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What to do when you are laid off

Losing your job can be a traumatic experience. What you do in the first 60 minutes can have a huge effect on how you handle it.

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It’s the relationship equivalent of “We need to talk.”

You stroll into the office on a Friday morning that seems like every other, upgrading to a large coffee to push away the headache from last night’s extra glass of wine at dinner. You comment on some reality show drama to your co-workers, then head for your desk to start the day.

However, your boss catches you just as you’re about to sit down, surprising you with the innocuous request:

“Can you step into my office for a moment? I need to chat with you about something.”

Ten minutes later your world is crashing around you. You know that your supervisor specifically explained the situation – it was as if they were reading off a script – but your brain couldn’t process all the buzzwords like “hierarchy restructuring” and “corporate reorganization” and “economic budget constraints” because your mind was racing trying to process the one truth that was abundantly clear:

You’ve lost your job. What you do in the first 60 minutes is crucial.

Here is a 6-step action checklist:

1) Control your emotions

Everyone reacts differently in a crisis situation. In fact, emotions when losing your job are similar to unceremoniously getting dumped by your boyfriend or girlfriend: anger, confusion, disbelief, sadness, fear, and self-doubt.

We’ll start with the obvious and say that while angrily throwing chairs around might make you feel good in the moment, it’s going to reflect badly on your integrity down the line. Likewise for bursting into tears. Although it may be difficult, you’ve got to spring into action and think logistically.

Resist the urge to press for more details… Is this about my performance? What can I do to change this? What if I take a pay cut or vow to work harder?

In reality, all of these things have been considered already and the decision has been made. There’s nothing you can do about it, so focus on actions moving forward.

What to do when you are laid off

2) Evaluate your timeline

In cases with high-level executives or when sensitive company information is at stake, someone from Human Resources – and possibly security – may instantly appear to confiscate your ID and escort you out of the building.

In other examples, you’ll be asked to stay on staff for a few more days, allowing you to have a “soft exit,” wrapping up projects with existing clients and transferring knowledge to whoever will be taking over your job (always an awkward transition).

Determining which scenario is happening to you will dictate how quickly you need to do the rest of your tasks.

3) Back up your files

What a company fears most (besides the chair-throwing incident) is a disgruntled employee stealing private company information. To be clear, a scenario where a laid off salesperson grabs their “Rolodex” of client names with the intention of luring them away is both illegal and unethical.

Further complicating things in the digital age are the myriad of passwords that employees have for company servers or social media sites. With access to a company’s brand page on Facebook or Twitter, an angry employee can spread his displeasure to millions within minutes.

According to the 2008 FBI/Computer Security Institute Computer Crime and Security Survey, losses due to attacks from inside the company happened 49% of the time, resulting in an average loss per respondent of $288,618.

Again, I want to emphasize that I am not advocating taking any company property that doesn’t belong to you. The fact is, most employment contracts specify that everything you do and create while at the company is legally theirs. No questions asked.

However, what about retrieving personal information from your work computer? Is it a good practice to keep your work files and personal files completely separate from each other? Of course. But some people may not have a computer of their own. So if the only place the seating chart spreadsheet for your upcoming wedding resides is on your company laptop, your boss will usually understand.

In the middle can be a gray area. What if you work at a non-profit and there are photos of you at a charity event that you hosted for the company? What if you work at an advertising agency and edited an award-winning video, and want to use that in your portfolio? The relationship you have with your employer will dictate how these questions are answered.

4) Inform the people that work for you

When I was most recently laid off, it was very important to me that the four employees that I managed hear the news directly from me. They surely knew that something was up when they received an urgent request to drop everything for a meeting, and the news came as a shock to them. However, they felt better that they were able to hear the entire story first-hand, and then be able to ask questions.

5) Get everything in writing

There’s a good chance that the company is way ahead of you in terms of the details of your departure. Consider all of the possible elements:
• Determining your last day
• Receipt of your last paycheck
• Claiming unused vacation time
• Severance pay
• Bonus eligibility
• Continuation of health benefits
• Retirement savings accounts
• Unemployment assistance

There’s no way that you can process everything at once, so be sure they give you everything in writing. Do not sign anything until you’ve had time to go through all the details and ask any questions.

6) Control the message

This is one of the most important steps in the process, but one that few people consider. In the new economy, people are becoming their own media companies.

Even if they have a full-time job, they “market” and “advertise” themselves as they craft their own personal brand on Facebook, Twitter, online video, and photos.

What they need to do in this case is also be their own publicist.

control the message

It’s a sad fact that any kind of office turmoil will immediately be followed by office gossip. Human nature dictates that there will be some people thrilled to be the first person to inform everyone, “Did you hear the news? Joe and Sue just got fired!”

Rarely are all the facts correct as the gossip spreads, and the sentiment at best is “Poor Joe, he must be devastated” and at worst “I bet it was because he failed on his latest project.”

What follows is the outline of an email that I sent to employees in my department that I was close to, and the intention behind it.

“Hello, by now you’re probably aware that my job was eliminated this morning during the reorganization.”

[This addresses the situation, emphasizes the fact that it was a result of the restructure and not performance-based, and gives people words to repeat].

“However, I will be here through the end of the week to help with the transition. During this time, you don’t have to “tip-toe” around the issue so feel free to stop by.”

[When something like this happens in an office, people don’t know how to react. In my case, I immediately saw how awkward everyone was, as they didn’t know whether to avoid me or to console me. I broke the ice by telling them I was fine and this made sense to them since I cooperating during the transition].

“In fact, rather than feel sorry for me, you’ll probably want to wipe the smile off of my face since I’m actually really excited. As you know, I have a myriad of side projects including my book, my blog, and speaking opportunities. I’ve already started researching working remotely from Buenos Aires.”

[Is this bragging a bit and putting a PR spin on the story? Yes. However, the reason it works is that it was 100% true. People knew of my side interests, I had already started developing a plan to quit my job in the next 6 months, and I ended up keeping my promise – I was working from a café in South America exactly 6 weeks later.]

If done right, the sentiment can turn from “That poor person lost their job” to “Hmmm, I kind of wish I didn’t have to work either.”

The gossip crowd loves when someone is blindsided by news, so another alternative would be to say “I knew with this economy no job was safe, so fortunately I’ve kept my resume up to date, I have a wide range of professional contacts, and I’ve already started planning out companies that I am going to reach out to.” By doing so, you’re showing that you are being proactive about the news.

The final step I took was emailing a group of employees, vendors, and contacts outside of my immediate department. For me, this included the editor in chief of both Wired Magazine and Wired.com, the close staff I worked with in the San Francisco office, and all the various mentors and fantastic coworkers I had worked with in this large company over the past 5 years.

I quickly detailed the situation, said what a privilege it was working with them, and gave them helpful information on who to contact for my old obligations, and how to keep in touch with me in the future. Again, it really helps if this was true. I really did enjoy my 5 years there, and made a lot of good friends. High-level executives don’t like to be caught by surprise with information, so they appreciate being told the facts right away and being in the know. Everyone can be gracious when things are going well, but taking the high road when situations change shows your true character should your paths cross again.

By following these action items, not only can you avoid burning bridges, but you can actually build some on the way out. That’s a good thing for any kind of relationship.

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