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Been laid off? Take it like Mr. Spock

Even workers who are getting ready to exit an unpleasant job experience have trouble absorbing the blow of a layoff.
Image: Meeting
It may be hard, but working with the employer laying you off could help you in the long run.thinkstock
/ Source: Forbes

Like just about every media company, Forbes has had some staff turnover lately. The company has gotten new editorial leadership, and that has meant departures by some of the old guard. It has been interesting to watch how each person leaving has handled his or her exit.

One staffer who recently left sent around a group e-mail that was especially striking in its tone of grace and confidence. In it he wrote of his deep gratitude to the Forbeses and offered heartfelt praise for the whole staff.

Wow, I thought. I might have just fired off a terse one-liner with my forwarding e-mail address, or not sent a note at all. His high-road farewell, whatever the cause of his leaving, made me wonder, what's the best way to handle a layoff, particularly in the first hours and days after you get the bad news?

For advice I turned to Kate Wendleton, founder and president of the Five O'Clock Club, a 32-year-old national career coaching organization based in New York. The first challenge following a layoff, Wendleton says, is to conquer your emotions.

Even workers who are getting ready to exit an unpleasant job experience have trouble absorbing the blow of a layoff. One of Wendleton's clients, a financial services executive, phoned her last week extremely upset because she'd been let go. Wendleton quickly pointed out that the woman had already been looking to leave. "All they did was beat her to the punch," she says. "I told her, 'this means you'll get severance, maybe you'll get outplacement help, and you'll get unemployment.'"

Wendleton recommends that you negotiate an agreed-upon exit story and a severance package right away. Many employers will agree to portray a layoff as a voluntary departure, even while telling Uncle Sam they've let you go so you can collect unemployment, should it come to that. Also, human resources departments are often receptive to requests for services like outplacement help, which can pay for assistance from an outfit like the Five O'Clock Club, which offers a $5,000 package that covers private and small group coaching, books, CDs, an assessment process and cover letter and résumé help.

Wendleton recommends being "pleasantly persistent" with your employer. Remind the HR people that you're the primary breadwinner for your family with three kids, and that you'll really need help finding a new job.

Until you settle down emotionally, don't talk to anyone outside your inner circle, Wendleton advises. And it's a good idea to craft a story that portrays you in the best possible light. Take a couple of days before you start spreading the news. "You can say, 'I have the opportunity now to move on to something I find more fulfilling,'" she suggests. The more specific you are about your plans, the better. If you've been working in finance, for instance, and you want to get into health care marketing, say so. Perhaps your colleagues and friends will be able to help with a connection.

To that end, do update your online status immediately, on LinkedIn and possibly on Facebook too, if you have lots of professional contacts among your friends there. Krista Canfield, a spokeswoman for LinkedIn, suggests using the "Current" section of your profile, where you'd normally list your job, as a spot to tell contacts you're looking for work. "Consider identifying yourself with a title that reflects your desired position, like, 'Licensed CPA seeking consulting opportunities,'" Canfield says. Use the status field to say something like, "John is currently looking for a finance position. Do you know anyone who's hiring?" Or, "Sarah is interested in freelance opportunities. Let her know if someone in your network needs help writing or editing."

Those steps may sound easy, Wendleton concedes, but for most workers who get hit with a layoff, the toughest challenge is regaining self-esteem. The Five O'Clock Club has developed a couple of exercises that may seem a bit labored but that Wendleton swears by. First, come up with a list of 25 of your accomplishments. If you draw a blank, ask friends and family for help. Then winnow the list down to seven, and rank them according to which you enjoyed the most. That will help you clarify your ambitions and talents. "Donald Trump is best at self-promotion and real estate," Wendleton points out. "That's what he enjoys and what he continually does."

Next, Wendleton counsels, imagine a future for yourself. What do you want to be doing a year from now, in five years, in 15 years, in 40? "These two exercises ground a person and help them think about a different future," she says.

Many people react to a layoff with a combination of depression and panic. They race around telling a story about their departure that makes them look bad, and then they start frantically answering online job ads. Don't do that, Wendleton insists. Fewer than 10 percent of job-seekers find work through ads, she says.

Instead, give yourself time to calm down, come up with a good narrative, and do your best to exit gracefully.