How To Survive Being Laid Off

The following article contains condensed excerpts from $100K to Nothing – Layoff: My journey from a six figure income to the unemployment line in the worst economy of our time by Dan Holt.

Hi, I’m Dan and I’m unemployed. But it wasn’t always this way…I used to be employed, borderline overworked, and well compensated for my effort and effectiveness.

One pleasant spring afternoon, while enjoying lunch with my then 4 year old son, I received a phone call from my boss. I was not alarmed, because my boss resides on the West coast and I in Texas, so the 2 hour time difference often led to calls at odd hours. After taking a sip of water, I answered the phone and my boss paused before talking. A pause is never good. When bosses call, they speak their minds quickly so they can get on to other business. I was soon to find out how bad this pause was.

“Your position has been eliminated,” my boss said. Sure, there were some words before and after, but I don’t really remember them because these 5 words consumed my brain for the entire call-and for many weeks following. This was my first layoff, and although I am only 30 and the likelihood of another in the next 37 years is high, I hope it is my last.

After I calmed myself down, I thought about the best way to be laid off: the exit strategy that would be most beneficial to my future. I came up with these guidelines to help anyone else who faces a layoff, which seems to be everyone these days:

  1. Ask for an explanation, but don’t expect or demand one. If you are laid off, you deserve a reason from your boss, but you often will not get one. Accept that fact quickly. If you belabor the point, you run the risk of harming the relationship with the person who will be your best reference to future employers-and you stand to gain little more than a vague excuse.
  2. Maintain a professional image throughout the ordeal, only letting your guard down when you get home. The people you work with will also be references to give to future employers, and you need their last image of you to be as positive as possible. Crying and cursing as you’re escorted to the elevator would be a perfectly human response, but not a very strategic one.
  3. Finally, let it go. Don’t spend your time over-analyzing what happened. A job search is tough, and exponentially so in this recession. You have too much work to do to waste your time thinking about the work you won’t be doing anymore.

As I read these words now, months after my downsizing, they seem simple. But at the time, there was nothing harder to do than suppress my emotions as much as I could and follow these steps. If you face it, this will be hard, but it will be the most advantageous thing you can do.

After all, telling your interviewer that she cannot contact your former employer or colleagues is a huge red flag, and with 14.5 million other unemployed people competing for the limited number of job openings, a red flag can mean elimination from the pool of applicants without even a chance to explain it.


  1. Thanks for this Dan.
    I was in the same situation last month and the emotional confusion was very strange. I was made redundant from a job I really liked with a team I realy liked. I spent the first week in a daze not knowing what was going on; why me. Then I started to feel ashamed of being made redundant. It was like I wasn’t good enough. Then I settled down and thought no it is just the current climate.
    I soon get myself into what seemed like 3rd gear with an attitude of ‘well ok I am going back out there to look for a job, and I WILL get one’.
    I landed a new job in the third week of being given my notice. As one dooor closes, another opens as they say.

  2. Thank you for this post. Like many in this economy, I am working under the Sword of Damocles and and exhale only a tiny bit each payday–and then hold my breath until the next one.
    Supportive posts from those who are dealing with layoffs are really helpful.
    And congratulations to Garry for finding a position rather quickly.

  3. Garry, thanks and congratulations. Staying on top of the psychological aftermath of a layoff is one of the hardest, and most important, things to do. If you hadn’t gotten into “3rd gear,” you would likely not have been the confident interviewee that your new employer hired.

    Vicky, thanks. It is definitely not fun to be an employee today, at any level. Cicero said “there can be nothing happy for the person over whom some fear always looms.” To that, I reply that losing a job should not be that scary; I still have 95% of the things that make me happy. I have my family, I have my friends, and I have time to spend with them. I may not be able to travel to the Keys, but turning on the sprinkler on a 100 degree Texas summer day is pretty fun for my sons and for me. Our jobs do not define us; they merely provide the means for us to do and have the things that define us. My company can (and did) take away my job, but they can’t touch the things in my life that are infinitely more important to me. Use each payday to bolster your emergency fund-it is a monetary and emotional safeguard. You’ll find that each week you will find it easier to breathe.

  4. Good article…I am an HR professional by trade and have been laid off twice myself. I think the following factors are critical to successfully moving forward:

    1) Move forward. (Repetitive, but this is huge!). You will not argue or pout your way back into your old job so make your new job finding a new job.
    2) Attitude is king. Lot’s of people get laid off and it is stressful and trying for everyone. BUT – being disgruntled about what has happened will not aid you in getting a new job. Most of the people who I saw come out of this situation successfully were those who approached the situation from a positive mental state while being realistic about the issues they have to deal with (paying the mortgage…).
    3) No shame. It happens…deal with it. There are others in better shape and there are others in worse shape but your situation is yours and yours alone, so manage it.
    4) Use your contacts. You hear this all the time, but it is true. Remember, your new job is to find a job. I can’t stress this enough – moping around will not get you a new job, you have to make it happen.
    5) Look at your career and not just your job. You and you alone manage your career. If your current job is not giving you what you need then look for a new one (the best time to get a job is when you have one…). So, now that you are formally in the market, consider your career as you look for work. Where is it you want to be and how will you develop. This, by the way, is what employers want to hear (here is what I know and how I will apply it to make you successful and here is what I am going to do in the future to help us both…).

