Twenty ways to survive a layoff

By Ron Nutter, Network World |  Career, employment, job search

Editor's note: On Feb. 20, IT manager and Network World columnist Ron Nutter was called into his boss's office and told he was being let go -- that day. Once the initial shock wore off, Nutter launched an aggressive search for employment in the Kansas City area. Over the next 76 days, Nutter applied for 85 jobs, and had 16 interviews before landing a new position. He chronicled the job search in a daily blog. Now that he has had some time to reflect on the experience, Nutter offers these 20 tips for surviving a layoff.

1. As you're being laid off, take notes
This can be difficult to do, because losing a job can be a very emotional experience. Nevertheless, while everything is still fresh in your mind, write down all the details you can remember. For example, I was told I would be paid for the full two-week pay period plus my remaining vacation and sick time. When my last check arrived, there were discrepancies. Having written notes helped me when I went back and reminded my former boss and the Human Resources folks of their commitment.

2. Take some time for yourself
Take a few days for yourself. A traumatic event has just happened to you, and you need to get over the initial shock before you jump into the fray to search for a new job.

3. Review the paperwork from the company that laid you off
You need to attend to several important things rather quickly. One is finding out how to file for unemployment. Another is determining how long your company-paid health insurance will be in force before you have to consider paying for COBRA insurance.

4. Update your résumé
This is something we should all do, but it doesn't always get the attention it should. I was told a long time ago that a résumé should be more than two pages with a maximum of three bullet points per employer. That may work in some cases, but not in all.

I have found that some recruiters and employers use software that counts how many times a particular word, such as Cisco, or a word describing a certain type of experience appears in a résumé. I can attest this is happening to a degree. During a previous job search, a recruiter had me rewrite my résumé just about completely to list specifically all the different types of Cisco hardware I had worked with. It was interesting to note how the callbacks increased after I did that.

You may find it necessary to keep more than one type of résumé, each tailored to the type of job you are pursuing.

5. Get a handle on monthly bills
Although I had a little money put by for a rainy day, I went through my recurring bills to see if there was any room for saving more. I found that by shopping around for automobile and homeowners insurance, I could keep the same coverage and reduce both bills. I had been thinking about doing this for a variety of reasons, but being unemployed helped push it to the top of the list.

6. Cut food costs
If you live by yourself, this will be easier to do. If you have a family, everyone will need to sit down and understand they will all have to help out until you can get another job. Not that I ate out a lot while I had a job, but I did eat out sometimes. When I was laid off, that stopped. The one treat I allowed myself each week was to stop by a local pizza place that made the pizza but you took it home to cook in your own oven. I made sure to take a coupon with me each week to take a couple dollars off the cost of the pizza.

I also shopped at my local Costco and bought the food I needed in bulk so I had to shop only once a month. Having a freezer make this easier to do. For example, I would buy a 3 to 5 pound tray of fish, which I would portion out into individual meals using a vacuum-sealing machine. Another suggestion: Buy several gallons of milk at one time and put them in the freezer. Pull one gallon out at a time, and it will still be good. I have been doing this for more than a year and have yet to notice a difference in the taste.

7. Look at health insurance options
Your company-supplied health insurance will come to an end. My former employer's health insurance ended a few days after I was separated from the company. Worse yet, I wasn't due to receive COBRA information until after my company health insurance had lapsed. Because my previous employer also had been processing my claims, I wasn't comfortable with it having any further access to my medical records. Doing a little research on the Internet, I found a single health-insurance policy from Blue Cross Blue Shield for half the price of the COBRA policy my former employer was going to offer me and with better coverage.

8. Check with your financial adviser
I have worked with an excellent person at Smith Barney for several years. Because I knew I might need to access my credit line to help pay bills, I wanted to give him a heads-up on my situation so he could be looking at other options to keep the use of the credit line as a last resort.

9. File for your income-tax return refund
Another thing to consider, depending on the time of year you are laid off, is to use your income-tax return as a one source of money for paying bills. I haven't been a fan of paying for electronic filing, but this year I did spend the money so I would get the tax refund a little sooner.

10. File for unemployment compensation
This is something I delayed doing a little bit -- partially because of pride and partially because I didn't anticipate job-hunting to take more than three months. As someone pointed out to me, you have earned this money and you should take advantage of it. In my case, filing was complicated because I had moved from another state in the previous 18 months. The unemployment folks go back that far in figuring out where someone should file for unemployment. That potentially had me talking with three states' unemployment departments. I spent several days on the phone with the two states that would be involved in my situation. As painful as it may be to deal with this part of your unemployment, the sooner you start, the sooner the money will come in in to help pay the bills until you get another job.

11. Check the job boards
During my job search, I looked at CareerBuilder, Craigslist, Dice and Monster. I found no job leads from Monster in my career area. Several of the HR folks I talked to during the process told me they used Monster very little, in part because of the higher fees the site charged for posting a job compared with other job boards, and in part because of the generally poorer quality of applications they received from Monster. I found some new job-postings on Dice, but with a significant number of jobs cross-posted on other boards, I didn't find Dice to be a significant source of potential job leads. One source I wouldn't have thought to check was Craigslist. More than one recruiter told me he had good results from posting jobs on Craigslist. Set aside time each day to do this.

