The axeman cometh

The turbulent winds of a stormy job market are here. Here's how to prepare if the winds blow your way.

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Nobody likes drastic change when it comes to their careers. Americans, on average, spend 70 percent of their waking hours, Monday through Friday, on work-related activities. That being said, to change your job is a lifestyle change. As Americans, we make our careers a part of our lives. For some, a job is a status symbol and distinguishes oneself in society. How quickly in meeting a new person do you ask, “What do you do?” Pretty quickly.

For others, a job allows a certain lifestyle. They join golf clubs, drive luxury cars, and own expensive homes. For many, it is a feeling of power and responsibility. Most people wear many hats, and through different reorganizations, mergers, and title changes, perform several different job functions. Most people don’t even take vacation without calling into the office, leaving a phone number where they are, or at least checking email. Be smart. Be informed. Go ahead and prepare in the event that you are laid off.

Signs and you wonder
There are warning signs to layoffs and ways to protect yourself:

Your employer has announced hiring freezes either in your department or company-wide. Work harder than you have ever worked in order to show your value.

There are new rules in regard to vacation or internal processes such as expense reports. Recognize that this is often a process to weed out dead weight.

Your company’s stock has been on the “strong sell” list for the last quarter or corporate earnings have been flat or declining.

A merger has recently taken place resulting in two people for each position, now it is a team effort to complete one job. Show them how much they need you and that the job was made for you.

There have been changes in your industry or geographic area that lead you to believe that change is on the way. Keep on top of trends and show that you can adapt.

You see it coming. What’s next?
Copy all of your phone numbers and addresses of all buddies at work as well as any contacts that you think could come in handy. This is your network. You will need it later to see where friends have gone, what positions are out there, etc. If you take the time to do this thoroughly, you will have a great base of contacts.

If you have your resume on your computer, copy it to a disk and take it home. Get anything off of your computer that you need now or in the future. Once the axe falls, there won’t be any time for housekeeping.

The axe falls. Deep breath.
You are called into your boss’s office and given the news that you are being “let go,” “downsized,” “transitioned,” or “reorganized.” Basically, you are fired. No matter how politically correct they word it, you are out of a job. Whether you were one of the first to be let go or you are part of the growing majority, be sure to leave gracefully. Prepare yourself: They are going to walk you out of the office like you are a madman or criminal. You may think, “I have done great things for the company. Why must I leave now with an escort?” Unfortunately, this is how companies treat everyone these days. Your coworkers may also act differently. There will be many things that will surprise you the day you get the axe. Do not react.

Think of it as psychological warfare. The quiet one is generally respected more than the one that pitches a temper tantrum. Don’t be mad. Don’t sign anything that you are given. Don’t negotiate severance yet. Do nothing except be pleasant. Even when they walk you out of the building keep it together. Although it’s hard to bear, staying calm and collected will serve you well in the long run.

Gather intelligence. Now is the time.

They have already knocked the wind out of you, and now they want to talk about severance. Do not make any quick decisions; do not let them bully you into deciding immediately. Don’t let it happen too easily. You must negotiate. By now you have spoken with others who have been laid off. You should try to get some idea from friends in the company of what offers have been made to others. Now you know how to negotiate a strong package for yourself.

Negotiate your severance
Now is the time to take the gloves off. This is the start of your new unemployed life. Whether or not you negotiate a strong severance will be the difference between a low stress job search and a frantic race to take the first job offered. Let’s say they offer three months salary and benefits. You come back with “At my level and in this declining industry, it is taking an average one month for every $10,000 executives make to find the right position. Since I was making X with your company, you expect it to take X months to find a new position. I think 10 months is fair.”

Or you say, “With unemployment at 7.2 percent and with the market so competitive, I just want to have time to find a good career match rather than jump at the first position. With my tenure/contributions with/to the company, I am sure that you agree. I think 10 months sounds fair.”

Or play the sympathy card. Not too much, but a little. Say something like, “Well Bob, I can say with all my years with the company and the strong signals that the company sent to everyone about the stability of the company, I am a bit surprised. I am now 61 years old and I can’t help but wonder why I would be laid off after so many years of service. It is going to be difficult to get back into the job market and I really want to be treated fairly.”

These suggestions and similar responses are positive, because they place responsibility back on the company and open the door for negotiation. Of course, you will probably meet in the middle somewhere; however, the more you can get, the better you will feel. However, if the company has a written severance policy that clearly spells out severance benefits, negotiations may not be allowed. Normally, this is the case for very large companies or for organizations that are undergoing major layoffs.

Unemployment: Why not?
You went out to lunch with the boss many times and the company paid. Did you feel bad then? Of course not. You shouldn’t feel badly about taking unemployment either. Think of it positively. They have been “nice” enough to set an account up for you the whole time that you have been with the company in the event of this disaster; they have saved it for you all of this time. Now is your time to get some payback. File for unemployment.

Some people find it embarrassing; others think it is some kind of loan or feel as if they are asking for help. It is not. It is quick, it is easy, and you can do it with very little pain. Some states even allow you to file by phone. The U.S. Department of Labor can help.

State laws vary, but in general when you receive unemployment depends on when you got your last payment from the company; this includes severance. If you received severance in a lump sum, divide it into monthly increments of your typical salary to see when you will be able to receive unemployment. If you receive severance monthly, when it stops, unemployment can begin.

Job search: Tax deductible
The IRS allows you to write off a lot of your job search, meaning it could be tax deductible. You can deduct certain expenses incurred in looking for a new job in your present occupation, even if you do not get a new job. According to IRS tax regulations, you can deduct amounts you spend for typing, printing, and mailing your job applications.