• Raghu Raman

Preparing to be Laid off

Millions of employees face the possibility of downsizing soon. In some industries, downsizing is not about ‘if’ but ‘when’ and it is a matter of time before companies start reducing workforces. Being laid off is a traumatic process, but here is some advice that will help prepare for that eventuality.

1. Assume you will be downsized.

The proverb “Hope for the best but prepare for the worst” is good advice. Regardless of how essential employees believe they are, there is always a possibility of being axed. During the 2008 downturn, entire departments were laid off, shocking employees who thought they were indispensable. The current downsizing will be worse because of two reasons. Firstly, companies will reduce headcount due to lowered demand. Secondly, technologies and changes in customer behaviour during the lockdown have highlighted roles that can be replaced by automation or done away altogether. For instance, millions of consumers who previously bought from brick and mortar stores are now accustomed to online purchases, rendering thousands of sales personnel redundant. Therefore, assuming that the organization can do without you, gives more time to prepare, rather than staying in denial of that possibility.

2. Prepare for the “Shock Doctrine”

The phrase “shock doctrine” was coined by Canadian author Naomi Klein to explain how capitalist organizations leverage the shock and awe which follows disasters to push radical changes that would face severe resistance from employees and regulators, under normal circumstances. These changes will include outsourcing, shifting regular employees to contractual terms and pay reductions. Many organizations have already implemented unilateral cuts in compensation and benefits, presenting their workforce with a fait accompli. Organizational dynamics are relative, not absolute. It is easy and tempting to squeeze employees when they have low bargaining power. Despite platitudes to the contrary, employees are commodities to most organizations; subjected to the rules of supply and demand. So even if some employees are not terminated, there is a good chance that their compensation will be reduced or delayed.

3. Think of ‘DiffSkilling’ and “Group Skilling” not just Upskilling

Many employees are considering upskilling within their lines of work in anticipation of layoffs. That is a suboptimal strategy. For example, let’s say the IT industry had a million software programmers before the pandemic and now needs only half a million. Learning new programming languages may give a fighting chance in the rat race for survival, but not alter the fact that only half of the vacancies remain. Also, upskilling will not help those whose roles are being replaced with technology. It is better to go back to “First Principles Thinking” about core skills and examining how they can be used in entirely different roles, rather than trying to acquire incremental knowledge for the same function. For example, sales, project management, operations, finance, design, or creative skills are domain agnostic and fungible. It is better to learn about a different domain that needs those skills rather than staying in a recession-hit industry.

Similarly, don’t just think about your individual skills. During downsizing, employees who have worked together and have a combination of skills, are laid off collectively. Such ‘teams’ can offer those skills as a singular unit to a potential employer or start their own venture. Leverage the power of teams rather than fighting battles individually.

4. Don’t waste energy contemplating unfairness

Life is not fair and corporates even less. Scores of incompetent leaders at every level are testimony to that. Organizational politics seeps into every pore of a company, and the process of layoffs is no different. Leaders will safeguard their sycophants at the cost of the meritorious, and there is a chance you might be a victim of parochialism. There is no point in angsting over what you believe to be unjust. That will only make you bitter and drain the optimism and energy you need to tackle the journey ahead. The best way to channel resentment is to do better in other opportunities. Roll with the punches, focus on getting the benefits due to you and move on. Appreciate the compulsions of the management however prejudicial they might be, have faith that better opportunities await you elsewhere and leave on a good note.

5. Be aware of the psychological impact of being laid off

Employment is not just a source of income; it is also a foundation of prestige, self-esteem, and social standing. Being laid off is viewed with stigma because there is a judgement about worth attached to it. The psychological impact of losing social standing and perceived loss of respect can be debilitating as seen among some people who lose power on retirement. There is also a possibility that family members, neighbours and relatives may be less than understanding of the situation and exacerbate the sense of devaluation. This will not only affect your mental state adversely but also reduce your chances of finding another job. Address that depressive state of mind by seeking counsel or encouragement from friends.

6. Take stock and reframe the situation

Events like recessions are an opportunity to reboot life. Re-examine yours across these four aspects – health, relationships, wealth, and work. Plan on maintaining the first three and then worry about work. People either work because they need the money or the occupation that it provides. Either way, unless you maintain your health, strengthen relationships and conserve resources, it will be difficult to concentrate on getting the next job. People being laid off will fall into three categories. Those who have reserves for a long sabbatical, those who can manage for a few months on their savings and those living paycheck to paycheck.

Persons in the first category should use this opportunity to pursue things they have been postponing. The second and third category need to re-budget aggressively to minimize outflow. This will be difficult for those who have no reserves but the only option to forge through is to reframe the situation. What if instead of losing the job you had lost limbs in an accident or were diagnosed with a terminal disease; like millions do every year. Whatever your situation may be, several are worse off and but for the grace of God, you could have been in their place. While it is natural to be despondent when laid off abruptly, sliding down the slippery slope of depression will be counterproductive. And the only way to get a grip on that is to focus on the blessings instead of the losses.

As Lou Holtz, the American football player and coach observed, nothing is as good or as bad as it seems at first. Without trivialising the trauma, after the initial shock and difficult time passes, many who have been laid off will look back and realise that this forced turn in their career was perhaps for the best.

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