The term "reduction in force" definitely ranks up there with "surgical strike" as one of the world’s all time best euphemisms. Those of us who have been "euphemized" are a growing segment of the unemployment numbers. Talk to the people on the ground when a surgical strike occurs and you will see just how antiseptic it is. Talk to anyone who has been RIF-ed and you will see just how benign getting fired is. And getting fired is what actually happens, no matter what you call it.
But it is getting fired in the strangest way. Your job is simply gone and so are you. It’s almost as if you didn’t exist to begin with. There is no Homeric confrontation with The Boss From Hell in which you took the high road and quit. You don’t have a really great blunder that took down an entire department to point to as your downfall. There simply is no story to tell except that your services are no longer needed.
For many, this abrupt interruption is completely dislocating. Personally, I had always managed my own career path. After graduating from Mount Holyoke College, I received a master’s from the University of Connecticut, followed by law school there. Private practice, with a specialty in trusts and estates, led me to the banking industry and then into wealth management in the brokerage world. I worked through the corporate ranks, starting as an associate vice president, eventually becoming the manager of a trust office with the title of vice president and senior trust officer. At a brokerage firm, the path was similar.
Each move was upward. Every new position was bigger and better. More importantly, each had come as the result of a headhunter’s call or personal networking.
I had been in control of my progress. This loss of control can easily result in emotional freefall. It is difficult to get used to the new title of "former employee" when you had been a vice president or manager. Quickly getting in front of potential employers, for informational interviews as well as for actual positions, is vital to keeping focus and your feet on solid ground. Now there is no doubt that telling a prospective employer that you were part of a reduction in force allows you to hold your head up. The HR representative or the hiring manager may well smile knowingly and recount a similar tale that happened to Cousin Sid. He or she may even confess to having been there too. This is a good thing. It allows you the dignity of a solid economic reason to be on that side of the desk. Truly blessed are they to whom this has happened, for they shall make the interview less awkward.
However, the rest of the world reacts in a crazy way. Your life is turned upside down and at the very core of it, you’ll know who your friends are. Assuming that you have an enlightened employer who doesn’t demand you be escorted from the premises at that moment, your colleagues will be wildly sympathetic at first. This outpouring of support and comfort lasts about as long as a fruit fly’s love life. Deep down inside they are relieved it is not them. The reactions start to become stiff and forced. They begin to stand at a distance in an attitude of flight, as though the scent of severance carries with it contamination. "Don’t be seen talking to her too long. They might think you don’t agree with the decision to downsize!" The expressions of consolation become merely verbal chucks on the shoulder, buck up encouragements with a hasty retreat to the office.
And whatever you do, never, ever, ever tell your parents what has happened. Most people of parenting age were raised in an era when people didn’t lose their jobs unless it was their own fault or the plant closed down. Well, your plant didn’t close, so it must have been your own fault that this happened. Try telling a mother who is way too close to the Depression and whose husband worked for the same employer his entire life that you were let go. Sound economic decisions that will lead to the recovery of the company’s stock price are totally foreign concepts. Her child is unemployed and that’s that. Your days will be filled with questions, all sounding remarkably like "Did you find a job yet, dear?" A parent’s worry is not what is needed on top of everything else in this process.
Actually, the entire process at this point is strangely like a death in the family. Your emotions kick into high gear. Your moods swing through all the stages of mourning, especially between anger and denial. Your friends’ behavior is also reminiscent of a wake. Platitudes abound. If one more person told me that I would look back on this as one of the best things that ever happened to me I was sure there was going to be a real funeral real soon. These stiff upper lip cliches are all psychic casseroles that mourners bring at a time like this. The true test is finding out who will be still calling three or four months later.
One of the hardest parts of the first few weeks is having to tell the tale over and over again. There is no doubt that the entire episode is one that you would gladly forget. The tale becomes very old, very fast and frankly you begin to bore yourself with the telling. But take heart, this too is a good thing! Finding such a wrenching moment of your life to be actually dull means you are on the mend. When you cannot stand to hear the events repeated one more time, that is when you are ready to move on to other things.
Of course, terror plays a big role in moving on, especially at 3:23 a.m. during what has been aptly called the long, dark teatime of the soul. In that black hole, you doubt yourself, your skills and your own intellect. You become convinced your entire career has been a fraud all along. Studies have shown that the fear of losing everything is very strong among working women and now the specter of becoming a bag lady looms larger ever. I clearly have the fear that I will have no alternative but to sell everything, indenture the cats, move back to my mother, who is still asking if I’ve found a job yet, and become the obligatory spinster.
One more part of the emotional roller coaster is the cheery facade that you must create. To every person, except those blessed few who are closest to you, you must maintain the chipper "I’m peachy!" persona. What you really want to say is "I’m scared out of my mind and that little thing that used to be my ego has been beaten flatter than that spider I obliterated in the bathroom yesterday." Only your best friend on the planet will hear those terrified words and she is a pearl beyond price. Cherish her always.
This entire process is not only an emotionally upheaval but can also be a physical one as well. Recently a good friend found herself downsized not only from her company but from the country as well. She had relocated to the United Kingdom, having even committed to the excruciating trauma of seeing her cats quarantined for six months. When the "event" happened she was forced to return to the States, sans job, sans house. She has been fortunate enough to housesit for several friends over the past months, but what about her own belongings? "Oh, they’re somewhere in Secaucus with the storage company." she says with a shrug. "I’ll find them some day, I’m sure. At least I know where the cats are."
Loss of control — control of your things, your routine, and your life — is the primary hurdle. You don’t even have control of the type of landing you can have when the rug is pulled out. The severance package, if there is one at all, is so brilliantly crafted that all but the victims of the most egregious forms of discrimination will be hard pressed not to take it.
Then the job hunt begins. Outplacement, if offered, is wonderful and horrific all at the same time. The office I used had the atmosphere of a seventh grade dance. Everyone was awkwardly looking busy and cheerful. Everyone was preternaturally upbeat. You heard statements like "Everything is going great! The phone almost rang yesterday!" But as uncomfortable as it is at first, the networking offered is invaluable. The counselors help to clarify your thinking and force you to focus on what you really want to emphasize in your life.
And that is what this moment truly offers. It is the one time when you must step back and reassess your needs, your priorities and your skills. Few of us get the luxury of doing this. For the most part we are moving with the predetermined flow of days, treading the mill with no opportunity to step off. In a strange way the world does come to a stop and it’s a relief. At last you have the chance to reinvent yourself, as you would want to be. Why, this could even be the best thing that ever happened to you!
Be steadfast in including a downsized friend. Calling only to "see if you are OK" has a morbid ring to it after a while. What your friend needs is to continue to be part of a regular social life.
Be mindful that pennies may need to be pinched. Make plans that are simple, like a night of take-out and a video.
Don’t complain about your job or the losers you work with. Remember, you still have a paycheck coming in and, for your friend, those losers still have jobs.
Words to the Wise
Take advantage of all the outplacement that is provided. If none is offered, be very wary of so-called career counseling firms. If you have been out of the market for quite a while, they can be useful to help you assess and articulate your skill sets and brush up on interviewing skills, but they are extremely costly.
Network with everyone under the sun. Your antennae should never be down because you never know what information may come from the proverbial "informational interview."
Ellen Whiting is an attorney living in Princeton. She concentrates in Family Office services and Trust Administration. When Merrill Lynch downsized in 2000, she was given the chance to find her voice as a writer, and her short story "The Seven O’Clock Train of Thought" was published in the 2001 U.S. 1 Summer Fiction Issue. She is currently "exploring other career opportunities."