MONEY Workplace

How to Handle Your Worst Work Nightmares

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When you're done breathing into a paper bag, read this.

Your career is sailing along just fine—until one day you get an email from HR, and suddenly it isn’t anymore. While there’s no shortage of advice out there for how to handle the loss of a job, a blow like having your team downsized or being asked to take a pay cut can leave you reeling and without a sure sense of what to do next.

The silver lining, career experts say, is that you can bounce back—and even thrive—if you make the right moves. Career experts offer their advice for turning around these all-too-common professional setbacks.

You’re passed over for a promotion. First, try to figure out what happened, says career coach Todd Dewett. Maybe you had a hand in dealing your fate, maybe you didn’t—either way, it’s better to know. “You want to know if you were part of the cause, what the main cause might be if not you, and whether or not you should expect this to happen again,” he says.

If your performance is up to snuff, consider that there could be something in the way you look or act that could be holding you back. A recent CareerBuilder survey found that bushy beards, gossiping, even keeping your workspace a mess can be enough to keep you from moving up.

You have to take a pay cut. People like to point out that money isn’t everything—which isn’t the most helpful advice when you have to figure out how to get by with less of it. There are two steps to take here. The first is to think about what else motivates you to go to work every day. “Emphasize other aspects of the job or organization that have value… beyond money and position,” says James Craft, professor of business administration at the Katz Graduate School of Business at the University of Pittsburgh. For instance, are there social benefits or personal perks (like being to negotiate one Friday a month off) that can ease the sting of that hit to your bank account? “Essentially, redefine what the value is in this employment,” Craft says.

If you come up empty—or if your budget is simply stretched too thin—then dust off that resume and move on to plan B. “Draw on personal and professional contacts to see what other job opportunities would be available elsewhere to continue to move toward [your] overall career objectives,” Craft advises.

Your team gets downsized. If the budget axe chopped your team in half, your job just got tougher. And if the changes result in more work and less reward for your underlings, you could be fighting an uphill battle—one that could reflect poorly on you. In that case, consider whether this might be a good time to move on.

“Spend time revising your resume and be sure your LinkedIn profile is current, and consider going on the market to find an employer that may value your professional competencies [and] positive attitude,” says Dale F. Austin, director of the Career Development Center at Hope College. The job market has picked up, after all, so it might be worth putting a few lines out and seeing if you get a bite.

You get demoted. So maybe you weren’t management material. Your ego might be smarting, but it’s your reputation you need to repair. “The most difficult type of setback is any which is clearly explained by your behaviors or competencies to the exclusion of other explanations,” Dewett says. “It’s on you, and everyone knows it. “ Depending on what went down, “you might need to make amends,” Dewett says. “Then it’s time to identify needed behavioral or skill changes.” Stumped? Ask a friend or trusted colleague in confidence. It’s likely they’ll see something that you don’t.

Your closest colleague quits. Whether it’s your assistant, your boss, or the CEO, an abrupt departure can rattle nerves and create an uncomfortable climate at the office. “Bad news can be unsettling, so be sure you get all of the detail you can,” says Paul McDonald, senior executive director of HR consulting company Robert Half. Don’t assume you know what happened: “Ask questions and get clarification,” he says.

In a situation like this, McDonald advises, it’s important to evaluate your emotions and try to look at the situation objectively. “If you’re angry, frustrated, or sad, you may need a day or two to process the news,” he says. Once your emotions aren’t quite as volatile, you’ll be in a better frame of mind to address what happened.

Read next: 3 Sweet Employee Benefits You May Be Missing


This Simple Fact Can Ruin Your Life for an Entire Decade

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But you don't have to let it

Anybody who’s ever lost a job knows it’s a miserable experience, but a new study shows that the aftereffects of being laid off last far longer than you probably suspected.

Research on 7,000 British adults by social scientists at the University of Manchester finds bad feelings that erode trust and lead to cynicism linger for a full 10 years, even if people have moved on in their careers.

“Even a single experience of redundancy can lead to depressed trust and what is particularly concerning is that people reported less willingness to trust others even after they got another job,” says James Laurence, the study’s author. The problem is especially acute for people whose identity is strongly tied up in their work.

“Losing a job often feels like a violation of trust because it meets all the right conditions, seen through the lens of ordinary human relationships. We build trust by making commitments and keeping them,” says James Jeffries, director of career development at Bard College at Simon’s Rock.

