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What to Do If You Get Laid Off

7 minute read
Andrea Sachs

Employment consultant Martha Finney doesn’t pull any punches when she talks about layoffs. “The very first thing we should all do is just cop to the fact that it could be us,” she says. “If we’re drawing a paycheck, we could be losing that paycheck. Period.” Her new book, Rebound: A Proven Plan for Starting Over After Job Loss (FT Press) is intended for those who are nervous about their job security or find themselves on the unemployment line. With 3.6 million jobs lost since the recession began in December 2007, that’s a lot of people. TIME senior reporter Andrea Sachs reached Finney at her office in Santa Fe, N.M.

What if someone tells you that you’re being let go? What do you do and say at that awful moment?
Keep your mouth shut. Keep your hand away from the pen. Sign nothing. Keep your thoughts to yourself. Ask questions. At the risk of sounding adversarial — and I don’t like to do that because I’m a huge booster of the HR profession — these people have a script. HR and the layoff managers are war-gamed against a script because they need to protect themselves legally. If you only ask questions, in a really calm way, you can get them to move off-script. And when they move off-script, they could say something that you can use in your favor. Not necessarily against them, but certainly in your favor. So don’t sign the severance package at that moment; find out what their reasoning was behind you being selected as someone to lay off. And expect a nondescript answer. “It wasn’t you — it’s us.” That typical breakup line. (See the worst business deals of 2008.)

What if you burst into tears?
I think that’s completely normal and natural. I think if you’re dealing with a humane terminating manager and a humane HR person, their hearts are breaking too. It’s just painful all around.

Is it O.K. to express that you think the layoff is unfair, if you think it really shouldn’t have been you?
Probably not. The reason why is that it makes no difference. They’re not suddenly going to press the rewind button and totally unlay you off. It’s just going to make you look petulant, and it’s going to leave a bad taste in everybody’s mouth. And you’re going to look back and say, “Gosh, I wish I hadn’t said that.” It gets you nowhere, and dignity will get you everywhere. (See the top 10 financial collapses of 2008.)

Is there any point in writing down what’s been said to you?
Absolutely. In fact, even if what is being said to you seems innocuous, if you take that document to an attorney who looks it over and knows what he’s looking for, there could be something buried in that document that can give you leverage for a more substantial severance package or even a wrongful-termination suit. It’s going to give you bargaining leverage, ultimately. And again, never sign the severance agreement right then and there. It’s ridiculous that it takes you much longer to buy a car than it does to lose your job. Nobody ever expects anybody on a reasonable basis to sign any document under duress. It’s completely realistic, reasonable to expect to take that document home or a copy of it so that you can look at it with your spouse, look at it with your attorney. There are all sorts of things embedded in a severance package that you can negotiate to your favor, even if it means negotiating an extra month of health insurance.

Who do your files belong to? Are you allowed to take them?
No. Your files are company property. If you have extra time, if they give you a couple of weeks to tidy up business, you can probably use your contact list, because those are relationships that you carry with you, to let people know that you’re leaving. You can set the tone for why you’re leaving without making you sound vindictive. But in terms of company property and documents and company secrets, those belong to the company, and you should leave them alone.

See pictures of office cubicles around the world.

Read about how our emotions can get us out of the recession.

Should you tell everyone in the office what happened, or should you leave quietly?
It depends upon the company. If you leave under mysterious circumstances, people might think you got arrested! I’m always one for being open and letting people know what happened. You can tell people you got laid off without sounding really venomous about it. These are people you’re going to want to work with in your future, especially if you work in a very tight industry or a region like the Bay Area, where people know each other for years and years. They just cycle through the various companies. You’re going to see these people again. So the last thing you want is a reputation for being vicious. (See the 25 people to blame for the financial crisis.)

What do you tell your own kids?
Be honest with them at an age-appropriate level. Say good things about your company so that they don’t grow up thinking that employers are monsters. Say good things about your job and how you felt about it while you were doing it. Invite them to participate in the new phase of the family life, without making them feel overburdened by a financial problem.

What if you think your dismissal is age discrimination? Is it worth going to a lawyer these days?
I think so. Go to somebody who’s an expert in employee law and see. If you’re seeing that a whole layer of employees who happen to be graying at the temples are the ones who are being disappeared, you have yourself a class-action lawsuit, possibly, and that’s something worth exploring. The attorney may say, “Not worth your effort.” But it’s better to make a decision based on information than just making assumptions.

Any tips about health insurance?
One of the experts that I talked to said that if you think you’re about to be laid off, get your physical done while your company coverage is still paying for it. Get a recent document that says you are in great shape, so when the time comes for you to go out and get your own coverage, you have a document that’s new that you can show to insurance companies to prove that you’re a good health-insurance risk. When people see how much COBRA costs on a monthly basis, the reality of that sets in really fast. There are all sorts of ways of getting coverage, including the warehouse stores. Costco is offering health-care coverage now. So there are alternatives. A lot of the associations are offering something. So there are ways of patching together coverage so you never have to be totally without. (Read “The Year in Medicine 2008: From A to Z.”)

Is it O.K. to take any job in the short run just to have money, or do you have to be discerning about it because of your résumé?
It depends upon how badly you need money. Don’t be precipitous if you don’t have to be. If you have to get new work right away, try to make it consulting work that’s at your level. A great place for consulting work is the place that just laid you off. They need to get that work done; they just needed to trim the overhead. You can conceivably continue working at that company. (Learn why dentists are making more money during the recession.)

What do you tell a prospective employer about your layoff? How honest can you be?
I think you can be completely honest. In fact, in this phase, if you’re not, the employer is probably going to wonder. Don’t lie. This is the era of the no-fault layoff. Anyone who judges you for having been laid off doesn’t know what they’re doing.

Read “Ten American Companies That Won’t Cut Jobs.”

Read “After Layoffs, There’s Survivor’s Guilt.”

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