If you’ve been laid off from your job, or if you’re worried you’re going to be laid off, you might be feeling pretty helpless. It’s scary to be told your job is being eliminated and you’ll be out of work and have to scramble to find a new job. But there are actions you can take before, during, and after a layoff to make things easier on yourself and decrease the amount of time you’re likely to be out of work.
Before we get to those, though, let’s get clear on definitions. If you’re being laid off, your job is being eliminated (usually for financial reasons, although it can also happen in a restructure). This is different from being fired, where you’re being let go because of something related to your performance or your conduct, and where your employer will typically rehire for your position. This language matters because you don’t want to say you were fired if you were actually laid off. Saying you were laid off makes it clear it was a financial decision, rather than one about your work.
What to do if you think you’re going to be laid off
Companies are typically pretty secretive when they’re planning layoffs because they don’t want to spook people and have employees who they weren’t going to lay off start job-searching. That means you might not have much or any warning that layoffs are coming. But sometimes you’ll hear rumors, or you’ll know that the company is in financial distress or that the main project you work on isn’t doing well or is slated to be cut. If you see danger signs, it’s smart to mentally prepare for the possibility that you could lose your job so that you’re not blindsided if it happens.
Things you can do during this period that will make the blow easier to withstand if it comes:
• Make some job-search moves. At a minimum, get your résumé together so you have it if you need it. It doesn’t hurt to start applying for jobs, either. If you’re not laid off, you’re not obligated to take any of those other jobs (although who knows, maybe you’ll find something you like better). But if you do lose your job, you’ll be glad not to be starting from scratch.
• Take home anything you’ll want to have with you after you’re gone.
If you’re laid off, you might not be allowed back onto your work computer, which means you could lose contact information for people you’ll want to be able to reach, work samples, and personal files. It’s smart to make sure you have those items at home now. (Obviously, this is subject to any policies your employer has about what you can and can’t take home).
What to do during the layoff conversation
If you are laid off, you’ll likely be called into a private room with your boss and/or HR and told of the decision. They should cover logistics like when your last day will be (usually, it will be that same day, but in some cases you might be asked to stay longer), any severance payments you’re being offered, and when benefits like health insurance will run out. Here are some things to be aware of when you have this conversation:
• You can try to negotiate severance. In some cases, everyone being laid off will be offered the same amount of severance, or the company might use a formula (like one week of pay for every year you worked there). But you can try negotiating for more — especially if your employer has a particular interest in getting you to sign the standard agreement saying that in exchange for severance, you release the company from any future legal claims against it. (This agreement is standard when severance is paid, but it’s fine to ask for time to consider the document before you sign it. You can even run it by a lawyer, who might be able to help you negotiate a higher payment.)
• Ask whether accrued vacation time will be paid out. Some states require employers to pay out accrued vacation when an employee leaves, but others don’t. If you live in a state where it’s not mandatory, consider asking your employer to do it anyway. Some will.
• Ask what future reference-checkers will be told about your performance and the reason you left. A layoff shouldn’t be held against you — but if you were selected for your layoff in part because of your performance, you want to know that now, so you’re not blindsided by a negative reference later.
What to do after you’re laid off
If you do end up getting laid off, you’ve got a lot of company. Many, many people have been laid off and have gone on to much professional success — including, no doubt, many of your future job interviewers — so look at your layoff as a temporary setback, not a referendum on you or your work. In most cases, your layoff says more about the company than it does about you, since it’s usually the company’s finances and business decisions that lead to layoffs.
Meanwhile, do the following:
• File for unemployment benefits right away. It can take a while for benefits to kick in, so get that ball rolling as soon as possible.
• Activate your network. Now’s the time to reach out to everyone you know — both professionally and personally — about job leads. This is why you have a network! And don’t be shy about contacting your manager or colleagues at the company that laid you off. Most of them probably feel bad about what happened and will be glad to help if they can.
• Brush up on your job-search skills. If you haven’t had to look for a job in a while, you might be rustier than you think at writing cover letters or interviewing. Don’t wing it. We’ve got helpful guides to cover letters, résumés, and interviewing.
• Move on mentally. It can be hard to move on immediately after losing your job, especially if you didn’t see the layoff coming. Even if you weren’t thrilled with your job, you might find yourself missing co-workers, projects, and events that you didn’t much like while you were there. That’s normal! But staying mired in the past won’t help and can make it harder to get into the mind-set you need to do well in interviews for a new job. It’s probably not productive to go to endless happy hours with people who were laid off with you, or to let yourself wallow in anger about the decision or how it all went down. Give yourself a couple of days to feel whatever feelings you have about the situation — which could be anything from grief to resentment to fury — and then vow to move forward.
Order Alison Green’s book Ask a Manager: Clueless Colleagues, Lunch-Stealing Bosses, and the Rest of Your Life at Work here. Got a question for her? Email firstname.lastname@example.org. Her advice column appears here every Tuesday.