12. Make the job boards work for you
Dice has a feature where you can make your résumé searchable by companies and recruiters with a position to fill. I got some calls from that. CareerBuilder recently followed suit. Dice lets companies and recruiters repost a job every day so that it looks new, but in some cases this makes identifying the jobs a little harder. Turn the tables in your favor by making changes to your résumé periodically so that when it is searched it will show up as new or changed; this could get you looked at by a company or recruiter that might have passed you by the day before.

13. Prepare for the interview
One thing I have done when preparing for an interview is to research the company, as well as the companies, sectors and industries it serves. If it is a publicly listed company, read some of its press releases from the the past quarter or two to see any changes that have occurred and new directions it is heading in. The responses I received from several companies indicate it makes a good impression that you are interested in finding out about the company before an interview. It may seem like a small thing or something that you should do anyway, but there seem to be quite a few people looking for a job who don't do this.

In addition, have several copies of your résumé with you at an interview. This becomes even more important once you see your résumé as the client or recruiter does after they have downloaded it or printed it out from the job-board application: The formatting is pretty much gone. To make matters worse, the résumé's paragraphs or bullet points will look like a series of poorly written, run-on sentences that may cause distinctive or unique information about you to be overlooked.

14. Deal with recruiters
I encountered a couple of recruiters who would give used-car salesmen a bad name, but as a general rule, I found them pretty decent to work with. Several positions I was approached about were not on the job boards and sometimes were from only a single recruiter. The trick I learned was to identify the same end-job when it came from different recruiters. One situation you want to avoid is having more than one recruiter pitching you to the same client for the same job. Most recruiters usually will tell you early on who the actual end-client is.

15. Accept help from family
Your pride may make it hard for you to accept help, but keep in mind that your unemployment affects them to a degree as well. Depending on their ages, your unemployment may be a new thing to them. There was a time -- unfortunately long-gone now -- when the company you first worked for was the only company you worked for in your entire career. How much help you accept from family is something you will have to decide. Look at it this way: Whatever help they do give you is that much less you will have to spend for food.

16. Keep good records
This suggestion came from a letter from the unemployment department telling me I would need to provide some basic information. I set up a spreadsheet in OpenOffice with three tabs. At the first tab I kept track of the jobs I had applied for by date, source of the job, how the job was applied for, company name if known, job name, contact name and job number if provided. At the second tab I kept track of the recruiters I talked to; HR folks I had contacted for the jobs to which I had applied directly; and anything else, such as job fairs I attended. This information was helpful when I was audited by the unemployment folks to make sure I was looking for another job. At the third tab I recorded when I filed my unemployment claim each week, when I received the check, and the check number and when it was deposited.

17. Get your personal records in order
When you accept a job offer, one of the things you will have to deal with is the I-9 form that proves you are allowed to work in this country. If you haven't seen the I-9 form lately, get a copy so you can see what documents you will need. If you can't find your Social Security card, now would be an excellent time to order a replacement. This will take several weeks to process. The sooner you receive it, the sooner you will have it ready to produce when you start your new job. Another document you want make sure you have, even if you don't need it for the I-9, is a copy of your birth certificate. This might take a little while to get. I didn't know until recently that, depending on when and/or where you were born, there are two types of birth certificates -- one the hospital does and one that's done when the birth is registered with the local authorities. You will want to get a copy of the certificate on file with the local authorities.

18. Don't wait for the phone to ring
This may be one of the harder things to do. Keep in mind that recruiters and HR types move at their own pace, which can be very slow. When you first apply for a job, it could be several days or more before you get the first contact. Waiting for the phone to ring will have you climbing the walls in short order. Sometimes you will get a call within hours of applying for a job, but expect that to be the exception. There are always things you can do while you wait for movement on the job front, and some of them may be done at little to no cost -- that little bit of touch-up painting you have never gotten around to, or the trimming around the yard that always needs to be done. You need to stay active -- don't just sit around and watch the clock move forward.

19. Get out of the house at least once a day
At some point you will run out of things to do around the house or will simply need to get out. There will be the occasional job fair, but that won't take a large amount of your time. You can knock on the doors of companies that you would like to work at, but with the price of gas hovering around $4 a gallon depending on where you live, that can be an expensive trip to make for an unknown return. Do some things you enjoy, such as going to a museum or sports game. The main thing is to get out to keep from getting cabin fever.

20. Never give up
Don't leave any stone unturned. You just may find that a company that today passed you over in favor of another applicant may come back to you when that person leaves to move onto greener pastures. I never would have thought that could happen, but I have seen it happen twice in the past year.

Nutter is an IT executive in Kansas City. He is also one of the editors of Network World's IT Asked & Answered. He can be reached at nww@networkref.com.

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