a doorway to opportunity
by Gregory K. Webster
THE EUPHEMISMS ARE NUMEROUS: downsizing, rightsizing, layoffs, focusing on our core objectives. Whatever the term, the reality is the same: It stinks!
Today's business world includes a lot of formerly downsized managers who are moving up new corporate ladders.
Layoffs are part of the new reality in spite of economic growth. If you have not been involved in a layoff or don't know someone who has been, consider yourself lucky; but also be on the lookout for the proverbial other shoe to drop. Even in IT, there is concern that the labor shortage will become a labor glut once the Y2K frenzy has passed. Corporate mergers, bottom-line economics, changes to meet the new global market, and shareholder demands have made job security something seen only in reruns of television sitcoms. Few argue with the economic realities that businesses have to face, and most now see layoffs as an inevitable part of the business cycle—and of the cycle of our personal lives.
Rapid economic growth often hides underlying problems in the workplace, problems that become more evident as prosperity declines. Complaints of communication problems, lack of empowerment, and slow job growth are heard. Companies respond by trying to better train their management, moving toward teams and employee education. However, in times of economic stress, these initiatives move to the back burner and are questioned as unneeded expenses.
The first line of defense against economic stress is corporate downsizing. Often this change is needed to address new markets or to modernize organizational structure. Truth be told, the easiest way to get shareholders off management's back for poor performance is through cutbacks. Often missing during this time of change is the organization's social responsibility to the employee.
In today's marketplace employees are routinely downsized without much attention paid to the contribution they made to the company. Who hasn't heard of the tenured employee given sudden notice and marched to the door like a convicted felon? And what calendar time of the year is most often used for downsizing? Unfortunately; Christmas.
The Road to Recovery
Layoffs effect people in different ways. For some it is no big deal; they easily move on. For others it has a genuine effect on the psyche. Either way, losing a job can be the greatest learning experience since kindergarten. The layoff victim will learn lessons in business, lessons about self, and if lucky, lessons about life. Though each individual goes through the process in his or her own way, there seems to be some common elements many of us face. From personal experience, I found there are three main steps in the process: getting yourself in order; getting your career in order; and moving on with your life.
Gregory K. Webster, Ph.D., has worked in scientist and management roles at Alpharma, Chemsyn Laboratories, Bayer Corporation and Summit Analytical Services. He recently completed an MBA degree in project management from Keller Graduate School of Management and is a member of PMI's Pharmaceutical SIG.
A New Chapter
The period of your downsizing is the end of one chapter. Career-wise your new chapter is an addition to your résumé. You have just revitalized your career by expanding your experience base. Many job professionals will tell you that they shy away from candidates whose career experience is with just one company. Most graduate schools advise against completing graduate work at the same school that issued the undergraduate degree; instead of becoming entrenched in one school of thought you will have been exposed to a variety of experiences.
Focus on getting your new career working for you. You have new customs and protocols to master. Your network needs to expand with the new contacts you acquire and the old contacts you maintain. The one experience most downsized employees share is the desire to not go through the experience again. Sorry, there's no guarantee. You can, however, be prepared—-just in case. Maintain files of the sources you may need in case of another job hunt, and always keep your résumé current. Have plans in case you face another downsizing. If possible, set up an investment account to help cover your expenses during the next job hunt. I like to keep in mind a quote given to me from a recruiting professional: “In the ’90s, job security has now become the ability to get a new job.”
Your layoff has taught you many valuable lessons, as much about life as about business. It is important to forgive the past, but don't forget the lessons learned. What career moves left you vulnerable? What actions did you take, or not take, that led to your being unemployed? There's no insurance that you will never again be involved in a layoff, so you must be prepared and make career choices that will minimize that risk.
One last bit of advice from one who has been there: Often when a downsized employee starts a new job after a layoff, the tendency is to start like a mouse, to play it safe and cool and low-key. Maybe you believe that perhaps your actions or visibility in your last job made you vulnerable. Most often that's not true; most often you just got caught in a bottom-line corporate business decision. Your new company is looking for you to be the same consummate professional you were before, and to give them your best efforts. Remember also, there are a lot of formerly downsized managers out there who are moving up new corporate ladders.
Getting Yourself in Order
If you have never gone through a layoff, it is unlikely you can truly empathize with one who has. It's like a man telling a woman he feels for her pain during childbirth—you can envision it, but you haven't walked that aisle.
I suspected I was on the layoff list, even to the point that my personal items were discreetly packed at home. Yet, I was totally unprepared for the emotions when the pink slip arrived. Although my résumé was updated and ready, mentally I was not prepared. I was not prepared to deal with the hurt, guilt, anger, embarrassment and loss of self-confidence.
