Your job may be in jeopardy for a variety of reasons — some under your control, others not. Regardless, it’s critical to recognize the signs that things are going wrong before it’s too late. Being aware of the key red flags will ensure you aren’t caught off guard and give you the chance to both navigate the situation and be prepared if the worst does happen.
The indignity of being let go is, of course, difficult. However, when I talk to executive coaching clients who have been recently laid off, I find that what hits them harder than anything else is the lack of control they feel over this critical career decision. If your organization is downsizing or you sense your job may be at risk, the sooner you can claim agency over some part of the process, the better you’ll feel and the faster you’ll be able to transition to a new company. The question is: If you do find yourself in this situation, will you be able to take the proactive steps needed to engage in an effective job search despite the stress and challenges inherent in being laid off or fired?
Here are the suggestions I made to a client — let’s call her Jillian — when she learned that her position was being eliminated due to a merger.
Cultivate a broad network
The single biggest mistake my laid-off clients have made is failing to cultivate their network while they still employed. As a result, they have had to painstakingly reinvigorate those connections while under pressure to find new jobs — suboptimal timing, to say the least. Fortunately for Jillian, she had maintained a strong network, finding time in her schedule to reconnect with people she hadn’t seen in a while, rather than letting those relationships languish.
To understand what skills will be required three, four, and five years from now in your industry, it’s imperative to build a network both inside and outside your organization, which will help you gain visibility into areas to which you might otherwise not be exposed. Tap professional organizations, mentoring circles, and conferences, all of which offer the opportunity to meet new people and stretch your thinking. Marketing strategist Dorie Clark explains that because traditional linear career paths have become much less common, it’s important “to take a detective-like approach, investigating and vetting opportunities.”
When you build your network before you’re in crisis, you can show people how passionate you are about what you do and reveal your capabilities from a place of job stability. You might also learn about skills you will eventually need to future-proof your career. If you make a good impression and nurture those relationships, you’ll be top of mind when your connections (or others they know) need your service.
When you’re in a vulnerable position, with your job at risk, clear thinking tends to go out the window. What you need more than ever is the support of people who can provide solid, trustworthy advice about your career options. This is where that broad network you cultivated can come in handy. From it, you can assemble a smaller personal board of directors to advise you. Ask yourself what your professional goals are now and what information and help you’ll need to reach those goals.
For example, Jillian was hoping to leverage her 20 years of experience in biopharmaceutical sales and marketing — as well as her expertise in launch planning, product strategy, and commercial leadership — to springboard into a chief commercial officer role, preferably in the field of gene therapy. I advised her to talk to her contacts before applying for open positions so that she could broaden her understanding of the critical business issues facing startup biotechs, identify potential gaps in her skill set, and boost her brand before the official job search began. She identified people who could tell her about becoming a chief commercial officer and offer insights on the unique challenges of gene therapy. She also found someone who could provide emotional support to counter those inevitable moments of self-doubt or decreased motivation during her potentially lengthy job search.
Conduct a financial wellness check
If you think you’re getting laid off, it’s wise to safeguard some cash in an emergency fund, ideally a money market account. You should have enough to cover more than six months of expenses because it can take that long to find a new job, especially at the executive level. If you are married, find out how to get health coverage under your spouse’s plan in the event that your company doesn’t cover the costs of COBRA payments.
Next, determine your baseline budget — the minimum amount of money you need to cover your basic costs, such as food, housing, utilities, and debt payments. You can also check the website of your state unemployment insurance agency to get an idea of what your weekly benefits will be and apply for them as soon as possible. When Jillian did this, she discovered that it helped her figure out how much more money she would need from other sources, such as savings, for necessities and how many nonessential costs she would need to cut until she landed a new position.
You might also consider meeting with a financial adviser to map out how you will support yourself through a transition period.
Update your branding
Last but not least, if you expect to be out of a job soon, you should immediately revamp your resume and LinkedIn profile to reflect your latest roles, responsibilities, achievements, and new career ambitions. I advise all my clients to keep a weekly list of accomplishments, and Jillian had followed through, so she was able to easily update her social media presence and avoid scrambling when a recruiter or hiring manager requested her resume.
Unwanted job changes are a fact of life, albeit a difficult one. Staying attuned to the warning signs — and planning what-if scenarios in case you’re let go — will enable you to remain more flexible, resilient, and in control of your career destiny.