You Lost Your Job -- Now What?

Losing your job is one of the most traumatic events you can experience. On the Holmes-Rahe Stress Scale, it's the eighth most stressful life experience, behind the death of a spouse (No. 1) or going to jail (No. 4), but ahead of the death of a close friend (No. 17), foreclosure on a mortgage or loan (No. 21), or in-law troubles (No. 24). Rightly or wrongly, many of us define ourselves by our jobs, which is why one of the first questions we ask someone we meet is, "What do you do?"

In a previous essay, Downsizing 101, I explained why downsizing has ethical implications for the bearers of bad news. But ethical issues are also at stake for those on the receiving end. If you've just been downsized, I'll bet your first response was, "That's not fair!" Even if your company had--or believes it had--good reasons to eliminate your position, from your point of view it feels as though an injustice has occurred, and fairness is a fundamental ethical principle. Even if it's hard to see how ethics plays a role in other areas of your life, when you're on the receiving end of a perceived injustice, ethics moves front and center into your field of vision.

But it's not just justice or fairness that is at stake here. When you ask yourself, "How will I be able to pay my bills now?" the underlying question is, "How can I meet my responsibilities to my family, myself, and those to whom I owe money?" All of these responsibilities are ethical ones and are applications of the principles of avoiding harm, making things better, and showing respect for others.

Finally, we've all known people who let the loss of their job get the better of them, so the ethical principle of compassion, which applies to how we treat ourselves as well as others, is also on the table.


I propose the following guidelines for you to consider, should you find yourself suddenly out of a job.

1. Get angry ... later. It's easy to react with hostility when you're told that your position is being eliminated. Don't. The suggestions I've made for dealing with anger-provoking situations are especially relevant in this circumstance. It's only human to be terribly upset or even filled with rage, but acting on those feelings may violate the do-no-harm principle. Less obvious but also important to think about is the damage you would do to a valued relationship that you may not be able to undo. You won't regret holding back, but you will regret losing your cool.

2. Don't take it personally. We'd like to be able to control our lives and shape our destiny through the sheer force of will, but sometimes things happen to us that have absolutely nothing to do with what we've done or who we are. This is one of those times.

3. Get a recommendation. One of the best ways for a potential employer to find out how valuable you are is to hear from your current boss, but you may have to be the one to make this happen. Get a recommendation in writing as soon as possible. Volunteer to write it yourself. If a letter is out of the question or doesn't arrive in a timely fashion, ask your boss to send you a short e-mail; even a one- or two-line testimonial will do. Get your boss's permission to put his or her direct phone number on your résumé and give out at job interviews.

4. Be a self-promoter. We're raised to believe that it's wrong to toot your own horn, but if ever there were a time to put that belief aside, it's now. As Rabbi Hillel said, "If I am not for myself, who will be?" (Of course, he wisely added, "But if I am not for others, what am I?") One of our greatest challenges is striking the right balance between self-absorption and devotion to others. Still, there is not only no harm in standing up for yourself; it is unethical not to do so.

Believing in yourself is one of the best ways of applying the principle of compassion to your own life. Consider this as well: How can others benefit from your expertise if you don't get the word out?

5. Grief is good. Grief is a natural and healthy response to losing something or someone of value in your life, and taking your grief seriously is another important way to treat yourself with kindness. It is a sign of strength, not weakness, to seek counseling in the wake of being downsized. If you sustained an injury to your back, you would have no qualms about getting physical therapy. Why shouldn't you seek the appropriate remedy when your world is turned upside down? Many of us still attach a stigma to psychotherapy -- and wrongly so.

6. Accentuate the positive. Is it possible that one of the worst things that could happen to you might turn out to be the best? Take a look at Harvey Mackay's Fired Up!: How the Best of the Best Survived and Thrived After Getting the Boot (Ballantine Books, 2005). Mark Victor Hansen (creator of "Chicken Soup for the Soul"), Muhammad Ali, Billie Jean King, Home Depot founder Bernie Marcus, Lee Iacocca, and Robert Redford are just a few of the wildly successful people who explain how losing a job led to something much better.

Yes, it's dispiriting to get laid off, but Mackay's book reminds us of the riches that may lie just beyond the horizon, which would have been unavailable had we stayed where we were.

Bottom line: Taking the high road is challenging enough when all is going well. The real test of your character comes from how you respond when things are at their worst. Following the above guidelines will help you show the world -- and yourself -- that nothing, not even the loss of your job, can hold you back from success.

Note: This essay is not intended to be and should not be construed as legal advice. Please consult an attorney for legal questions you may have about your termination. Also, I'm an ethicist, not a psychologist, so I encourage you to speak with a psychotherapist for expert, in-depth guidance in dealing with emotional and other psychological concerns.

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This was published originally (in a slightly different form) on Bloomberg Businessweek Online.

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