Sometimes we can see the writing on the wall. Maybe it’s because times are tough. Maybe it’s political. Often it’s a combination of both. And whether you think there’s anything that can change it or not, the way ahead is much the same. Here’s what to do if you think you’ll be laid off.
The Boy Scout motto applies here: be prepared. The sooner you can get your affairs in order, the easier it will be to weather the layoff, or avoid it entirely.
I’ve been laid off twice in my career. Both times I saw it coming, but I was definitely better prepared the second time around than the first. In both cases it ended up being a good thing in the end. But I won’t lie. It felt like a long road.
The important thing to remember is that it can happen to anyone. When a company is in a position to lay people off, it’s the company that failed. Sometimes I projected the failure onto myself. I admit that. If I could go back in time and tell myself anything, it would be this: I was in the wrong place at the wrong time. It’s happened to a lot of other people too. Including people I interviewed with after it happened to me. Most of them understood. And if they didn’t, the problem was them, not me.
How to know if your job is in danger
While it’s not always possible to know for certain that your job is in danger, there are usually some tell-tale signs. The loss of a contract or some bad financial news isn’t always a guarantee there will be layoffs, but it often predates them. Talk of “belt tightening” from management is another tell. The first stage of belt tightening means some combination of suspending raises and bonuses and reducing hours. A smart company is going to try that first, because that doesn’t make headlines. Layoffs do.
Both times I was laid off, there was talk of belt tightening first. And it followed that cycle. First there was a pay freeze. Then there was a round of layoffs. Then another, and another. One time I went in the second round, and the other time I went in the third. One time the cycle took years. The other time it only took a few months.
The magic words that make my ears burn are when a manager tells me my job isn’t in danger. In my experience, more often than not, when a manager says that, my job actually is in danger. Especially if I didn’t ask. It’s a kiss of death, but not an immediate one. It means they aren’t ready to replace you yet.
When the end actually came, it came in the form of a meeting invite from a manager who wasn’t my supervisor, along with someone from HR, in a conference room way bigger than necessary for three people. In one case I got that invite the same day. I had a day or two in the other case. A good company will give you as much advance notice as they can, because it’s really in their best interest for you to find something before it happens. But not every company is a good company.
Getting your affairs in order to prepare for being laid off
The most important thing to do if you think you’re going to be laid off is to get your resume in order and start your job hunt. It’s cliche, but it really is easier to get a new job while you still have one. I’ve heard the arguments for both, but I’m in the while-you-still-have-one camp. Some people say you’re more motivated when you don’t have one. That’s true, but you interview better when you do.
So, just as soon as those hints about belt tightening start, update your resume, start looking, and start applying. Don’t feel guilty about it. Just because you applied doesn’t mean they’re going to call you. If you’re going to apply for one job, apply for 10, then figure out later what you’re going to do about it if your phone starts ringing off the hook.
The other thing you’ll want to do is make a budget. Do your own belt tightening, so you can save as much money as possible in case you end up with a work stoppage. In theory my family of four can live on $2,000 a month. Cutting back whsile you still have a job gives you some buffer. You’ll be eligible for unemployment, and hopefully you’ll get some severance, but any gap you have left will have to come out of savings. Start building up some savings.
Now, some good news: A couple of years ago I thought my job was in danger. I went home and did these things. Ultimately it took six months to find another job, but if you’d asked me at the time if I had six months, I would have said no. My confidence and job performance improved because I knew my family and I would be OK.
Tailoring your resume if you think you’ll be laid off
I don’t have a resume. I have several. One of my resumes is several pages long, because it lists everything I’ve ever done, and every accomplishment I’ve ever had, going all the way back to the job I had in college. I never show that resume to anyone. It’s for reference.
I also have a resume for every single job I’ve applied for since 2012. Some of them barely resemble each other. That’s because I customize each one to whatever job I’m applying for.
When I build a resume, I take an existing one, but I delete all of the job duties. It’s just a list of job titles and employers for the last 10 years. Then I take the responsibilities from the job description I’m applying for. I paste those responsibilities under my current job, then add specifics to each bullet point. If there’s something in the job description I don’t do, I delete it. Ideally, I did that work at a previous job.
Then I repeat for each job. If there are significant things in the description I haven’t done, I’d better question whether I’m qualified for the job. But ideally, when I apply for a job, it looks like I’ve been doing that same job for 10 years.
Then, if my resume doesn’t fill out two pages, I refer to that life-history resume I have. I look for accomplishments I think the prospective employer will value, add those in, and fill out my two pages. Then I apply for the job.
This approach doubled the number of phone calls I get back.
The other thing you want to do is network. I don’t mean blasting out connection requests on Linkedin. I have well over 500 connections on Linkedin, and probably 2/3 of them are people I’ve had two conversations with. Talk to people you actually know. I’ve gotten job leads at church before. Really. That’s not the reason to go to church, but you’re there and talking to people anyway. It’s OK to talk about work before and after, just don’t make it all about you.
Now, you want to be super careful about job hunting at work, but stuff happens. After my most recent layoff, I got back on my feet working as a contractor for a very large company. I worked very closely with a couple of that company’s suppliers. One of them told me, straight up, that they’d hire me if anything ever happened and I was ever looking for a job.
In 2017, two of my then-employer’s customers expressed a willingness to hire me. And I got my current job because my current and former employer had a mutual customer.
Networking also means staying in touch. Check in from time to time with former coworkers. I’m not the best about doing this, but can tell you I’m almost always happy to hear from people I used to work with. If you’re having problems at work and need a landing place, your chances of getting a job from an internal referral are much higher than if you apply without one.