After a layoff, don't fall into the trap of self-pity, and don't let your hurt pride rule you. Head for the nearest unemployment office and file immediately … You already donated to the pot from which you are now withdrawing. In many states, even if you are on a severance package you still qualify for unemployment benefits. Check your individual state, as well as the state in which you were employed if it was different than your principal residence.
As a Ph.D. analytical chemist, it hurt my pride to visit the employment office and stand in line. I'd dedicated five-and-a-half years to my company—working late, working at home, going in on weekends—to become one of the most productive employees, and now I was unemployed. Christian love toward my former employers was not in my heart that day. The stress was pro-found—a family to care for, a mortgage, and no job. I didn't believe I would go through the “layoff stages” you hear about—anger, depression, self-doubt—but I did. And I knew I had to get beyond it.
The Layoff Stages. Various theories abound about how people deal with being laid off. These theories all seem to have in common the thought that each individual goes through stages of emotion. Interestingly, going through these stages is also an individual experience. You work through each stage in your own way and in your own order. I see the theory of layoff stages as dealing with three common elements: a period of intense anger, a battle with depression, and a loss of confidence.
Dealing With the Anger. After being a highly productive employee, I was angry with the company and the individuals who put my family in jeopardy. A clergyman wisely told me to drop the anger: “It won't hurt them, and it is killing you.” I agreed with that philosophy and came to realize that the key for me was to focus on getting my family's life back in order.
You've got to control the anger and funnel it into positive energy. Put an extra set of weights on the bench if you have to, but don't let the anger rule you. Your anger can carry over into every aspect of your life. The danger in this is that the victims of your irrationality are your family; they are the ones who have to deal with your irritability and bitterness, not your former employers.
Anger has no place in the job hunt. The situation you just went through is fair game for an interviewer to ask about. Sure it hurt. Yes, you're mad. But, your interviewer isn't interested in what “the jerks you used to work for” did to you. They want to know why you are now available for employment. They are also evaluating how you dealt with the situation. Now is not a time to bad-mouth your former employer.
Battling Depression. If during a layoff you do not enter a period of depression, I either respect your toughness or fear your lost sense of reality. For most people this is a time of uncertain future after a secure past. You are vulnerable at a time when your family needs you to be strong. Going through mild depression is normal in this situation, but continued depression is not. Losing sleep, losing weight, or losing control over your emotions indicate physiological changes, and a doctor should be consulted. Symptoms of depression are treatable, and depression must be addressed in order to get back on track. If you need help, get it!
Regaining Confidence. Many employees who have spent years in a single field or with a single company hesitate to change career direction. This is understandable. Most people who are downsized go through a period where they question their abilities against the new set of market competitors with whom they must vie for a new job. Sure, you can do what was expected in the last job; you had X years to get to that point. Now you have to run with the pack at the new company—new rules, new expectations, you feel you are expected to hit the ground running. What is unexpected for many of us, even those of us confident in our skill sets and who have kept up with the latest trends, is that our confidence is zapped by a layoff. We thought we were good, but we were expendable.
Most companies know a break-in period is necessary for any new employee, regardless of their experience and background. You were an effective employee before; you will be again. Your past contributions weren't luck, they were the result of your successful undertakings. Realize that although you are nervous stepping up to the plate again, you haven't forgotten how to swing.
Support Outlets. There are both formal and informal support outlets to turn to after a downsizing; what works best is a matter of personal choice. Informal support outlets are your family, friends and faith. Families come together in times of crisis and are almost always the first line of support. If you are a relative of a downsized employee, invite them over for dinner, allow them to get away from the stress and relax through family ties.
Friends support in the same manner. However, friends often will not know how to approach you and may unintentionally tend to equivocate. Giving you “space” is often the opposite of what you need. Provide the downsized employee with your check-in calls, diversion, and knowing that friends care—the downsized employee needs the social contact.
A little research in the library or the Internet can locate local formal support outlets. These groups are very effective for letting downsized employees share experiences and hear similar experiences with not only those people who are in the same situation, but also with those who are on their feet again and back on the job. Peers help each other work through job loss and organizations such as Professionals in Transition share job leads and educate.
You can locate professional job counselors through the Yellow Pages. However, professional job counselors come with a fee. Though I personally feel support groups are a better route, do what is best for you. Acquire the resources you need and use them to get back on your feet.
Reader Service Number 004
Career Change Resource List
Martin Yates, Knock'em Dead Series [Adams Media Corporation, Holbrook, Mass.]. Barbara Rudolph, Disconnected: How Six People Discovered the New Meaning of
Work in a Downsized Corporate America [Free Press, 1998]. Don J. Snyder, The Cliff Walk: A Memoir of a Job Lost and a Life Found. [Little Brown & Co, 1998].