Jeffries says it’s not surprising that people whose sense of self depends on their job are more affected by job loss. “The more serious the relationship, the deeper we sense betrayal and the harder it is to recover,” he says.

But career experts say you’re not necessarily consigned to a year of giving other people the side-eye. There are coping tools that can help you recover without having to wait a decade.

Develop a more well-rounded sense of self. “In the U.S., so much of our ego and self-esteem tied into the work we do,” says Elene Cafasso, founder and president of executive coaching firm Enerpace. When that’s taken away, it leaves a void. To keep that from taking over your life, she says you need to engage in activities that can help you reclaim your identity as a person outside of a job.

“Focus on what gives you energy – working out, dancing, singing, volunteering, spirituality, time with friends – whatever does it for you, get more of that,” she says.”Focus on what you can control and… find an area where you can make an impact.”

Embrace the desire for concrete answers. “Their eroded trust will result in a desire to gain additional security in interactions,” says career coach Todd Dewett. People who have been laid off are less likely to accept general assurances about future career advancement and will seek out specific, concrete answers, which can be useful when looking for a new job offer or a promotion down the road. “Dealing with huge setbacks can be a catalyst that pushes people to more actively process… difficult feelings,” he says.

Don’t pull the plug on your professional life entirely. “Stay current in [your] skills. Keep doing something to revise, expand and update your resume,” says Patricia Malone, executive director of the Corporate Education and Training and the Advanced Energy Training Center at Stony Brook University. “Use volunteer work to boost your transferable skills on the resume,” she suggests. This has the dual benefit of forcing you to engage with — and re-learn to trust — other people in a professional setting.

Spend some time with other people who have been laid off. One of the biggest hazards of job loss is the emotional isolation that can lead to unproductive ruminating on your loss. “[Join] a group of peers who are in the ‘same boat,'” suggests Ofer Sharone, an assistant professor at the MIT Sloan School of Management. Yes, the networking might be helpful, but it’s more than that: They know what you’re going through like nobody else does, so you can drop the “game face” sometimes.

“Not only getting together for networking, where you have to present your ‘best self,’ but getting together to share the hard emotional stuff as well,” is an invaluable way to rebuild that broken trust, Sharone says.

But don’t spend all your time with them. “Do not spend all your networking time with others in transition,” Cafasso says. “Go where folks have a job.” She suggests attending professional association events, joining community service groups, participating in religious organizations and the like.

Think about where trust still does exist in your life. “Most of this advice asks a person to stop thinking in generalities and relentlessly pursue the details that make up a productive life,” Jeffries says. “It’s tempting to revel in cynicism and grief after losing a job until the wound becomes a scar,” he says, but he warns that wallowing will ultimately come back to haunt you. “If you’re feeling cynical, chances are you’ve become blind… to all the ways your life still depends on well-placed trust.”

Read next: How Not to Answer ‘Why Are You Interested in This Position?’

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MONEY workplace etiquette

What to Say to a Colleague Who’s Been Fired

Robert A. Di Ieso, Jr.

Q: What should I say to a colleague who has just been fired?

A: People often don’t know what to say, so they say nothing at all, says Judith Martin, the Miss Manners etiquette columnist and author of Miss Manners Minds Your Business.

No doubt it’s awkward, but by not acknowledging the situation you’re actually making it more awkward. “Getting fired is a traumatic experience but it’s even worse if your colleagues suddenly shun you,” says Martin.

Instead, offer your support with a simple “I’m sorry” or “Let me know how I can help.”

Don’t try to make light of the situation. Gratuitous statements such as ‘you’ll find something terrific’ or ‘you’re better off—we have to stay and now we’ll all have extra work’ aren’t helpful, says Martin.

You should also refrain from bad-mouthing the person who fired your co-worker or gossiping in the office about what happened. That won’t help your ex-colleague – or you. There may be a very good reason the person was fired, and you’ll only hear one side of the story.

If you had a good relationship with your former colleague, make plans to take her out to lunch and give her an opportunity to vent. If you feel confident in her work, offer to be a reference or write a letter of recommendation. Share names of contacts or recruiters who may be helpful.

“Who knows,” says Martin, “maybe the person will land a fabulous job and be able to help you down the road.”

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