Suddenly Unemployed?

Handling career interruptions in an era of downsizing.

And for more than three months now I have been a man with no particular need for an alarm clock, no place where I really need to go in the morning.

G. J. Meyer; Executive Blues: Down and Out in Corporate America

Today is Friday, the thirteenth day of September, the ninety-eighth day of my unemployment. Ninety-nine days ago I was Vice President for Communication of the J.I. Case Company, a multinational manufacturing corporation with sales of more than five billion dollars a year. Before that, I was a vice president at McDonnel Douglas Corporation, a firm that needs no introduction.

The shrinking of the ‘Internet economy’ is having echo effects across many business sectors. It is impacting people that you and I know. Having worked at one point in my career in an Executive Outplacement firm coaching executives who had been fired or laid off, I learned some lessons that I believe would be valuable for those who are in that same situation today. These points are offered in the hope they will help those who find themselves suddenly unemployed.

If you have been a manager or executive and are now looking for a comparable or better position, the probability is that the ideal job for you will never be advertised. The executive who will offer that ideal job is quietly looking for a man or woman with the right range of competencies, including the Emotional Intelligence, to succeed with this task. You, as a job seeker, must create the right circumstances through enough executive informational interviews that you will meet, or be brought to the attention of, that executive who is looking for you and your skill-sets. If there is any secret here, it is in knowing enough to allow the ‘personal chemistry’ to work in each conversation.

With that in mind, the following suggestions will help you cope with this challenging period.

Suddenly Unemployed: What To Do

1. Be honest with yourself about the circumstances. If you made some mistakes, learn from them! (In my experience from interviewing executives who made firing decisions, the critical mistake was usually made two to four months before termination. A relatively common mistake is not listening and not following through to correct oversights. Sometimes this means that the fired manager did not respond with something like “I made a mistake here. Thanks for the feedback. This is how I will avoid this problem in the future.” Another example would be when the employee holds an attitude of smugness or arrogance such that he doesn’t hear the feedback or suggestions offered by others.) If you were part of the consequence of a downsizing or similar action, do your best to learn from that.

2. Be honest with your family. Don’t pretend that you are going to work if that is not happening.

3. Do a complete cash flow analysis of your family finances. What are all of the possible sources of cash? What are all of the unavoidable expenditures? Contact your state’s Department of Employment Development either on-line or by calling the 800 number and sign-up for your benefits. You are entitled to them. Consider the experience to be part of your post-graduate education! Determine what is the minimum amount of cash per month you will need to get by. Work with your family to set a frugal budget and get them to help you stay within it.

4. Based on #3, determine how many months you can go unemployed before you have to take a 2nd mortgage on your home. This is an important number! If you know that you can make it for six months you will feel less pressure to take the first job that comes along. Taking the first job is sometimes a mistake. On occasion, people who took the first job found themselves fired within a few months. It was not a good fit. (As a loose rule of thumb, when the economy is slow, it might take a person making $100K a full year to find a comparable position. A person who had been earning $50K might take four to six months.) How long it takes depends on the person, the skill set, and how proactive the job search is.

5. If you are making monthly payments contact your creditors. Most lending agencies handling home and car loans would rather help you reduce your payments, maybe to interest only, than to go through all of the work of a repossession. If you have credit cards, go to a not-for-profit consumer counseling service and have them help you to combine and reduce payments. CUT UP THOSE CARDS!

6. Dress up your resume. Use white space to make the paper visually attractive. Make it appear easy to read. If your resume is hand-delivered by a mutual friend in a face-to-face conversation, it will probably be read no matter how long or if it has any appeal. Otherwise, the probability is that it will be one of many resumes being reviewed at the same time. It is tempting to overload a resume with information that may not be necessary here but that can come out in an interview. Creative use of white space can draw attention to specific aspects of your experience.

Remember that people are rarely hired on the basis of the resume. The resume is a door-opener, that’s all. Use the interview to tell your story. Use the resume to get the interview.

7. Create a list of 100 names of people who might be helpful in some way. Work over the list. Criteria for being on the list include the fact that you have actually met the person and that the person is either in a position to introduce you high up in a corporation, or to get inside information for you. Don’t forget business school professors or classmates when you are creating your list!

8. Begin working with your list. Cold call! Do not mail resumes if you can help it. Hand-deliver them. In a major metropolitan area, you ought to be able to have two interviews a day. Make the cold calls and get the interviews.

9. Your 100-name list is the primary source of people you talk to. If you are not working the list at least 7 hours a day, you are not being proactive in your job search. (Hint: if you are sleeping-in, or mindlessly watching TV, or escaping into some other distraction, you are not in a proactive job search. If this is you, find an honest friend and clear the cobwebs from your thinking.)

10. In general it is a mistake to tell friends or others that you have lost your job and then ask, “Do you have any openings?” Such an approach usually puts the person on the receiving end into a defensive, self-protecting mind-set. A better approach, if it is a friend, is to ask if he or she would spend a few minutes critiquing your resume. Offer to buy a coffee. Ask if they know people you might contact for an executive informational interview. Remember that the direct approach of pressing for a job forces your listener into a yes/no position. When that happens, the conversation is quickly over. Your objective is to warm up the conversation, gently build rapport, gaining the other person’s confidence so that he or she will introduce you to others.

11. People who prepare well and who request executive informational interviews generally have more doors open to them. The executive informational interview is not an interview for a job. It is an interview for the purpose of learning more about an industry or sometimes, more about a specific company. The primary objective of the executive informational interview is to establish personal chemistry with the person you are interviewing. Establishing personal chemistry does not mean selling yourself.

