A few years ago, during the talent war's most reckless campaigns, HR directors desperate to stem the dotcom migration molded retention packages that included inflated salaries, stock options, and referral incentives. As even routine hires began demanding signing bonuses and generous vacation allowances, recruiters' vocabulary consisted of only two words: attract and retain.
Today, the very same employee who joined a company in 1999 because of its investments in talent is learning that allegiance takes a backseat to profits during a downturn and that loyalty does not necessarily produce a return on investment.
"Laid-off workers are left feeling terribly betrayed by employers who once treated them like family," says career counselor and consultant Ruth Luban, author of Are You a Corporate Refugee?: A Survival Guide for Downsized, Disillusioned, and Displaced Workers (Penguin, 2001). "Oftentimes, the guy who received a raise nine months ago for demonstrating outstanding teamwork is let go not because he's doing a bad job, but because the company needs to cut. When those layoffs are done without compassion, employees leave feeling angry, confused, and disoriented."
Those emotions, if allowed to fester, can derail job searches, sabotage promising interviews, and foster feelings of professional distrust. Vindictive employees may also unleash violence and sabotage on a former boss before heading out the door, striking fear into the hearts of all survivors.
The message boards on Fucked Company and WetFeet.com support the theory that bitter employees are outspoken employees and that smart companies practice compassionate layoffs. They also suggest that downsized employees often don't anticipate or appreciate the emotions that inevitably follow an adverse career change; they fall back on anger because it's comfortable and cathartic. But it's also terribly ineffective after a certain point, says Luban, who also sees corporate casualties flee from their feelings by launching immediate job searches.
"The most difficult step," she says, "is admitting the truth to yourself: 'I've been laid off.' Then you must process the situation and begin choosing from the inside out. Instead of asking 'Who wants me the most?', do some soul searching and ask, 'Where do I choose to go?' To move on, you must internalize that locus of control."
Luban has identified five stages of "The Refugee Experience" — emotional steps that downsized employees move through on their way to a new job or a new calling. Here, she explains each phase and offers advice for progressing successfully toward a better future.
On the Brink
Your CEO just announced disappointing second-quarter results, hired a team of "efficiency experts," and called a staff meeting for next Friday. That can mean only one thing: You will accomplish absolutely nothing in the next week as you and your coworkers wring your hands, wipe your brow, and debate various layoff scenarios to the point of paralysis.
Luban calls that hysteria before the storm "On the Brink" and advises employees concerned about their future to resist watercooler gossip and pink-slip predictions. Instead, she encourages a period of preparation and adjustment that includes updating your résumé, organizing your files, calculating your finances, and generally putting your life in order. She says that the potentially downsized should research the process for converting a 401(k) into an IRA, extending health-care coverage, and reducing personal debt — all while they're still on the clock.
"Move from a reactive mind-set to a proactive one by first recognizing that your job could go away tomorrow and then by getting ready to leave that paycheck behind," Luban says. "Most people are so overwhelmed with their job that they neglect their own personal priorities. You must think selfishly to survive today."
But not everyone sees the storm clouds forming. If your company is remaining tight-lipped about profits and strategies, surf Web sites like Fucked Company and WetFeet.com for the inside scoop on your employer, Luban advises. "Honor your intuition," she says. If things don't feel right, they probably aren't. And knowing is half the battle.
Once the guillotine has fallen, laid-off employees often feel angry, hurt, and betrayed. Luban says that's natural. Bitch, moan, complain, and cry to your heart's content.
"Don't avoid those feelings or begin pushing even harder toward a new job," she says. "Grief will sabotage your interviews if you don't work through it first. If you're feeling at half-mast, you will approach each interview as another potential rejection, and recruiters will tear you apart."
Misery loves company. And recovery seldom begins in isolation. So Luban suggests seeking a career counselor or joining a support group — and, no, pink-slip parties don't count. Take a few weeks to work through your feelings before jumping back on the career boards, but don't allow your healing time to become an unsightly résumé gap.
"Whether you're traveling through India or bumming around San Francisco, the grief will remain if you don't meet it head-on," Luban says. "It's too risky to take a long sabbatical right now, so you must find support close to home and look inside yourself for solutions."
Once you're ready to start writing cover letters and practicing handshakes again, you must learn to compartmentalize the job search, so that it doesn't dominate every waking hour. Begin by assembling an interim structure for your day that includes rituals for exercise, healthy eating, adequate sleep, and reflection. Luban recommends starting a journal — a place to vent about the agony and ecstasy of the process every day.
"When we're working, our jobs define the structure of our day," Luban says. "When that structure has been lost, people feel lost and helpless. They panic because they don't know how to deal with uncertainty. If you create an interim schedule, you can release yourself into the uncertainty of unemployment, because there is some structure to your day."
Set aside four or five hours each day for researching, applying, and interviewing for jobs, and use the remaining time to "wander," Luban says. Rather than living panic-filled days at Kinko's, schedule time to stroll through a park, visit a museum, or swim laps at the gym.
"When people aren't looking, that's exactly when the connections and awakenings happen," Luban says. "There's a lot going on internally, and wandering allows for internal breakthroughs — if you stop clutching and driving long enough to remember who you are."
Seeing the Beacon
The self-evaluation and job-search processes started in "The Wilderness" begin to pay off when you feel a sense of calling and can identify the job, industry, or position that will make you happiest. "You finally get a clear sense of what you are and what's next," Luban says about the fourth step identified in Are You a Corporate Refugee?: "Seeing the Beacon."
"Watch out for false starts," Luban warns. "Some people become so fearful of the unknown that they settle for the first thing that comes along. You simply can't let dwindling resources or outside pressure force you into another job that's bound to end badly."
In the New Land
This final stage of the "Refugee Experience" represents a new beginning that Luban celebrates cautiously. "Don't just give yourself over to your new job," she warns. "Build resilience. Hold your boundaries. Own yourself."
In short, never allow yourself to become a corporate victim again. That doesn't mean you shouldn't allow yourself to be fired or downsized again. It means you shouldn't allow yourself to place faith in continuity again. "Disruption and unpredictability are the constants in careers from this day forward," Luban writes on her Web site, Corporate Refugees.com.
"If we allow companies to oppress us, they will," she says. "But if we maintain our boundaries and push the oppressors back, we will remain strong. You can't be a victim without an oppressor."
Anni Layne (email@example.com) is the senior Web editor for fastcompany.com. Learn more about Ruth Luban on the Web.