When The Ax Falls, Will You Be Ready?

A Primer on What to Do When (Or Even Before) You Get Fired

By Honora Eskridge

It was late on a Friday on a hot July day in 1994 in suburban Washington, D.C. The office was quiet; many people had already left for the weekend. My boss popped his head into my cubicle and asked if I was going to be around for a while yet and, if so, could he meet with me around 4:30? I said yes, and he disappeared. A moment later I heard him back in his own cubicle (which was adjacent to my own) on the phone arranging for a visit from our senior manager scheduled for—you guessed it!—4:30. As a veteran of two solid years of layoffs, I didn’t need to be hit over the head; I knew what was coming. I walked across the aisle to the cube of my friend, Bob. I told him what I thought was up. He replied, “No, you’re wrong, there’s a big meeting. Everyone’s going. I’m invited, too!” Then I knew Bob was getting laid off as well. Poor Bob . . . I tried to wise him up, I told him that people don’t have important meetings at 4:30 on Friday afternoons, but he would not believe me. I pointed out that most of our colleagues were already gone for the weekend, and he still shook his head and insisted that there was a big meeting. I left him to his delusions. About an hour later, after we both had gotten the axe, I popped my head into his cube and said, “Hate to say I told you so, but I told you so!” and we shared a good laugh.

I have been thinking about my own layoff experience a lot lately. In the last few months, I’ve known two friends who’ve lost their jobs and their experiences have brought back a lot of memories. No matter how a job loss plays out—whether one is fired or laid off, if your contract isn’t renewed or tenure isn’t granted—losing one’s job is extremely stressful. It is also surprisingly surprising, even when the writing is on the wall. You feel powerless and rejected, and the whole experience can be pretty humiliating. Yet we have more power than we think in these situations, and in this article we will focus on how to take advantage of that power before, during and after the fact.

Before It Happens

I have always believed that being prepared for change helps me realize I have some control over any situation. Although I’ve been happy in my current job for many years now, I subscribe to several library job listservs, and I always think about what my next job could be (or at least what I would like it to be). This isn’t just good career planning: having the mindset that no job is permanent helps me feel in control; it keeps work in its proper place in my life. I have had a long-standing tradition that when I start a new job, on my first day of work I take a few minutes to update my resume. It’s a small way of reminding myself that no job is forever and that someday I will be looking for a job again.

Learning to keep the resume up-to-date was one of the great lessons of my layoff experience. I remember seeing so many colleagues who were completely unprepared to look for a new job. When they got laid off, they had to start from square one, and that took a lot of time from their job searches. If you’re always looking for a job, then you are always ready to look if the need arises.

Part of this preparedness strategy is attitudinal. I saw so many others who couldn’t imagine what else they would do in life when their jobs ended. You have to be able to imagine yourself working in other places and doing other things. And what better time to do this imagining than before you actually have to make a move?

When the Writing Is On the Wall

This is a time when it is easy to feel powerless, but remember that you do have some choices. A first choice is to stay in your job (or not). Just as our employer has a choice about keeping us around, we too can choose to stay or go. If things aren’t going well, and you sense that a layoff or firing is coming, you two options: you may leave before it happens, or you may hang on as long as you can. Both are valid and reasonable choices. What’s important is that you take responsibility for whichever choice you make. If you choose to hang on, you need to keep your attitude professional and do what is asked of you. If you choose to leave, don’t act as though your choice was forced upon you.

A second choice has to do with being prepared. You can sit around and wait for something to happen, or you can start making plans and take time to prepare yourself. If you are let go, what will you say? Will you be able to keep your cool? (If not, you need to practice so you can!) What questions will you ask? To me this is the most important part, because rarely do we have the presence of mind to ask the right questions in these situations. Here are a few that come to mind: Can I resign? Can I get a reference? At a minimum, you should ask for the chance to ask more questions once you’ve had some time to absorb the news. If the situation is one that involves some notice—for example, if you are told three months in advance that your contract is not going to be renewed—will you stay the three months? If so, how will things be handled in the interim? I would have very definite questions about this, and I would ask for as much as possible to ease the transition. Preparing in this way will help keep your thinking clear as well as prevent emotional or rash decision making. If you are given months’ or a year’s notice (as often happens when tenure is denied) you owe it to yourself to use that time to your best advantage.

In addition to bracing for the actual experience of being fired, there are many other preparations to consider. Buy a resume and cover letter book. Plan for how you will present your working history (in an interview, how will you explain losing your job?). Practice for interviews: make a list of the most common interview questions and spend time working on answers to them.

Most important, perhaps, are the financial preparations. Financial experts say we should all have 3-6 months pay set aside for emergencies, but the overall savings rate in the U.S. is negative, indicating that most people spend more than they earn. If you are not a saver, now is the time to put away as much as you can. Hang on to any accrued vacation days so that if you are let go, they will be paid out to you. Review your finances and determine exactly how much money you need in order to live. You should have a plan for what you will do if you are unemployed (or under-employed) for one month, three months, six months or a year or more. These are frightening questions, but having a plan will help you cope with uncertainty.

Lastly, choose not to be a victim. Every situation is different, but rarely is an employee (or an employer) entirely to blame when someone is let go. People fail to communicate. Managers fail to develop people. Employees goof off. Budgets get cut. Everybody owns some of the blame. Think about what you could have done differently. Apologize if it’s worth it. Learn from it, forgive yourself (and others) and move on.

Once It Is Out

When I was laid off, I was given four weeks’ notice. I continued to work and told no one. About two weeks into this period, I was standing at the photocopy machine when a man I didn’t know approached me. He said, “Hey . . . you work on Farley Project, right?” I said I did. He said, “I heard they laid off a WOMAN engineer over there! Do you know who it is?” I said I didn’t know anything about it and walked away. I knew that whoever that guy was, he was such a big gossip that he wasn’t going to stop until he found out who the mystery woman was. At that time, I think there were only two women engineers on my project, including myself. It wouldn’t take him long to figure it out. That was when I realized that I needed to tell my friends the news. The lesson: if you are let go, remember that there is a limited amount of time that you will have control over this information. For better or worse, the news will leak. So take advantage of that limited window and use it thoughtfully. Give yourself a little time to let the news soak in, and then tell your family, your closest friends and your colleagues. Telling people this kind of news is hard because you must address their emotions as well as your own. People will want to tell you they’re sorry; they will want to know that you’re OK. You may also have to deal with people’s fears about losing their own jobs, judgment (i.e., you must have done something to get yourself in this situation) and, unfortunately, even glee. These interpersonal consequences are draining but unavoidable.

Once It’s Over

After you’ve left, give yourself a break. Take a few days or a week to recharge your batteries and think and plan. Focus on moving forward. For many people, losing a job can be a blessing; I know that it was the best thing that ever happened to me. Try to see how you can use this opportunity to change your life for the better. Consider alternative careers. What are your skills and interests? If you don’t know, there are workshops that will help you to identify them. If financial responsibilities are keeping you from exploring your options, consider temping or taking a job that will pay the bills but doesn’t require a long-term commitment. Most importantly, remember that you are not alone. Almost everybody loses a job at some point in their working lives and, as with many life events, what matters is not what happened but how you handled it.