12. In summary, the essentials for establishing personal chemistry are:

  • Do advance research and know enough about the company and its products to ask intelligent questions.
  • Establish rapport. The best guide to establishing rapport that I know is Gene Laborde’s book, Influencing With Integrity.
  • Be fully ‘present’ during the interview. Don’t permit your mind, or your eyes to be wandering.
  • Practice your best listening. Don’t be thinking of your next comment or question while the person you are interviewing is speaking. Stay relaxed and physically open. Allow the personal chemistry to work.
  • Remember, let the personal chemistry work between you and every person with whom you talk. You do not need to push or demand or grab at opportunities. You do need to be calmly confident on the inside and to allow grace to flow through you.
  • If you hint that you need a job today, the door will close. If you make no such hints, but are consistent in gathering information about the industry, where it is going, etc., then the executive informational interview will open doors to a wide range of face-to-face interviews. This is a powerful networking tool. It will lead to opportunities you may not have thought of.

13. As you prepare for the interviews, think through and rehearse your story about past work experience so that you can be succinct, correct, and positive in the telling. Talk about the things that interest and excite you. As you do so, your energy will rise and you will raise the energy of your listener. Enthusiasm is contagious! Enter every conversation with a positive ‘can do’ attitude. Be on your best in terms of simple courtesy. (Yes, I have seen highly qualified people dropped from the candidate list because they were too pushy or forgot to say ‘please’ or ‘thank you.’)

14. If you get asked why you are looking for work, tell the truth. If you were fired, as opposed to laid-off or downsized, emphasize what you learned from that experience so that you will not make those mistakes again. Executives are impressed by persons who have the integrity to take responsibility for their mistakes and have learned from them. If you lie during the interview process and the truth comes out later, you could find yourself fired again. Being fired once is not necessarily the end of a career, depending on the cause.

15. Look for opportunities to grow and demonstrate your ability to take responsibility and deliver results. Executives are looking for associates who are intelligent, calmly energetic, physically, mentally and emotionally healthy. They are curious about experiences you have already had where your competencies came into play.

What Not To Do

1. Don’t make yourself into a victim by leaning on alcohol or other drugs to avoid the reality of the situation.

2. Don’t decide to take a vacation using some of your savings. Save the vacation as a reward for when you do find the job. If you take a vacation immediately after losing a job, you will not really rest, and you will miss the energy spike that usually follows job loss by a couple of weeks.

3. Don’t waste your energy complaining to friends about what happened to you. They don’t want to hear about it and you may turn off some potential job leads.

4. Don’t rely on responding to advertisements with letters and resumes. You are free to write letters and send resumes, but the truth is that unless you have some personal contact with the individual receiving the letter, it is unlikely that it will be read by the decision maker. (You may want to read that sentence again!) Historically, a typical ad in the Wall Street Journal or L.A. Times seeking managers or professionals will have 300 or more responses. If an advertisement for an open position appeals to you, think about whom you know that might know someone in that company. Can you get a personal introduction? Even a telephone introduction will help. If you work with your list of 100 names and do the cold calling, you will meet someone who knows someone looking for a person with your competencies and experience. The most likely way to meet that potential employer is to be introduced or make the cold call. MAKE THE CALLS!

5. Don’t bad-mouth or be negative about prior employers. If you are feeling bitter or betrayed, ventilate and resolve that with a skilled counselor before going on a job interview. Most trained interviewers will “smell” hostility in your non-verbal responses that will eliminate you from the prospect list.

A Sobering But Honest Perspective

The vast majority of managers will be ‘terminated’ from their positions at one time or another during their careers. This may be due to downsizing, a downward shift in the economy, a change in management or, sometimes, to some form of personal incompetence. Take the longer-term view. If you are in your 30’s or 40’s, you will get a job, usually a better one, in relatively short order. If you are in your 50’s, it will take longer. If you are in your 60’s, you may need extra help.

Ageism exists in the job market for some simple pragmatic reasons. While it is increasingly being recognized that employees who are seasoned with experience have much to offer, there are perceived risks. There is a concern that they may have ‘senior moments,’ or that they may not have the energy or endurance of someone who is 50. These issues can be addressed directly by good health practices and regular exercise that builds endurance and strength. There are several sources of information on both subjects. One need not be a runner or a weight-lifter to be fit. A daily regimen including a period of prayer or meditation, a time of stretching and perhaps yoga or tai chi and supplementing one’s diet with those nutrients that the body no longer produces in abundance can go a long way in raising energy, endurance as well as aiding memory and alertness.

A Final Note

Most of the managers and executives I have known who have gotten themselves fired had a major case of arrogance. They simply ignored the subtle signals that something was not right in their performance. Or they became bored and inattentive. Humility in the job search process will usually pay dividends!

Author of the article
Wayne L. Strom, PhD
Wayne L. Strom, PhD,

, is a professor of behavioral science at Pepperdine’s Graziadio School of Business and Management. As an active consultant to executives and organizations, Dr. Strom has worked with a long list of local and multinational corporations in Europe, Asia, and the United States, including ABC-TV, Baxter Healthcare, CB-Richard Ellis, Citicorp, Consolidated Capital, The Culver Studios, SmithKline, Southern California Edison, Toshiba America, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and Yamaha. His current focus is on leadership processes for corporate renewal and the development of businesses as continuous improvement/learning organizations. He has served as associate dean, director of graduate programs, and chair of various academic committees. In 1986, he founded the Pepperdine Civic Leadership project, and in 1991, he was selected as a Harriet and Charles Luckman Distinguished Teaching Fellow in 1991. Currently he enlists executives in coaching employable but unemployed and homeless men and women for job searching skills.

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