Leaving you is sometimes easy

Believe it or not, layoffs are not always a bad thing.

Granted, there’s the gut-churning worry about making the mortgage and all the other payments, and that’s as real as it gets, especially if you, like me,  have been living paycheque to paycheque and not setting anything aside for the bad times. That is unequivocally double-plus-ungood.

But for your head and your heart and even your career, a layoff or buyout can be breathing space, a time to sit back and consider just what it is that you really want to do with the next five years — or the rest — of your life, and maybe take some tentative steps toward that thing.

I was talking the other day with a woman whose company seems to be moving toward layoffs and she’s pretty sure that if they come, they’ll come for her. And she’s fighting the feeling of relief that this is bringing. She feels like she’s been swimming in a toxic muck for years. Asked why she hasn’t just up and left before now, she admitted that her current workplace has drained whatever self-esteem she might have once had — she’s not confident enough to go out and sell herself on the job market.

Boy, did I understand where she was coming from. I spent the best part of my career working for a company whose mission I believed in — still do. It was the only place I wanted to work when I graduated from university. And many of the people I worked with were wonderful. But it was an extraordinarily toxic workplace for me because while I was frequently seconded to work at a higher level, my bosses made it clear over and over again that I lacked that certain je ne sais quoi to actually get promoted to that level permanently. I was of far more value to them as a pawn on the board that could move anywhere. Not only did I come to lack confidence in my skills, the lack of a saleable job title on my CV was evidence of my employer’s lack of confidence in me, so even when I applied for jobs I got hit by the double whammy. I did eventually get out and move on, but my lack of progress there remains my secret shame. I still can’t explain it, and that doubt remains at the back of my mind.

It’s really hard to believe in yourself when others don’t believe in you.  And even harder to just quit a sure paycheque, as harmful as it might be to earn it, on principle when you’ve got no safety net. So no judgment, please, about this woman’s failure to get out of the poison pool.

But she is taking steps, and that’s a positive thing. She’s getting therapy for her self-esteem issues. She’s getting her ducks in a row so that she’ll be ready when the layoff comes. And she’s trying not to be too overtly relieved about the idea about getting paid to leave her job. I told her to stop fighting it and embrace it as a natural result of the way she’s been feeling about her job. Because sometimes a layoff is freedom. You no longer have to work with the people who were making your life miserable. You leave with severance pay so your immediate concerns about paying the bills are assuaged, giving you time and space to think about your next move — which might be completely different from your last one.

Here are some ways to prepare yourself for a layoff:

  1. Use your benefits. If you need new glasses, get them. See your dentist. Buy your prescription meds. Get the massages that you never get. Take advantage of all of it — you’ve been paying for it, there’s no sense leaving money on the table. And if your company has an Employee Assistance Program that provides a certain amount of free counselling, use it. It’s confidential, won’t come back to haunt you at this workplace or the next, and could be the key to getting out of whatever rut you’ve been in.
  2. Put together a list of contacts, complete with contact details. People who’ve been helpful to you or to whom you’ve provided good service.
  3. Set up a non-work email address and use the first email to send yourself that list of contacts. Also make sure that you have copies of — or access to — any work product that you’re particularly proud of — papers or reports or whatever. Your personnel assessments. If you’ve received emails telling you what a great job you did or thanking you for going above and beyond on something, make sure you have copies of those too. You’ll want to be able to show this stuff to your next employer, plus it’s always good to look back on the work you’ve done and say to yourself, “Damn, I’m good!”
  4. We all know we’re supposed to put aside money to keep us going for a few months, but few of us actually do it, mostly because there’s always something to spend the money on, like gas for the car or a new roof. It’s hard to plan for an uncertain future when the very certain present has its hands in our pockets. But if you know something’s coming, start cutting back where you can, and pay off what debts you can. Start getting used to reduced circumstances.
  5. Sometimes you can see layoffs coming from miles away. If so, look at your resume and check for holes. Is there a course you can take — online or in person — that will fill that hole, either by upgrading existing skills or adding an in-demand skill? Your current employer may have a budget to pay for continued learning, but be careful — if the training isn’t directly applicable to your current job they may not pay for it.
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Here we go again

The day before 9/11, a Canadian TV network launched its first national newscast, a supper-hour program that wouldn’t compete directly with the two major networks’ 10 and 11 p.m. shows. At the time it was my job to watch all three newscasts. The two legacy networks handled 9/11 and the ensuing weeks’ coverage like the pros they were. The upstart added a little sumthin’-sumthin’ underneath the items about 9/11. I noticed it because while I was watching the newscast and taking my notes I would feel unsettled, my heart would beat a little faster, I’d breathe a little faster, my hands would sweat — things that didn’t happen when I watched the coverage on other networks. It was an extended low note, almost but not quite subliminal, that ran as long as the 9/11 items lasted. I called it the Tone of Dread. I’ve probably written about it before on this blog, because it’s one of those things that has stuck with me, and today it’s useful as a metaphor.

That tone of dread, subliminal or audible, is familiar to most people working in media these days. There’s an under-buzz, a hum, in newsrooms that accompanies the death by 1,000 cuts to staff. It makes your heart race and your palms sweat as you wonder, “when will the next cuts come?” and “when will they come for me?” Living under that hum does things to your brain that simply don’t go away when the job does.

My media job went away five-and-a-half years ago — to the day, as it happens . To my great relief I quickly found another job out of the media, with an association that seemed about as solid as it gets. The excitement level was through the floor, but, lack of adrenaline notwithstanding, it’s been a good place to work and I’ve been lucky to be there and I’ve actually learned a lot.

But that damned hum is back. Associations everywhere are facing the same problem — companies that still haven’t fully recovered from the 2008 recession, or which cut back on spending during the recession and decided they liked having the extra cash — are not shelling out for elective items like they used to, which means associations are losing members. And they’re starting to look at how they can adapt to having less money. My association, having gone through the assessment stage, is now preparing to implement its change measures. And yes, there will be layoffs. And yes, my head’s as likely to be on the chopping block as anyone’s.

And my heart’s beating a little faster and my palms are often sweaty and — this is new! — I’ve started to wake up at night gasping in the throes of a panic attack.

I dropped this blog like a hot potato five-and-a-half years ago when I started my new job — there was some question about whether the social media rules allowed me to have a blog, and then once that was resolved there was the question of whether I felt like writing at the end of a long day of writing. The answer – I mostly didn’t.

But that damned hum is back. And I’m thinking that five years on maybe there’s something to be said for saying something in this forum. So we’ll see how this works. I’m going to try for regular updates. And if there’s anything you’d like me to discuss, I’m all ears.