A Working Strategy for the Laid-Off

By Mary Ellen Slayter
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, April 15, 2007; K01

What would you do if, when you walked into work tomorrow someone told you to head right back out -- along with many of your co-workers?

It happened to about 3,500 Circuit City workers last month. "Overpaid" retail workers were the target of most of the cuts, but the ranks of workers at the company's Richmond headquarters also were thinned by the company's decision to outsource information technology operations to IBM.

Mass layoffs, the government's term the elimination of 50 or more jobs in one move, are on the rise this year, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The number of people who filed unemployment claims associated with mass layoffs rose 14 percent in February, compared with the month before. No matter what euphemisms are in vogue to describe such cuts -- "downsize," "rightsize" and "reduction in force" are common -- they still sting. All you know is that for reasons that weren't exactly your fault, you no longer have a job.

"Many times layoffs have nothing to do with your personal performance; it's a reflection of the company at large," said Nancy Collamer, career consultant in Connecticut and author of the "Layoff Survival Guide." A layoff certainly doesn't have to be the end of your career.

The key to getting your work life back on track is to not panic, said Christopher Palatucci, partner at Polachi & Co., an executive search firm in Massachusetts. "Panic comes through in the words you choose and your body language," he said, and won't help you in your search for a new job.

So what should you do if you've been laid off?

· Ask about severance pay. But don't bank on it. There is no federal law requiring an employer to let you take your half-empty notebooks with you, much less a couple weeks worth of pay. A 2005 survey of about 1,000 U.S. companies by the outplacement and career services firm Lee Hecht Harrison of New Jersey found that about a third offered severance pay to their professional and administrative employees. Benefits are generally based on the employee's salary and length of service. One week's pay per year of service is typical for rank-and-file employees, the firm found.

· Apply for unemployment benefits. This seems obvious, but young white-collar workers sometimes forget that such benefits apply to them. Or they worry that it's going to be too much of a hassle to be worth their time. You can apply for benefits online in many jurisdictions, which saves you a time-wasting and potentially demoralizing wait at the employment office.

· Pare back discretionary spending, immediately. This may seem like personal finance advice, but it does have repercussions for your career. "Think prudence, not panic," Collamer said. You want your savings to tide you over until you find the right job. Otherwise, you may have to take something awful just to stay afloat. It's rarely a good idea to let your bank balance completely drive major career decisions.

· Take a little time off. You may need a day or two to recalibrate, especially if the announcement came as a complete surprise. But don't let this drag on. Employers aren't going to slip job offers in your Netflix envelopes to get your attention. It has been said many times, but looking for work is a full-time job unto itself. "You're not out of a job, you just have a new one," Palatucci said.

· Perk up your résumé. You will be handing it out plenty in the next few weeks or months, so take the time to make it perfect. If you need help, seek out a professional résumé writer. You'll be competing with some of your old co-workers for positions, so make sure your personal contributions to projects are clear. "Distinguish yourself from the rest of your team members," Palatucci said.

· Turn to your friends. Make sure you have a way to contact former co-workers and supervisors. You will need references, and a mass layoff can scatter your contacts to the wind. Make a list of the people who can help you find a new job, then arrange to see them. Make sure the meetings have a purpose. "The object is not just to go out and have lots of nice lunches," Palatucci said.

· Don't burn any bridges. It's understandable that you will feel frustrated, even angry, but channel that anger in ways that won't damage your reputation with your former colleagues. "Don't leave by knocking tables over," Palatucci said.

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