the time and trouble to get one piece of paper right, why do I want to risk my business on them? It's not rocket science to get it perfect. Ask your friends to take a look at it, buy them a beer," said Muskovitz, who has been the point person for hiring in many of his jobs.
"The very first place you lose your chance at a job is for your resume to have typos and or be in any way incoherent."
6. Tell Everyone in the Whole World That You Need Help
Losing a job, even if it was your company that failed or could no longer afford to keep you aboard, is humiliating. Few have gone through what is often called "the horror of unemployment" without it taking a toll on their self-esteem. Many deal with this by keeping the arduous process of getting back on their feet again to themselves, but this is the wrong way to handle it.
"Nobody is going to guess that you are looking for a job. If you appropriately communicate what you want to do, people generally want to help you, so reach out to your contacts," said Lanzalotto.
Muskovitz says that this is no time to be stoic and pretend that things are okay when they are not. During a year-long bout of unemployment, he even went so far as to make a t-shirt that said "Hire Me" with a list of his skills on it. He'd wear it to mixers.
"As soon as you know you've lost your job, start calling in favors. If you had a friend that suddenly lost their job, you would do everything in your power to help them out, but only if you knew there was a problem. The way you find a new opportunity is to enlist as many human beings as possible to help you find it," said Muskovitz.
You never know when the bag boy at the grocery store has a mother with a consulting business that needs help, he added.
7. Your New Job is Finding a Job
Those who have been laid off and those who advise them agree on one thing: you must come out of the gate fighting.
"That first week, you are still in a work mode and you have to take advantage of that. If you get used to staying home and sleeping late, your pace changes. When you're shocked and pissed off is a good time to leverage this energy and get the engines running," said Poulk.
In treating job-hunting as your job, maintaining a routine can help combat the funk that surrounds not knowing where your next paycheck is coming from.
"Every single morning, go out, buy the newspaper and read the classified [section]. Go to all of the job boards and post your resume everywhere and go to Google and find that one magic phrase that nobody else has thought of and e-mail everyone that you know," said Muskovitz.
Muskovitz would have business cards made with his contact information on it and have them and a stack of resumes everywhere, including his car. He'd have lunch at a diner and run into a friend and give the friend two cards, one for them and one for anyone else they know.
"I'd put classified ads in the paper offering to do one-on-one computer tutoring or maintenance. I'd help people who were computer-phobic. Odds are, if you are technically inclined, you've been doing this anyway for friends. Now get some work out of it," said Muskovitz.
8. Don't Take It Out on the Wrong People Having to ask friends for help and relying on social services for paychecks is emotionally draining.
"People have a lot of pride and this wears them down. It's awful and terrible and horrible, but if you've kept up your healthcare, take advantage of the mental health services available if you must. Find people to talk to," said Muskovitz.
Muskovitz said that being unemployed humbled him. While unemployed, he'd look at people on the street and finally understood how few steps there were between himself and the homeless guy he stepped over on the sidewalk. It was a sobering experience and finding people to talk to was essential to his well-being.
"It's better than taking it out on your family," he said.
9. Take a Deep Breath When You Reach the Shore
When you finally land a new job, it's the best day in the world. But, your job recovery process is not over yet.
"When you get that gig, celebrate. And then, thank everyone who helped you. Send them an e-mail, a letter. People appreciate that follow-through," said Lanzalotto, who sees the help friends have given as a responsibility as well as a gift. "Now it will be your job to reach out to other people who might run into the same problem."
Furthermore, don't be surprised if you are not completely out of the woods, financially or emotionally.
"It's not an immediate jump back into 'well.' If you're in a leaky boat and you plug the hole, you still have water in the boat. Even if you are on a day-to-day basis more or less back where you were, you accumulate baggage," said Muskovitz, who said that seven years later, he still carried debt from his year without a job.
10. Negotiate Severance Pay This Time Around
There's an old adage about if you make a mistake once, it's forgivable, but making the same mistake again is less so. IT and other professionals who have been laid off even once quickly learn to try to negotiate severance packages at the start of a job.
After being laid off from a company once, then rehired, Muskovitz did just this, and when layoffs came around again a year later, others had only two weeks pay while he had three months.
"It happened four times total, so I got wise—it helped a lot," he said.
Even recruiters agree it can be in the best interest of a scorned professional.
"It's almost like a prenuptial agreement, but its appropriate because if you're going somewhere, your hope is that relationship is going to work and you hope you're going to be a great player and as asset to them. But if this doesn't work out, you want to get something fair back," said Lanzalotto.