June 23, 2009, 4:58 PM — In today's unpredictable economy, all professionals should be prepared to react quickly and positively should their employment become unstable. Even those who feel most secure and consistently perform at high levels are vulnerable to threats beyond their control, like a company downsizing, filing for bankruptcy protection or going out of business altogether. In many cases, it doesn't matter how good you are at your job or how hard you work.
Since the recession began in December 2007, the economy has shed 4.4 million jobs, bringing the unemployment rate to nearly 9%. Unfortunately, the hemorrhaging doesn't appear to be stopping anytime soon. Economists agree the labor market's pain will likely continue into 2010.
Recession or not, it's always a good idea to plan ahead for potential career derailments before they happen. Preparing for a layoff can help ensure you have enough money saved to live on while you're unemployed, give you an advantage in finding a new job and minimize the stress involved in this painful situation. Here are steps you can take to help keep a layoff from hitting you too hard.
Stay in the game. Always have a passive job search in progress. Keep your résumé updated, and your eyes and ears open for new job openings. Periodically hit the online job boards to see what's out there. Even if you like your current position, you could find a similar one that pays more or has better benefits. And you never know when your dream job might open up. Passive job seeking can help maintain a steady stream of job leads and keep lines of communication open between you and recruiters. If you get laid off, you'll have a head start in finding and landing your next job.
Meet recruiters.Good recruiters like to meet passive job candidates. They want to get to know candidates who are good at their jobs, perform well and have desirable skills but aren't seriously looking for a new position. If they are able to build a relationship with you over time, when a suitable opportunity crosses their desk, you're more likely to be among the first they call. Reach out to the major staffing firms that specialize in IT. To make the introduction, call them and say something along the lines of, "Hi, my name is Joe, and I'm happy in my current job, but I'd like to know a little more about what your company does and speak to you about what I do." Most recruiters will gladly take 15 or 20 minutes to talk to you. They might also have you come to their office for a casual, in-person meeting to get a better understanding of your experience and skills. This is a good way to build rapport and increase your network. Maintain your relationships by keeping recruiters updated on your job status, career goals and changes in your company's staffing. This can give you a foot in the door if you need their help getting a new job.
Build your skill set. Versatility is a crucial trait to have if you get laid off. A broader skill set can give you the ability to pursue a wider variety of jobs -- something you might have to do if openings in your specialty are scarce. In your free time, work on skills outside your core competency. For those in IT, writing is a good one to focus on. Consulting is another. Consider advertising your services in online and print classifieds, or volunteering for a local church or hospital. The goal is not to earn money, but to cultivate your skills and gain experience. All of these independent projects can be added to your résumé and used as examples when describing your experience during interviews.
Have an emergency fund. Most financial planners recommend that you have enough money in a savings account or emergency fund to cover your expenses for three to six months. Maybe you won't be able to go out to dinner every weekend, but you'll have enough that you won't need to sell your car or house, or take other drastic actions. In today's economic environment, the more you have saved, the better. It's not unusual to take six months to get a new job. Having money at the ready to pay for expenses takes some stress away from getting laid off, and you'll be better able to focus on finding a new job. Part and parcel of building your emergency fund is practicing standard, sound financial management. Avoid using credit. Live within your means as best you can. Hold off on large, unnecessary purchases, such as expensive vacations or new furniture. These are all steps that make it easier to save money.
Maintain important documents. There are a few documents you should always have in your possession as an employee. They are your employment contract, latest 401(k) or other retirement account statement, offer letter showing starting salary and terms, and any subsequent recommendations or promotions that show changes to pay or benefits. Have a firm understanding of your employment contract, including noncompete agreements. While such agreements can't stop you from working in your chosen profession, they may limit some of your actions at your new employer for a certain period of time after termination of employment and should be discussed upfront during the interview process. In addition, having your 401(k) statements on hand will ensure that you retain the savings you're entitled to. It's much easier to get these documents while you're employed. Also, maintain an updated portfolio of your work. It'll be much easier to begin sharing it with recruiters if you suddenly need to find a job, rather than scrambling to gather materials once you find out you've been laid off. You might not have time to get them together, or have access to them after you've left the company.
Tie up loose ends. If you're laid off, have a clear and accurate understanding of why. Were you underperforming? Is your position being eliminated? Is the company downsizing, merging or being acquired? This information is important to know when you're interviewing for a new job. Every hiring manager will ask why you were laid off and likely do reference checks to verify your situation with your past employer. Your reasons should match up, and if they don't, it could cost you the job. Getting laid off can be an emotionally wrenching experience. But it's important to maintain professionalism throughout the entire process. This is not the time to become bitter and lash out against your former boss and co-workers. Your former employer could be a vital reference for you in your new job search. If you're being released for reasons beyond your control, ask about alternative opportunities within your existing firm for which you may be qualified (and be sure to have done your research about what might be available).
There are many things to consider when preparing for a layoff. The more you follow through with, the more successful you'll be at getting a new job. Mobilize your resources, keep your chin up, and look for ways to solidify your position as an attractive employment candidate, during good times and bad.
Dan Cobb is a senior vice president at Yoh, a leading provider of high-impact talent and outsourcing services and a unit of Day & Zimmermann. For more information, please visit Yoh.com or http://blog.yoh.com/.