All the Ways You Will Be Laid Off in Your Life

There are bad ways, and less bad ways, to find out you are being canned.

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Jan 14 2019, 6:00pm

Image courtesy of 20th Century Fox, Office Space (1999). 

This article originally appeared on VICE Canada.

When it comes to shitty life milestones, being laid off and contracting an STI have some remarkable similarities. I speak from experience.

Both make you question your self-worth, feel a deep level of shame and self-consciousness, and stress about long-term effects. But unlike STIs, there’s not much you can do to actively protect yourself against a layoff.

In the last decade I have been laid off, without cause, from six jobs. The distinction of “without cause” means the reason for the lay off isn’t personal or performance based, and generally relates to company restructuring—essentially “it’s not you, it’s us.” This doesn’t make the experience any less disorienting. Despite my familiarity with this often surreal situation, I can assure you it’s not something that gets easier every time.

Getting laid off is pretty common, so it’s helpful to think about the possibility. In the US, about one out of ten workers is laid off every year. And certainly, some industries (like, let’s say, journalism) are much worse than others.

My experiences of being canned (without cause!) have ranged from well-timed and respectful to comically undignified. What I’ve learned is that the execution is everything—allow me walk you through some of the ways you can expect to get laid off.

The Send Off Lay off

The first time I lost my job felt more like a send off, though it was technically a layoff. It happened just before the 2008 recession, when I was working as a reporter in a national newsroom that was going through company-wide cutbacks. Since I was a casual employee (who worked full-time), I was told my job would eventually be phased out.

The company was transparent and gave me a year’s notice, which offered me ample time to figure out what was next. My coworkers threw a party for me and a few others who were leaving, and I continued freelancing for the company for years.

According to Chester Spell, a professor of management at Rutgers University who has researched the effects of downsizing on companies, this is the best case scenario. Organizations can greatly soften the blow by offering resources and support for the employee they’re letting go.

“If downsizing is absolutely necessary, those are the things that have been shown to let the employee feel like they’re being treated well,” he told me. “It’s the way you were treated that you remember.”

The Escorted Out by a Stranger Lay off

Unfortunately, that lovely send-off was far from the norm. It did nothing to mentally prepare me for what was to come, namely the experience of being escorted out of a building like I was a boundary-less panhandler at a bougie restaurant.

The last time this happened to me I was at a tech firm, a job that required me to move across the country. The position never materialized and I spent seven months being juggled around different departments. One afternoon, a supervisor messaged me online to meet him in the boardroom.

As I approached, said supervisor was sitting outside the glass room but didn’t get up to join me. I found myself facing a man in a suit who, to this day, I couldn’t pick out of a lineup. He told me I was being let go without cause and that he would bring me my personal belongings once I was outside the building.

For a second, I wondered what this unmemorable HR personnel man would do if I asked him to piggyback me out. The workday was in full force, but I thankfully didn’t run into any of my colleagues on the way out. I did have to pass the always-cheery receptionist, who let out an empathetic but powerless “oh noooo” as I was led to the elevators.

The Stunningly Tactless Lay Off

Being escorted out by an HR clone with my stuff in a box was not my most bewildering layoff experience. That distinction would have to go to the small startup where I worked for under a year.

Management had arranged a vague last-minute, end-of-day meeting for my team on a day when we all worked from home. After we’d arrived, and a few minutes before the meeting, half the team got up and left, while the remaining members were taken into separate rooms. It was clear what was happening: We were in the bargain-basement version of the Hunger Games.

The HR lady allowed me to go back to my desk to quickly close down my computer. In my Inbox, there was a company-wide email informing everyone I was no longer working there. It must have been sent while I and the others were in the process of being laid off. While we were still in the building.

As I quickly gathered my things, I felt like those who were still at their desks were trying hard not to gawk as I bolted out of there, yelling “Byeeeeee!” and never looking back.

While a layoff strategy involving fake meetings and poorly timed emails can be interpreted as insensitive or clumsy or both, the company did offer a reference letter and freelance work. There was no way I could accept either in good conscious.

Spell says when a layoff lacks dignity, it’s to the company’s detriment.

“Beyond losing a job or not getting a pay raise, how you were treated by a company creates the most intense kind of reaction to an injustice,” he says.

Spell added that research shows employees who don’t get the ax are usually more psychologically messed up than those who are let go because they often think “that could be me.”

“The employees aren’t only stressed, they’re checked out of the job,” Spell says. “They admit to being demoralized. It sends a message to who’s left behind.”

The Bounce Back

On the upside, when looking for new work, most employers are sympathetic to the fact that employment isn’t as sure as it once was.

Tatiana Miyamoto is an employment counselor at JVS Toronto. She says layoffs are a symptom of the economy, rather than the individual but can still be hard to accept, since our identities are often tied to our jobs. She strongly suggests taking time to process what has happened before jumping back into the job search.

“A lot of people have been there,” she says. “Realize that it’s not you and try to identify any distortions of thinking to shift your negative mindset.”

From there, Miyamoto suggests seeing an employment counselor to have an objective look at your resume, so you can structure it to make it less apparent you’ve been laid off. Finally, the best thing you can do is warm up your network and keep it active.

“If you have a strong professional network and can come to opportunities based on recommendation, your resume matters less and less,” she says.

It’s kind of like a breakup, perhaps one where you contracted an STI: Once you’ve had time to process what’s happened and pick yourself back up, you will realize there are infinity opportunities out there. Many of them will be a better match. You are far from damaged goods.

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