A lot of the work I do involves perfectly productive people who have been terminated by their employers. I continue to be surprised at their surprise when it happens. Even though rumors about lay-offs often swirl about them and, in some instances, have actually started, many of the white-collar professionals I know remain in a state of denial until the very last minute when it finally happens to them.
It is little wonder that when the ax finally falls, few are fully prepared and spend valuable time being confused about what to do next. Over the years, I have found two categories of advice helpful and both involve bracing oneself to deal with the trauma of being unemployed.
The first BRACE is psychological. White-collar workers are an independent bunch with a fundamental belief in their ability to influence practically any and all outcomes. More times than not, it is a belief that has served them well. They are often positive people with “can-do” attitudes that organizations rewarded by pushing them forward with good pay raises and promotions. The idea of being victimized by being laid off feels foreign to their personal constitutions. (For an excellent discussion of this topic see Barbara Ehrenreich’s Bait and Switch.) Brace yourself by understanding that you have lots of company and that perfectly productive people get fired every day. You are not alone and, by being unemployed, there is nothing wrong with you. If at all possible, share the details of your circumstance with others who can/will often help you think through the situation and make you feel better about yourself.
The second category consists of bread-and-butter issues. BRACE yourself against the economic damage that can, but need not, accompany unemployment. Good decision-making here will help you now and in the future. Focus on:
CASH FLOW: Make sure you schedule and track your daily expenditures. Know when you will run out of cash and eliminate all but the bare necessities. Obviously, do not take on new debt unless advised to do so by a qualified financial advisor who has your best interests in mind. Friends tell me it is possible to stretch the date of being out of cash out by as much as six to seven months if you are disciplined about it.
UMEMPLOYMENT COMPENSATION: Apply for unemployment compensation even if you do not need the cash right away. Put it away for use later.
HEALTH INSURANCE COVERAGE: Stay covered through COBRA if at all possible. The organization that laid you off is required to provide you with COBRA coverage information. Continuous coverage will force potentially new employers to cover any pre-existing conditions you currently have or may develop during your period of unemployment.
LEGAL ADVICE: Early in the game, make sure you know what legal actions to take and what rights you have. This advice is often free through such organizations as Americans for Fairness in Lending.
As your balance is restored, I would also counsel against using the state of the economy to understand your situation; for example, don’t assume that things will get better simply as the economy improves. While the next recovery may not be as jobless as the dot.com bubble recovery, there is a good chance that the economy will not bounce back in the same form as existed before this latest downturn started. Why? The worldwide restructuring of the workforce will continue regardless of the state of the economy. That means jobs will come and go and that the career guarantees that a college degree once promised will also continue to ebb and flow.
Survival in this economy requires all of us to be more competitive for the relatively fewer white-collar jobs that will exist. If you work it right, your career can survive. You just have to know how. (See my latest book, Cracking the New Job Market, AMACOM, Aug. 2011)
R. William Holland, Ph.D., a veteran human resources executive, is founder and principal of R. William Holland Consulting, LLC, specializing in career management. He is also a senior vice president at BeamPines, a leadership development, assessment, and coaching firm. He lives in Williamsburg, Virginia.
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