Be Prepared If Layoffs Possible

By Ted Griffith
Gannett News Service

Don't wait for ax to fall, set aside money, begin looking for other work

May 10, 2004

Although there are signs the job market is recovering nationally, layoffs remain very much a part of the landscape. And no sector, from auto manufacturing to government to technology to retail, is immune from downsizing.

“People get into a comfort zone at work, and they’re really scared about losing their jobs. It can be like a kick in the stomach,” said Barry Schlecker, who runs the Network Group, an executive search firm in Wilmington, Del.

While being out of work is a frightening prospect, people can take steps to prepare in case the ax falls. They also can make decisions that will help them bounce back quickly if their position has been cut or they take an unexpected early retirement.

Experts’ advice ranges from setting aside money to cover several months of expenses, to asking friends for help with the job search, to trying to arrange a transfer within the company.

Most important, experts say, don’t run away from the problem.

“If you find yourself in limbo, worried that your company is going to cut jobs, do not wait around until the final day,” said Gordon DiRenzo, a University of Delaware professor and a psychologist who specializes in helping people cope with job loss. “Start looking now and give thought to a plan for dealing with the situation.”

A person who has to leave a job, especially one he or she has held for a long time, needs to be braced for wrenching changes, said Michael Bowman, a former senior executive at DuPont who left the company in 1998 after 32 years. In two years, he went through a succession of six jobs.

Bowman said people who lose their jobs or take an unexpected early retirement need to learn quickly how to be flexible, and they need to understand it’s unlikely they’ll land a new position exactly like the one they had.

“You really need to look internally, decide what you’d really like to do and what you can do,” he said.

Although downsizing has long been a familiar phenomenon, losing a job can still cause feelings of shame. Some people who’ve lost their jobs, or are at risk of doing so, withdraw from friends and try to hide their troubles — but that’s the wrong approach, said John Challenger, chief executive of Challenger, Gray & Christmas, an executive search firm based in Chicago.

“Don’t hunker down,” Challenger said. “What happens too frequently is that people are embarrassed and they don’t want to talk about their situation; that’s the worst thing somebody can do.

“You want everybody to know you’re out of work, or you’re going to be out of work,” he said. “The more people who are aware of your plight, the more likely it is that you’ll get help.”

Maintaining confidence also is key to making the leap to a new job. Older workers, in particular, are vulnerable to despair, having been accustomed to doing the same work for years, said DiRenzo.

But DiRenzo said older workers should see their experience as an asset and focus on shoring up their confidence.

“Know that you have a track record and you can be successful at another employer,” he said. He said people who are dogged by feelings of depression and anxiety should seek out counseling services, which often are provided by employers.

Aside from the emotional toll, job loss also can have a devastating financial effect. Donald Nicholson Jr., who runs a Wilmington financial planning firm with his father, said it’s important that people try to set aside money for an emergency fund, ideally three to six months of living expenses.

“A good budget is really the foundation,” Nicholson said. “Once you have a budget, you can build a plan from there. The way our economy works, anybody could lose a job — and you need to have a plan in mind.”