“I’ve never been unemployed before”: A Guide

It’s a tough job market right now and many of us are going through layoffs for the first time. The Interconnected asked a few people to provide some suggestions for how to approach the job-free experience. 

anne gibson

You are not your job. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again – and also I have trouble believing it myself when I’m employed. When you spend 8 hours a day doing something where you’re measured by reputation, skill, and professionalism, you’re going to start measuring yourself that way.  But you are not your job. You’re a person. You have value and skill and reputation and all of those things above and beyond whether someone is paying you. You have all of those things above and beyond whether you’re paying yourself. You are valuable because you are you and you’re the only one of you we’ve got. 

It’s really really easy to fall into the trap of spending eight hours a day looking for a job – I used to say that looking for a job was my job – but since nobody’s paying you to do that job, please don’t wear yourself out. This is your opportunity to recover from burnout and stress and everything that comes with working every day. I limited myself to a maximum of five applications a day OR one interview. (And I’m lying a little, there, because it was my family and my counselor who suggested, and enforced, those limits.) 

Rest as much as you can. Do some gardening, or build something with your hands. Be you, and only you, while you can.

Dylan Wilbanks

First time I was laid off was when the Dotcom Boom was turning into the Dotcom Bust. The agency I was looking for lost its primary source of funding and was summarily shut down. I was out of work for six months, trying to land something in a collapsing tech world where you’d set up an interview for Tuesday afternoon only to get a call Tuesday morning that that company was out of money.

I was younger then, and I came from a family where Working Was Your Identity, so when you lost your job, your identity came into question. That period was brutal – no tech jobs, but applying to other places meant recruiters telling you that you belong in tech and not in their industry. I spent a lot of time depressed.

I did engage a career coach during this time, and while I didn’t change careers, I did learn how to position myself and write my resume and cover letter to highlight why I was the best fit for This Job. Ultimately, though, it was a friend of my spouse’s who got me into my university job. 

Second time I was laid off I knew what to expect and was more casual about it. Unfortunately, it overlapped with Election Day 2016, so it really wrecked my headspace.

Remember five things:

  1. Keep up your relationships NOW. Build and expand your network, and go beyond sending out LinkedIn invites. In my career, I’ve only landed one job where someone on the inside – a friend, a friend of a friend, a former coworker – did NOT help me. No, you don’t need daily coffee dates and buying lots of lunches. Start by sending them a note every few months, asking how they’re going.
  2. File for unemployment. You don’t have to collect immediately, especially if you have severance coming in. But filing now means you can be ready to go when the severance does run out. 
  3. Lastly… chill the fuck out. I get it, you need a job RIGHT NOW or else. The worst thing you can do is go looking when you’re burned out, emotional, frustrated, and desperate. Take a week or two off and touch some grass. Once you have settled, get to work on your presentation and action plan. Spend no more than an hour a day working on your search as you start. You’re going to be hearing “no” a lot, so ease into the rejection. Don’t wreck your mental health by “making your job search a full time job.” 
  4. Your resume is fine. Your portfolio is fine. Yes, do let friends and others review your resume and portfolio and see if they have any suggestions. But if you get fifty nos, don’t spend your days micromanaging your presentation package. Take the advice you get, keep what works, ignore the rest. 
  5. No matter what capitalism tells you, you are NOT your job. Modern hypercapitalism is all about squeezing pennies out of everything at the expense of human lives and livelihoods. Your employer is not your friend, they don’t give a damn about you no matter what their marketing says, and they’d gladly lay you off again if they had a chance. Treat every gig, no matter how much you love it, as temporary.

(As I am management now, I’m not allowed to suggest that tech workers should consider union organizing. There’s certainly no book out there suggesting it, thankfully. Unions never did one good thing for actual workers. You should just blot the idea out of your mind.)

Paul McAleer

Unfortunately, I’ve been laid off a few times in the course of my career – business priorities shifted, downsizing happened, you name it. As I stayed in the game longer and longer I started to see the signs that something was afoot; having a meeting named “Meeting” was one of the flags I saw more than once.

My first advice is to allow yourself to feel whatever you’re going to feel. It’s a deeply weird experience and it’s hard not to take it personally even when it’s not. It’s also hard not to take it personally when you start looking for a new job and you get ghosted, or get an instant rejection, or whatnot – but it’s important to recognize that not all of these factors are things you can control. You can control your reactions and emotions, though.

Practically speaking, my first recommendation is to file for unemployment. Do it right away. States in the US have different processing times, so it may be a while before you see benefits; get that started as soon as you can. My second recommendation is that if you are asked to sign a contract (NDA, severance, whatever), strongly consider getting a lawyer if you can. Lawyers can at a minimum review the language and make sure there’s nothing illegal or unenforceable, which can be way helpful later.

Stay organized as best you can. I started with just worrying about my job loss all the time. That was bad for me, so I timeboxed when I would look and apply for jobs during the week, when I’d go outside and get some fresh air, when I’d go to the museum (free days), and the like. But also knowing that I was tracking all my job applications, and had a handle on my finances – even calculating when I’d run out of money in savings – gave my analytical mind a real sense of peace.

Lastly, lean on people. Yes, that’s your LinkedIn network (time to update your profile!) for job stuff, but it’s also your family and friends, and even those people you worked with years ago. Some folks go with the full accountability partner route; others employ the “never job hunt alone” idea. Critically, make sure you’re connecting and chatting regularly with others. If anyone offers you advice or a resume review or networking, take it. And know, in the end, that you will survive.

