What to do if you’ve been laid off

Being laid off isn’t something that happens to everyone. But it happens to more than you would think. It’s about being in the wrong place at the wrong time. That’s the key. Remember it’s not a failing on you. Here’s what to do if you’ve been laid off.

The keys to surviving a layoff is to burn as few bridges as possible, use the resources available to you, and try to land on your feet somewhere else. Here are some tips for doing that.

The doubts running through your head

what to do if you've been laid off
Two of the most difficult moments of my career took place in a conference room kind of like this one. Being laid off is an opportunity, but it sure doesn’t seem like one just after it happened.

I can guess what’s going through your head if you were just laid off. How will I provide for my family? How will I explain this to future prospective employers? Will I even find another job?

These are all perfectly natural things to think. Some of them are easier than you may think, too.

Get your unemployment benefits

Step 1 is hopefully something your HR department went over with you. The most important thing you can do is find out what you need to do to get on unemployment. There’s no shame in that. The system is there to help you when these things happen.

Unemployment doesn’t pay a lot. How much varies from state to state, but I was getting about $325 a week in 2012. It’s better than zero. It doesn’t go very far even in Missouri where the cost of living is low, but it reduced how much I had to dip into savings. Your soon-to-be former employer should have some information on your state’s unemployment benefits.

The unemployment office will also help you find another job. In Missouri, you have to prove you’re looking to continue getting your benefits. I kept a spreadsheet where I tracked every job I applied for, a contact for followup, and interview dates. Based on what you show them, they may have some suggestions for other things to try. In my case all they could say was that I was talking to the right people, but at least the affirmation was nice to get.

Don’t burn bridges

It can be difficult, especially if you think politics played a role in your layoff. Officially it didn’t. Your soon to be former employer can’t say a word about internal politics to anyone who calls asking about you. All they can say is when you worked there, and whether you’re eligible for re-hire. You want to be eligible for re-hire. Even though you probably don’t ever want to go back there.

Ideally, when you found out you were being laid off, they gave you a couple of weeks’ notice and a severance package. Assuming you have that option, keep showing up for work until your stated last day. You’re collecting a paycheck. No one can reasonably expect you to be productive. Collect the paycheck, answer questions when spoken to, and do the minimum. You may even be able to look for other work while you’re in limbo. But at the very least, you’re collecting more than you’ll get on unemployment. As underpaid as I was the first time I got laid off, it was quite a bit more than I made on unemployment.

What to say to future prospective employers about being laid off

I was interviewing with a guy named Justin. He pointed at a block on my resume. “I want to know what happened at this job. You were there for 7 years, and obviously you were the man. The. Man. What happened there?”

I hesitated. Finally, I managed the words. “It was a layoff.”

“Oh. I was afraid you got caught with your hand in the cookie jar or something. Layoffs aren’t anything to be ashamed about.” And then he started asking me technical questions.

That’s literally all you have to say. Four words. I got laid off. It was a layoff. They laid me off.

Less is more in this case. They know your former employer won’t answer any questions about it, so the less you volunteer about it, the better. If you talk too much about it, they’ll assume someday you’ll talk too much about them.

A true story that came up in one of my interviews

I was interviewing for a job, and my interviewer knew a lot about one of my former employers. After asking me about that job, he said, “It must be hard working for a nutjob.”

I was taken aback, of course. Finally I said, “I’m not going to badmouth anyone here.”

“Oh, come on. Everyone knows it’s true.” Then he laughed.

I didn’t take the bait. He changed the subject, and I got the job. He knew I wouldn’t say anything bad about him if I wouldn’t take the bait regarding the guy he knew both of us didn’t like.

Instead I focused on what I learned and accomplished while working in those less than ideal circumstances, and pointing out how much better all of that would work in this new environment. He hired me, and I proved he made the right decision. It was a win-win.

Looking for your next job

I realize I haven’t talked much about finding your next job. I’ve covered that quite a bit in another post. Read that for advice on where to look, how to look, and how to tailor your resume to get more responses.

Also, you don’t have to spend every waking minute looking for a job. Put in 6-8 hours. But do something enjoyable (but inexpensive) afterward. Or before and after. Spending 16 hours instead of 8 doesn’t find you your next job twice as fast. I have no reason to think it actually finds it any faster at all.

What to say to your coworkers when you’ve been laid off

Keeping in touch with your soon-to-be former colleagues is important. It helps you, and it helps them. On your last day, near the end of the day, send e-mail to them thanking them for your time together. Include your contact information and tell them you hope they’ll stay in touch.

If there’s anyone specific you want to make sure you stay in touch with, get their contact info before this. And be sure to reach out to them.

It’s not the end. It’s a beginning

I’m sure this is cliche, but both times I was laid off, I ended up reinventing myself. The change of scenery ended up being very good for me. I built and expanded on what I’d done elsewhere, rather than just doing the same thing I’d done before. From time to time people I once knew check in on me on Linkedin and elsewhere. Some seem surprised with where I am now versus what I was doing when they knew me. That’s kind of the point.

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