On the Cover

Life After Layoffs

A step-by-step guide to managing the job-search process

Submitted for your perusal: You awake and prepare yourself for your day. Upon completion of your habitual chores, you journey to your place of employment. After an uneventful trip to work, you arrive at your point of destination with no reason to think that the day ahead will be significantly different from any other. However, at some point during this particular day, you are summoned to your supervisor's office or human resources department and informed that you have been terminated from your employer's work force. You, through no fault of your own, are suddenly unemployed.

This scenario is not a promo for a new episode of "The Twilight Zone"; it is reality, and it is happening to millions of Americans.

The all-too-common first reaction is one of disbelief, anxiety, confusion, and frequently, anger. Thoughts like "I have a mortgage, car payments, my children's tuition ..." "How can I afford health insurance?" and "Why me?" race through your mind. Try to remember that you've done nothing wrong. The decision behind this downsizing was probably not directly related to your performance. After all, you were not "fired," a connotation that often suggests wrongdoing or incompetence. You are not being punished. You are the victim of economic forces that are beyond your control. Nevertheless, you still must deal with your situation and have no choice other than to move forward. Here are some things to keep in mind as you do:

You may receive a severance package. This varies from employer to employer, so seek legal counsel to assist in the interpretation of your specific severance package. If you are afforded severance pay, be sure to know if you can simultaneously collect unemployment insurance. If you are enrolled in your employer's health care plan, be certain that you will receive the option for continued coverage under the Consolidated Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act, commonly referred to as COBRA, and be well aware of your rights with respect to continued health insurance coverage. Get it in writing.

You may be eligible for unemployment benefits. File for unemployment and follow the requirements and regulations to the letter. Eligibility laws differ from state to state. Know precisely what they are and how they apply to you.

This is a good time to revisit your finances. Seek out a qualified financial adviser and brainstorm ideas that are best suited to your particular needs at this time. You may wish to consider less risky approaches to your financial future. Also, this may not be the best time for capital expenditures or luxuries. You can always reconsider after you have secured employment.

A layoff might lead to opportunity. In many cases you can receive state or locally funded training in subjects that can enhance your qualifications. This is particularly important if your job was in an industry that was severely impacted by the recession. There are multiple sources offering a wide variety of training programs available. Consider four year institutions, community colleges, trade schools, nonprofits and AARP, if you're eligible. Think about consulting, if only for a short time. Continue to research and keep an open mind.

It is important to take the time to realistically assess and evaluate your strengths, accomplishments, weaknesses, and career objectives. Employers are not only seeking candidates that qualify, they also require employees who fit the nature of the position and the organization. Communication skills, analytical ability, being able to work as part of a team, and a host of other characteristics will enable you to succeed in a given work environment. Be certain that you are pursuing employment that is compatible with your objectives, skills, abilities and knowledge.

For some, relocation is a realistic option. If you don't have the flexibility to relocate, you may wish to consider a position that, in your eyes, may be less challenging and rewarding, but could be a way to get your foot in the door. In any event, it can help you to weather the recession until better economic times arrive. However, don't stop searching for the "right" job.

Your résumé is more than a history of your employment and education. You must consider it a sales tool. It is imperative that your résumé reflect your strengths and accomplishments as well as your past responsibilities. Employers are more concerned about how you can contribute to their organization than with your past duties and responsibilities. Of course, it's important that you tell the prospective employer what you have done in the past. Just be sure to tell him or her how well you have done it or how it contributed to the success of the organization. By the way, your résumé must be error free. Many employers read a résumé with a red pen in one hand. Neatness, accuracy and sound grammar are a reflection of your work habits. After you have read your résumé several times, have someone with sound reading and writing skills proofread it.

A well-written cover letter (only one page, please) that directly communicates how your attributes can be an asset to the employer is essential to the job-search process. Use bullet points to showcase your qualifications and accomplish-ments. Here's an idea: send one letter and résumé to the appropriate human resources contact and another to the department manager. Be sure to research and use their names when writing your cover letter. On average, the person reading your cover letter will devote only a few seconds to it. Bullet points help the reader to focus in on your message. Call in two weeks to find out if your employment information was received and, while you're on the phone, ask if you may be granted an interview. What do you have to lose? Your cover letter must also be flawless - no typos. Both résumé and cover letter should be printed on white, light gray or beige paper. Use a high-quality résumé-grade paper. Of course, you may find yourself e-mailing your résumé and cover letter. Maintain a file of all cover letters sent, whether by e-mail or other means.

A successfully conducted job search requires hours of research and more research. Use all means available to seek out possible job opportunities, including cold calls to employers that are not advertising. The Internet, professional journals, career fairs and search firms are viable sources that should be utilized. Your local employment and training site and state department of labor should be able to provide you with additional job-search expertise.

The most successful method of locating meaningful employment is networking. Approximately 70 percent of all jobs are landed through networking. Far too many people withdraw when confronted by unemployment when, in fact, they should take the exact opposite approach. Contact your friends and acquaintances. Although they may not be in a position to help you directly, they might be able to provide referrals that, in turn, can offer additional knowledge or connect you with someone who is hiring. Generally, people like to give advice and to feel they are being helpful; it's what networking is all about. Talk to everyone, not just those in positions of power and influence. Frequently, the third or fourth link in the networking chain can be the charm. As noted, use all sources at your disposal, but focus heavily on the networking process. It has been proven to be the most effective means of locating the "right" job.

Prior to interviewing, you should prepare a well-thought-out commercial that doesn't exceed three minutes. A frequently asked interview question is, "Tell me about yourself." You must be prepared to respond without repeating everything on your résumé. Include why you chose the field you're in, how you have contributed to the success of past employers, what you enjoy about your profession or trade, what you desire in a job, what you can bring to the prospective employer, your future professional plans, etc. Just be sure that what you say is compatible with the nature of the job for which you are being interviewed. Pick up a well-written book about interviewing. I've always enjoyed "Knock 'em Dead" by Martin Yate. He's very comprehensive and offers excellent tips about answering the tough questions.

A thank you letter is required following each interview. It is recommended that you mail and e-mail every individual who interviewed you, so request a business card from each. If this isn't possible, call the office and ask the receptionist, secretary or person with whom you interviewed for his or her name (request the correct spelling), title and address. Once again, save a hard copy of each letter.

Don't be shy - ask the interviewer about the next step in the selection process and when the organization intends to fill the position. And don't hesitate to call the interviewer for the status of the position if you haven't been notified before the due date arrives.

Millions of hardworking Americans have lost their jobs within the past year. We all have been affected in some way by losing our own position, seeing a co-worker exit, or knowing someone who has been downsized. Whatever your personal status may be, please remember to reach out to those less fortunate and offer your support. Please do not let the unemployed feel left out. Also, it's a good idea to keep your own résumé updated at all times, if only to maintain a file with your new responsibilities and accomplishments. The vicissitudes of today's workplace demand it.