Coping with a mass layoff

One of my hi-tech clients wanted to share his story of surviving both sides of a corporate reorganization.
-Coach Wolfgang

You’re hearing rumors… the big layoff is coming. Will you be impacted? Will you stay or will you go? What’s the severance package?

You have so many questions… but they are just details. I think the real questions are:

  • How will I survive?
  • How will I thrive?

Surviving a re-org

When I say “surviving” I don’t mean figuring out a way to remain at your company. What I mean is maintaining peace of mind throughout the process, viewing all the possible outcomes with confidence and preparing yourself for any scenario.

Why am I writing about this? I’ve been “impacted” by a reduction in force (RIF) twice in my career and staring at a potential third time. In case you guessed… yes, I’m in hi-tech.

Let’s first deal with this fact: by the time there are rumors of a re-org, the remaining org has already been decided. If you aren’t one of the ones deciding who stays then someone else is doing it and you aren’t going to know until the day arrives.

Rumor stage

Therefore surviving isn’t about trying to cram, like you did for final exams. The decision has been made. Your compensation, manager reviews, skill set and 6-month track record are the main factors in choosing if you stay or go.

My advice for the “rumor stage” is to maintain your job but prepare for being let go. START YOUR JOB SEARCH as soon as you are reasonably sure there is more than a 20% chance of being let go. Don’t make the mistake of thinking you won’t be let go because you probably 1) have no idea what their criteria is and 2) you don’t understand their vision for the future structure of the org.

So take time each day to build your network, check job postings, polish your resume and LinkedIn and practice interviewing. You also need to set your expectations with your job search: you are not going to land a new job in a few short weeks. Personally, I would spend very little time imaging the financial windfall from getting a new job before your severance pay runs out!

As soon as these rumors start, you will see a lot more distraction and a lot less work. Limit your time on the distractions and the gossiping. Instead, use that new found extra time to prepare for either being impacted or keeping your job. During the rumor stage is when you put yourself in a position to thrive no matter what the outcome.

You are impacted

I remember standing up from my cube on Monday morning, looking across my area and waiting to see if managers came out and went over to cubes, pulling people into conference rooms and then shutting the door. As I stood there, eating my yogurt, I didn’t even notice MY MANAGER coming up next to me.

“Can we see you in the conference room?”, he asked.

At that moment I knew I was being let go. It stung! My ego was deflated in an instant. I was embarrassed and felt terrible because I was “no longer needed for the company to continue.”

The night before I convinced myself that I was too valuable to leave and that my projects were far more important than the projects of my co-workers. I was wrong. Unfortunately, I wasn’t prepared. I remember standing in my apartment later that morning, staring outside, and holding my savings account statement showing that I earned $2.36 that month in interest. Not quite enough to pay my rent!

So there I was, in shock and paralyzed by that shock. But if you follow my advice in the “rumor stage” then you have some irons in the fire, so to speak. Treat your job search like it was your job – put your attention and effort into it. You’ll feel a rush from getting started. Ride that rush to become prepared for a long job search. Get opinions on your resume, book some networking meetings and get a feel for what jobs are out there.

That last step is important. It’s important to look at a lot of companies and job descriptions and have conversations/interviews whenever possible so you can find out first-hand what types of opportunities are out there and what candidates companies want. You’ll get a feel for the relevance of your skills and the way you’ll need to position yourself as a candidate.

There is a silver lining to being laid off.

  • “You have the rest of your life to work.” That’s what my dad said to me after my first lay off. He worked at one building for the bulk of his 42 year career. He always wanted a break. Recharging your batteries is a good thing. I wouldn’t advise you leave your job to do so, but take advantage of your downtime. Yes, income is important but, there’s more to life than just work. Everyone’s life situation is unique but review your financial obligations and, if possible, take some time off to re-charge.
  • All those pesky projects and all of those tasks that you didn’t like… well… they are instantly gone! It feels good to get that monkey off your back. So de-stress yourself and enjoy the burden that has been lifted. This is also a good way to write down what tasks you didn’t like and assess what you want (and don’t want) in your next job.
  • You may be relieved to get away from your job. Hopefully, you got a severance package and you can collect unemployment when that runs out. In other words, you have some pay coming in which can cover you while you “explore”. Grabbing the first job that presents itself is fine but it, potentially, takes away from experimenting and trying different things. Try not to worry or panic when you lose your job; instead feel confident that you’ll find a job that fits your personality, values and interests better!

You can thrive during this time by realizing that it’s an opportunity to focus on you – clear you mind, find out what you want, prepare to get it and approach each day with confidence. Don’t just go through the motions and don’t let fear, uncertainty and doubt take away from thinking deeply about your career and life.

You keep your job

Keeping your job should make you feel some relief and even feel good. A lot of other people weren’t considered necessary but YOU WERE. It boosts your ego, a bit, and keeps your income consistent which tends to keep your anxiety low.

You have the challenging task of helping a new team get organized while maintaining the current expectations while adjusting to the shifting that will take place over the next few weeks. This is your chance to dive in and help. Show your team or new boss that you are proactive, flexible and able to help in ways that he or she wasn’t aware of.

It’s also important not to take your eye off the task that is still in front of you. Keep doing meaningful work. If you aren’t sure what that new work should be, then keep doing your current work until it is figured out. Let me repeat that: DO NOT STOP WORKING while your executive team is trying to figure everything out. Yes, you may get a new role and, yes, you may be put on all new strategic directives… but you haven’t been yet!

You can thrive by taking this transition time to solidify your value to the organization and continue your job search.