Richard L. Knowdell, From Downsizing to Recovery: Strategic Transition Options for
Organizations and Individuals [Consulting Psychologists Press, 1996]. Craig S. Rice, Dodging Downsizing: Proven Strategies for Job Security in Tough Times
[Vgm Career Horizons, 1998]. www.endespair.com—“Hope and Healing to Transform the World of Work” a downsizing network for communications and consulting. www.safetynet.doleta.gov—Federal employees’ “survival guide.” www.geocities.com/Walstreet/Exchange/4280—Downsizing thesis from Jonathan Lurie, an economics major at Princeton University.
Getting Your Career in Order
You've seen the dark side, now what are you going to do? Now that you are on your personal road to recovery, it's time to work on getting that career back.
Your local library has numerous listings to help you update your résumé and approach the job market. Martin Yates’ Knock'em Dead series [Adams Media Corporation, Holbrook, Mass.], available in most libraries, is among the best of these resources. Begin with a professional-looking résumé, printed on quality paper, with quality printing. Your résumé should be an accurate portrayal of your professional career to date. Whether you have been downsized or not, it is important that all professionals keep their résumés updated and current.
One change I noticed during my job search is that the downsized employee is no longer tainted. Many victims of downsizing are initially concerned that their layoff is a bad reflection upon them. I was relieved to find that after being asked, “Why are you looking for a new job?” and responding, “I was downsized,” that the answer was immediately accepted, usually with little followup. Downsizing has become so commonplace that many of the hiring managers I spoke with had gone through a similar experience. In fact, those “survivors” were often quick to discuss their own experiences and coping techniques.
But don't overly emphasize your downsizing or the problems that plague your previous company. This is hard: You want to clarify how your previous company's problems put you in the interviewee's chair. Keep your interview positive and focused on how you will augment the new company. If you are asked to discuss the layoff, empirically describe the business situation that led to your layoff, and move on. Bitterness, blame and emotion can only work against your candidacy. You are a professional; shrug off the previous chapter of your career and embrace with eagerness the next.
More emphasis is being placed on the phone interview these days. Tightening budget constraints has led many companies to use phone interviews as a preliminary “weed out” mechanism. It is expensive for an employer to bring candidates in for an interview. Airfare, hotel and other travel expenses can all be minimized through an efficient series of phone interviews to narrow down the candidate field to those most interested and qualified to fill the vacancy. For the candidate, there is only one goal in a phone interview; that is, to get the on-site interview. The candidate must come across as professional, confident and enthused about the job. Recruiters usually schedule phone interviews ahead of time; which allows you to prepare. Have ready a copy of your résumé and a notepad to write down notes to review both during your interview and afterward. Have a list of questions to ask the company as well; your questions reveal to the interviewer your preparation and interest in the job. After the call, write down the key issues about your candidacy and the requirements for the job as presented by your interviewer. If you are using a recruiter, review with him or her your impressions of the phone interview and note where you thought your presentation was effective and where you may not have done well. A good recruiter will follow up your interview with the company to resell your candidacy. If not using a recruiter, repackaging your candidacy takes place with your thank-you letter, which should address for the interviewer how your background and interests correlate with the company's requirements.
Moving On With Your Life
Okay, you have taken the steps to get yourself in order and get your career in order. Now comes the hard part: letting go of the past. We often have a tendency to dwell in the past or glamorize it. I missed a job that, in truth, I hated at the end, but I looked back at “what I had lost.” I looked back on a house where I was raising a family and only appreciated it “when I lost it.” I felt responsible for putting my family through hardship and disrupting their lives. It's time to walk away from these hurtful exaggerations. Get past it. Move on. Be upbeat. You have traveled a difficult path, but are you any worse for wear? Think of how far you have come, and what you have learned. You've had quite an education—about yourself, business, and the important things in life.
My old high school football coach used to say after a tough loss: “The sun will still come out on Monday.” Coach was right! To truly move on you must rid yourself of the hurt and the feeling of betrayal, forgive yourself that the incident happened, and focus on the positives. Life goes on, and each day gets easier.
A YEAR AGO I was standing in a line experiencing what I felt was the nadir of my life. That point of time will remain a reference when my perspective veers back to the materialistic mode I was in prior to my layoff. I now have a new job in a different town, a new life, and a family once again secure in their beds. But I also know there's no guarantee that I won't be downsized again. I won't worry that it could happen. I've been through it, and I'm prepared.
June 1999 PM Network