Layoff Survival Guide

If only it were as warm as this looks.

Unemployment makes staying home easy. Frigid temperatures make it even easier. So yesterday afternoon, around 5:30, I faced the biggest decision of my day. Do I bundle up and brave the cold for a subway ride to the West Side (an hour’s trip door to door), or do I play a DVD from Netflix (Family Guy, Season 6, Disc 3, with all the bonus features)? Sounds like a no-brainer… go with the fat guy, talking dog and occasionally diabolical baby. I opted for hypothermia and the MTA, which turned out to be the right choice.

Fordham University – my business school alma mater – held a panel discussion entitled “Layoff Survival Guide.” It was all about proper techniques for panhandling. Topics included…

  • Street corner as office – coping with a change of environment.
  • Starbucks or Dunkin’ Donuts – what coffee cup puts people in the giving mood and why.
  • Dress for success – pathetic-looking clothing need not sacrifice warmth or comfort.
  • Failed banker or bank failure – optimize your story to maximize your earnings.

Sorry, I got sidetracked. Too much Family Guy makes me think in asides.

The panel discussion was all about how to deal with a layoff. You may be wondering why I wasn’t on the panel, given my league-leading layoff tally and hard-earned expertise. I wondered the same thing. But the invited panelists turned out to know a thing or two themselves. They offered more advice than “think about going back to school or an online university.” I was content to listen and learn from the third row.

The panel consisted of Merrill Lynch financial advisers Anthony Russo and Kim Potvin, employment attorney Andy Karamouzis and career coach Alan Cohen. Anthony started it off with his personal story quickly followed by a few very important (if obvious) tips. The most important (and most obvious) is to examine your budget and expenses. Any laid-off business school grad should think of and take care of this in the first week of unemployment. But any financial adviser worth his spreadsheets would be remiss if he didn’t lead with this tip. He also emphasized the need to rollover and reallocate 401Ks. People accumulate multiple accounts as they go from job to job, and let the market skew their investments what direction they will. While organizing your financial house is a convenient time to consolidate and recalibrate. This tip seemed a little self-serving (so you’re reinvesting… we can help), though also logical and relevant. Retirement accounts are assets and should be considered in any financial self-examination.

Kim summed up her story and continued the retirement discussion before yielding the floor to Andy the employment lawyer. His first point was something I’ve harped on in this blog – file for unemployment insurance. Again, this is Unemployment 101-type stuff, but very important. Don’t leave free money on the table. Swallow any lingering pride; overcome the creeping laziness. I was surprised to learn that some audience members thought the government tries to trick people out of unemployment. Let’s dispel this notion right now. Filing for unemployment is quick, easy and straightforward in most cases. Basically any laid-off worker can do it. No one is out to deprive you, barring the occasional vindictive former company who won’t validate a claim. And the big, bad government doesn’t have it in for you as an individual. You, personally, are not that important.

Alan the career coach finished things up, which made perfect sense given the trajectory of a layoff. Whereas the first three speakers focused on getting your jobless ducks in a row, he looked ahead to bigger, better ponds. His outlook was upbeat, and his advice sage. Get over the perceived stigma of being laid off; it probably wasn’t your fault. And get beyond the notion that a job defines a person; this is a narrow view of an individual. Then examine what was appealing about previous jobs and use that as a lens to focus your energy in the right direction. The trick, as he put it, is not to believe a company is right for you just because you need a job. This resonated with me. As a job search drags on, the group of “right” companies and industries always seems to grow. Desperation leads to bad decisions. Of course, desperation is sometimes justified.

Audience members interrupted each of the speakers with questions, which gave them avenues for expanding and directing the conversation. But in business school, and in life, I suppose, the alpha, ME ME ME types tend to dominate. And mostly they just want to talk about themselves. One woman seemed to have three different jobs yet was contemplating giving them all up to collect unemployment (WTF?). She asked questions so specific to her own situation that no one could understand let alone answer them. I’m not sure she even understood. Some people had more insightful comments and questions that surfaced information I didn’t know. These were the highlights for me…

  • Severance packages are not required by law, at least in New York state. Most employment agreements are entered into by an employer and an employee at will. Either party can terminate the relationship at any time. Severances are a gesture of goodwill and come with a waiver that releases the company from any future damages.
  • Severances are always negotiable. With a strong case and a light touch, they can be improved. The worst a company can do is say no, and then beat you with the nearest blunt object – likely a stapler, so watch out for those Swinglines.
  • Don’t take what’s not yours. What’s done in a work capacity belongs to the company. This includes proprietary information and contacts.
  • If laid off, get a letter from that employer stating the reason for your departure (e.g. money issues, corporate downsizing, etc.). It could make securing a new job easier.
  • Volunteering for a charity can expand your network and further your job search. It may also give you a nice warm and fuzzy feeling.

Sitting in a room with other unemployed people was just as important as learning more about unemployment. It was therapeutic, a good reminder that many people are going through the same things. My job search isn’t any easier, and my bills aren’t any more paid. But I do feel better about myself for making the effort. And I’m grateful to Fordham and the panelists for their efforts, on a night when most people probably just wanted to go home and get out of the cold.

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