Yes… continue your job search!

Remaining in your organization after a massive layoff, I feel, is the hardest scenario to deal with. The change and disorder you now face can be daunting. You also need to watch out for changes to your role that affect your marketability to other employers.

My heart goes out to people who put in one or two decades at a single company and, one day, are let go. Oftentimes, those people were put in very focused roles and weren’t required to keep their skills up-to-date. They are smart and talented people but now have outdated skills and have to explain how 10+ years at a single company is desirable experience.

Watch out for this happening to you. A re-org is the perfect time for you to become distracted by everything going on and neglecting to realize the affect on your career path. Thus, keep your job search going. It’s a good time to inventory your skills and see how you need to adjust to be more marketable.

Beware of the next round and the revolving door

Unfortunately, a re-org is a move to help companies survive or correct mistakes. Your organization is not out of the woods yet. The three times I’ve been affected by a mass layoff, the companies were:

  • Losing ground to a dominant competitor and having to resort to low-profit product sales. They couldn’t compete at the higher-end of the technology race and couldn’t reap those high profits.
  • The recession in 2008 hit and the services work at my consulting company dried up. It was happening all over the place and people were impacted in every industry just about.
  • The technology landscape began changing by leaps and bounds. My large organization with multiple, disjointed lines of business was inefficient and too unfocused to be competitive and maintain high profit margins. Therefore, they were spinning off non-core products and business lines, completing a number of spin-merges.

These three situations were my particular journey. Staying at your company means you have made it “past this round”. What are the “rounds” you ask? During my first layoff, here are the waves/rounds of layoffs I saw:

  • The first round was to let all of the contractors and vendors go. Major projects got scrapped in an instant. People who you thought were employees were suddenly no longer there. Many of the people who helped with your job were no longer available. Only full-time employees (FTEs) were left.
  • The second round came 2-4 months later and impacted FTEs who worked on non-core products and “nice-to-have” internal services. In many cases, departments were told to cut a certain percentage off their headcount. Managers literally had to choose a specific number of people to let go, regardless of their importance or the impact losing them would have.
  • The third round finally got me. This is when the real re-org happens. Groups are merged, teams are dismantled, people are re-purposed or moved into an entirely new line of business. Additional tweaking will be done but this is usually the biggest round of FTE layoffs.
  • Subsequent rounds are small and involve specific groups tweaking their teams. In most cases, teams look at what they have, figure out what they need to do and see if there’s any fat to trim. These rounds may be planned or not.

We’re also in a time of an unprecedented mergers, spin-offs and even “spin-mergers” in the technology world. The biggest of them all is the Dell and EMC merger. In the end, there will be a 60 billion dollar organization. As is the case for any merger, redundant positions will inevitably be rectified. Who will keep their job: mid-level manager at company A or the mid-level manager at company B? Even if you are confident that you will keep your position and the other guy won’t, don’t forget about the possibilities that neither of you are needed or neither of your departments are needed.

If your company who goes through a re-org or a merger, be aware of the risks that your company has which now become your risks. Relying on one employer for the bulk of your income is inherently risky. Look how quickly CEOs come and go these days. It is a sign of the risk that the entire corporate structure is exposed to. Companies make headlines when they announce they are laying off a large percentage of their workforce. They don’t make headlines when they let a small percentage go a few months later. In large companies, that small percentage can still be a few thousand people. So be ready and don’t assume you are safer after a massive layoff.

You can thrive in these later rounds by adding value in new ways, raising your hand for new opportunities or trying to develop your own role based on a need you see. Despite all the shuffling, pockets of opportunities are opening quite a bit.

Land of opportunitycareer goals

Personally, I’m not convinced that organizations value their contractors, agencies and employers like they should. In 1981, Ronald Reagan fired more than 11,000 striking air traffic controllers and that changed the way employers viewed their employees. There are certainly executives that treat their workers like family, however, it seems that “share holder value” is the ultimate concern of executive teams and their boards.

When I graduated college in the mid-1990’s and took my first job, my dad’s advice was to “let your company take care of you.” He said they would look out for me and I didn’t have to play those games of negotiating my salary and jumping around from company to company. Before the end of the decade, he changed his tune completely. He said that, apparently, the way to advance in the corporate world is to move from company to company working your way up the ladder with each step. Whether that is true or not, the lesson is that you can’t assume that someone else is watching out for you.

I’m saddened to put things this way. At the very least, many industries are fast-moving and ultra-competitive. Changes are needed across the board and oftentimes those changes are sweeping. I wish corporate leaders would bring humanity back to the workplace. It’s a shift that is starting to happen but in pockets. I often said, “I bleed green and black.” They were the main colors of my company’s brand. I was a big fan and wanted to see them succeed. Unfortunately, the feeling wasn’t reciprocal and I learned that I needed to be prepared to accept their will at a moment’s notice.

Thus, my advice is not just to survive but thrive by preparing for change, moving on quickly when change comes and maintaining a state of readiness. The United States IS the land of opportunity but it is up to each of us to understand the ups and downs of these opportunities and be prepared for them.


, Surviving a re-org: coping with a mass layoff

Amy Wolfgang

Amy Wolfgang is a career coach who founded Wolfgang Career Coaching and co-founded Coaching 4 Good. She brings over 15 years of corporate and coaching experience to help organizations boost employee engagement while simultaneously helping her clients excel in their careers. She is a certified PCM (Professional Career Manager) and has a Master’s degree in Educational Psychology from The University of Texas at Austin.

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