Sarah Maxell Crosby

It’s never fun to get laid off, but it also doesn’t have to be a catastrophe. It can even be a good thing. It can mean a chance to reset and change your direction.

The first time I was laid off, I was two years out of grad school and living paycheck-to-paycheck (along with my spouse – we needed two paychecks to survive). I immediately contacted a temp agency and was working full-time again within a week.

The second time I was laid off was earlier this year, as part of the great tech layoff wave. At first, I was very worried, because I had been the primary breadwinner for years. Being out of work would mean a significant drop in our household income.

We immediately reviewed our spending and savings and I realized that while our income would drop significantly, my spouse’s income would still cover almost all of our basic needs. I didn’t necessarily need to replace my entire salary. We could make adjustments and get by with a lot less.

This realization shifted my layoff from a calamity to an opportunity. Rather than scramble to get another full-time job as soon as possible, I could take the time to rest, recover, and reset. My last job coincided with a very tumultuous period in my personal life, full of loss and trauma. My layoff could be the unplanned sabbatical that I didn’t know I needed.

A few months down the road, I am happier than I could have thought possible. As soon as I started telling people that I was laid off, I started getting messages about freelance and contract work. I’ve been selective, taking projects that allow me to collaborate with people I really like. I never would have left a full-time job to freelance, but I’m enjoying freelancing so much that I’m not sure if or when I will pursue a full-time job again. I’m also devoting time to turning my hobby into a side hustle, and exploring whether it could become a new career instead.

My five tips:

  1. Review your budget. You might not need as much money as you think. 
  2. Take as much time off as you can afford to. When you’ve been working full-time for a long time, it becomes hard to fathom a different way of spending your days. Your unexpected break might be just what you need.
  3. Reach out to your network. You may be surprised by some of the people who reach back or offer to help.
  4. Your career doesn’t need to follow a strict trajectory. A layoff is a chance for reflection and perhaps a change in direction.
  5. It’s okay to draw on your emergency fund. That’s what it’s there for. You can build it back up when your circumstances change.

Christi Guzik

What I wish I knew about working in tech as a bright-eyed fresh out of college working professional… you will be laid off, it’s not a matter of if, but when. You can be a top performer, literally number 1, and the business unit is shut down or everyone with a specific job title you happen to have is deemed non-mission critical or some other arbitrary fact will hit. To the non-tech community, a lay off can be viewed as a personal failure. Rarely is that true in tech. So, tip #1 – keep your head up. You are not your job. And, you likely did nothing wrong. So, don’t get discouraged. 

After that, here are my top 5 practical tips:

  1. If you are offered a severance package, you can negotiate it. Think about what you might want further and ask for it. However, it’s also okay to want nothing more to do with that company and take the initial offer.
  2. Register for unemployment. Yes, right away. Don’t wait for the severance package to run out or insert reason to wait. Do it the first full week of unemployment. Depending on where you live, it might take a few weeks to go through the system and paperwork needed so the sooner you start, the better.
  3. Set your LinkedIn profile to Open to Work. You don’t have to announce it to the entire world, and you can set it for only recruiters to see if you aren’t ready to announce your layoff to everyone quite yet. But, once recruiters see that you’re open to work, they’re more likely to start reaching out!
  4. Check out what your university’s career center offers alumni if you graduated from college. At my university, the career center offers lifetime career help. So, you can make an appointment there for a resume review or practice interview. I’ve found their help in ensuring my resume stays current with trends to be invaluable. 
  5. Track your job search activity. I tend to work in spreadsheets where I track: Company name, job title, date applied, status of application (applied, in pre-screen, in scheduling, round 1, etc.), salary range, salary I indicated in the application (if that was required to apply). I also download a PDF of each job posting as I apply to it so I have the exact requisition that I applied to so that I can reference it (especially helpful in case when it later changes).

Now that the practical tips are out of the way…

Timebox your job search. My goal was always to apply to 10 jobs a week. Sometimes, I’d hit that on a Monday, sometimes it’d be 2 jobs a day for the entire week. From there, there were all the recruiter screens, preparations for interviews, and fine-tuning my portfolio presentation. That all takes time, and you can’t do that well if you’re stressing yourself out to apply to all jobs immediately.

Do not forget to take care of you and your mental health. Money might be tight so maybe that massage is out of the question, but the library has lots of great books and DVDs you can borrow at no cost for something a little fun! Many museums offer free admission at certain days or times. You can also get out to nature for a walk, spend a day laying in the sun, or do some gardening – those weeds had it coming!

Your friends and likely your former colleagues want to help. Really, they do. They can offer resume reviews, portfolio reviews, introductions to people in their networks, job referrals at their companies, or worst case an ear to listen. When I last went through a sudden job search, friends I know in virtual-only channels helped me A/B test my resume by providing their opinions on which format and structure worked best, introduced me to people in their networks who worked at companies with job openings, helped me identify some problem spots in my online portfolio, and more. 

Since layoffs happen suddenly and frequently, finally, do your best to print out any praise or kudos you receive as well as any performance reviews as you get them. Try to keep an eye out for things that might make good portfolio samples and do your best to document your process as you go so you have all the reference materials needed for those portfolios when the time comes to search for a new job. (And, even if it’s not due to a layoff, you’ll appreciate having all of this noted down when you start voluntarily looking for a new position.)

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