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Out of a Job?

Understanding, Coping, Surviving

Part 3 of 4

This installment is especially for those at imminent risk of being discharged or who have just been laid off. The final issue will be for those who have been laid off for a while and are back on the job market.

About To Be—Or Recently—Discharged?

If you are at imminent risk of being—or have just been—discharged, your next steps must be prudent ones. Make sure your initial decisions and actions are positive and in your best interest! Consider the following factors:

Information is circulating throughout your company, firm, or institution about certain departments being eliminated, jobs being moved, or broad layoffs taking place.

Attempt to obtain additional information from your supervisor or manager. He or she may discount or verify what you have been hearing. If you find the information to be nothing more than speculation or rumor, attempt to identify its origin (you may learn, for example, it is due to your company’s stock plummeting—perhaps sufficient reason for you to delay action but to closely monitor the situation). If you find the information to be factual, attempt to learn more so you have a better understanding of organizational and personal implications. Once you have a clear understanding of what is about to happen and why, you can begin altering your career plan to address this emerging circumstance.

You see the "handwriting on the wall." You are being given unfavorable work assignments and have just received an unjustifiably unfavorable performance review.

Attempt to work with your supervisor or manager to resolve this situation. Do not say or do anything that is inappropriate. If your attempt to improve the situation fails, move forward with this in mind: you may eventually have to testify before a jury about how you were treated unfairly or discriminatorily. Plan for that day by preparing to support your opinions and feelings with concrete facts. Immediately begin keeping a journal. Prepare at least one journal page each day. Every day, when you arrive home, summarize what happened that day (be sure to record names, conversations, events, witnesses, date, and time).

Being laid off is difficult for people to deal with for a variety of reasons.

The downside (in terms of the unplanned job transition) is that much of a person’s identity is wrapped around his or her career. We go to school, commit ourselves to a profession, and ultimately identify ourselves as part of that profession. Over time, work begins to come first. Life appears to have no true meaning outside our professional life. The upside is that an unplanned job change gives you an opportunity to reexamine (and reset) your priorities.

Some take being laid off more personally than others.

Personal observations reveal that no two people being laid off take the news the same way, no two are equally prepared to emotionally accept the news, and no two progress through the transition or start over the same way.

Being laid off in all likelihood would help bring your family closer together.

Your being laid off may or may not actually bring your family closer together—it would present an excellent opportunity for your family to gain a better understanding of its strengths and limitations and would give each family member an opportunity to provide—and receive—mutual support. The bottom line is this: job loss allows family members to work together to overcome an emotional event and contribute "as one" to an individual family member’s overall success.

You must consider a layoff (only one form of unplanned career change) to be an opportunity rather than a problem. You must strive to turn this negative event into a positive one.

Much easier said than done! To capitalize on such a life-changing event, rely on your personal values, reframe your thinking, and reinterpret the situation. Lastly, solicit and accept the support of your family and friends!

If you are discharged, do not expect a lot of "warm and fuzzies." Regardless of how long you have been with your company, firm, or institution, the severance process is typically very cold and distant.

Keep the following in mind: a majority of companies, firms, and institutions follow an established and somewhat mechanical process when "severing" employees. What you experience throughout the severance process is the result of hours (or even days) of planning and preparation! When severing an employee, organizations have one objective in mind: mitigate risks to the company (firm or institution) by compressing the amount of time it takes to "get you out the door."

If you are allowed to meet with an outplacement specialist, be sure to ask several key questions.

At a minimum, solicit answers to the following three questions: What reasons were you given for my being discharged? Whom should I contact for answers to future questions? Does anything (without being specific) suggest I might have problems finding a future position?

If you find yourself meeting with an out-counselor or outplacement specialist, do not waste time trying to challenge your dismissal.

If you meet with an out-counselor or outplacement specialist, you have already been laid off! The decision has been made and approved by all necessary parties. Neither you, the counselor, nor the specialist can do anything about your dismissal.

If offered a severance package, you must take a prudent course of action.

Before accepting any severance package, you should carefully review its conditions and stipulations. If the package is complex, consider retaining an employment lawyer and/or an employee benefits specialist to review it and give you advice. You must protect your interests for the future, your employer will not do so.

If you are offered a severance package containing limited benefits, proceed cautiously if thinking about demanding more.

Your employer does not have to provide severance benefits, unless they (1) are required by law; (2) are stipulated in your employment offer or contract, employee handbook or policy manual; or (3) have been agreed upon by your employer and labor union. Proceed with caution when attempting to negotiate severance benefits—if you reject the initial severance package, your employer may withdraw the initial offer!

To receive your severance benefits, you may be asked to sign a "release of claims" form. This is not simply a legal technicality.

Again, proceed forward in a prudent manner! Once you sign such a release, you might give up all claims you have against your employer, even for breach of contract, wrongful discharge, discrimination, or claims you do not yet know about! If you prematurely sign such a form, you may give up all rights to benefits to which you are entitled (as set forth in your job offer letter, your employment agreement, or under your company’s employee handbook or policy manual). Again, if the severance package is complex, consider retaining an employment lawyer and/or an employee benefits specialist to review it and give you advice.

Ask to see your employment file.

State laws generally entitle you or a designee (such as your attorney) to review your employment file. You should ask to review it. If your employer refuses (which is very unlikely), ask an attorney to make the request. A request to review your employment file is a valid one. First, your review may reveal documents stipulating severance benefits not available to other employees. Second, your review should verify that you did nothing to cause your job loss and that your discharge was not related to problems associated with your performance or attitude.

If you feel like you have been discriminated against, prepare to show proof.

The "direct" way is to show that your employer made a discriminatory comment or specifically told you or others that an adverse action (such as a suspension, demotion, or discharge) was taken against you because of your race, sex, age, ethnic background, or other federally protected factor. Such blatant proof of discrimination rarely exists.

If such direct and blatant proof of discrimination does not exist, there are still ways to establish proof.

Absent such blatant proof, you must show that: you are a member of a federally protected class (see above); you met your employer’s legitimate expectations; you experienced an adverse employment action; and other employees who were not members of the protected class were treated more favorably. Once you prove these factors, your employer must show a legitimate reason for the employment action (if such a reason is shown, you must then show that the employer’s stated reason for the employment action was not the true reason, but merely a "pretext" for discrimination).

B. Keith Simerson & Michael D. McCormick

For more information on this topic:

Refer to Fired, Laid Off, Out of a Job: A Manual for Understanding, Coping and Surviving (ISBN 1-56720-634-4, the Greenwood Publishing Group, base price $49.95, available at your local bookstore or through www.greenwood.com or at 800.225.5800).

B. Keith Simerson, Ed.D. is a Partner with Tradewinds Consulting: BKSimerson@TradewindsConsulting.com.

Michael D. McCormick, JD is an attorney in private practice in Illinois: michaeldmccormick@hotmail.com.

Anyone can offer legal information, only licensed lawyers can give legal advice. Information presented in this article is general. It is not based on your specific set of legal facts—it is meant to serve as helpful information, rather than advice. Contact a licensed attorney for advice tailored specifically for you.
© 2003 B. Keith Simerson and Michael D. McCormick. All rights reserved.

See Part 1
See Part 2