    Good luck to all…it’s not easy but it is what it is…

  5. It’s always inspiring when I read about people who have been hit with a baseball bat and don’t whine over it. A brave face and the ability to not blame is awe inspiring.
    Good luck Dan

  6. I don’t mean to sound devoid of sympathy or empathy, but…

    1. Job security has always been an illusion. Some people believe that they have job security. There is no such thing. It is a complete illusion, no matter how good a job you do.

    2. Especially in turbulent economic times, but always, keep a B job and a plan and a prudent reserve and a strong network in place. These tactics are more likely to give you “security” than your illusion.

    3. Many people with many strengths in a changing job market sometimes forget that they have strengths. It’s time for everyone to learn that they are not their jobs, or what they do. Easier said than done, but it’s necessary.

    4. If you are having trouble with this sinking in, go and take one of those minimum wage jobs for awhile. Go and work for the dignity of the paycheck. Go and be a consultant, or a temp on a project, whose reward for a successful effort is to be greeted one day by a security guard and an empty cardboard box (because it’s time to pack your desk and move on). Experience is an excellent teacher.

    5. If you have had a job for any length of time (YMMV), consider youself in the minority, for heaven’s sake. The rest of us have been struggling with this market for years and/or decades. It’s only now that you finally were affected. It’s time you jumped into the pool and saw what life is really like for most people. I’ve been the only one laid off, and I’ve been one of 900. It’s so much easier when there are many others who are experiencing the same thing, so I would consider myself lucky if I were you. We’re a big group, and we are growing.

    6. If a layoff is something new for you, maybe now you will have more compassion for those of us who have been struggling. But I don’t know how much sympathy you can really expect from the rest of us. How much sympathy did you have for us when it wasn’t happening to you? And perhaps most importantly, what changes in your behavior and point of view, both towards yourself and others, will this experience spur in you?

  7. Negotiating a severance package and obtaining positive references is almost very important when being downsized. If you’ve worked for a company for a number of years, don’t settle for a (sub) standard two weeks severance.

    Also, apply for unemployment ASAP.

  8. Sounds like you get a lot of reading in! This looks like another interesting story to check out. Sounds like it’s good advice for anyone in a job transition too, not even necessarily laid off.

  9. Kent, great points. Especially the “your new job is to find a job.” A job search often means working harder and with more stress than your previous or future jobs.

    Tammy, thanks for your comments. Whining and blame are sometimes the first emotional responses to an event like a layoff, but they are totally unproductive.

    Josephine, thank you for your input. When I left the Air Force for the corporate world, I knew that downsizing was one of the factors that came with the territory. I never really thought too much about layoffs until they first started at my company. One of my colleagues was let go, and I was concerned for him. Being laid off myself has definitely given my a different, more compassionate view toward unemployment.

  10. Stella, thanks for your advice. My company had a standard severance package that I didn’t, but should have in retrospect, negotiate. I received six weeks of severance pay and filed for unemployment 2 days after I was let go. Day 1 was spent applying for every minimum wage job within 10 miles of my house.

    Money energy, you’re absolutely right. Those who are looking for a new job with a job in hand, and those who are employed and not looking, can benefit from reading the stories people like Josephine, Kent, Garry, and myself have to tell. If nothing else, it should spur them to put more money into their emergency fund so they can go to an interview without being desperate for a paycheck-any paycheck.

  11. Dan–Brilliant article, but if you don’t mind my saying, your comment at #3 was even better. In it one can sense the accumulation of a deep humility, as opposed to the useless (though totally justifiable) anger that’s so common with a job loss.

    If I can add my two cents here… In this economy such that it is, everyone should prepare for a job loss. What’s remarkable about this downturn is that the losses are virually accross the board, unlike previous times when layoffs were centered in certain sectors or industries like manufacturing, banking, autos, etc. No one is safe and we need to prepare.

    That means rehearsing a layoff in your mind so you’ll have a bankable response when you’re confronted. The news will most likely come at an unexpected time, such as with Dan’s lunchtime phone call.

    It also means saving up some money, paying down (or off) debt, not taking on new debt and in general learning to live on less.

    For a lot of people, either the job or the salary they’ve known won’t be there in the future, so it also helps to have a career plan B as Josephine recommends. It will be well worth anyone’s time to develop alternate skills to prepare for what ever may happen. Skills, not a job, will be the biggest driver affecting your employment.

    Also, now is an oustanding time to look into business ideas as well. Many of us will need to create a job for ourselves going forward, so now is as good a time as any to start working on that dream business, even if you’re still employed.

    How great would it be to be laid off but already have a plan of action in place?

  12. I was laid off years ago. Turned out I was eligible for gov. funding to go to school. Got my RN & have been working ever since. HOWEVER, experiened UNDER-EMPLOYMENT this year as my hours were cut by 50% due to the lack of individuals seeking surgery. None of it good & never was prepared for the lack of work as an RN.

    Being laid off taught me what was mentioned in several earlier posts. Attitude is everything & when one door closes another opens. I know that sounds trite but it is sooo very true.

  13. Kevin, thanks pointing out comment #3. I appreciate your opinion, and I’ve already saved it for further editing for one of my offline articles. Your absolutely right that, in this economy, nobody is safe. From customer service reps to CEOs, from auto manufacturing to advanced product research and development, layoffs are a fact of life. Accepting that fact and preparing for it is the best favor you can do yourself, work-wise.

    Sherry, I’m sorry to hear of your underemployment. The number of underemployed workers is estimated to be not that far behind the number of unemployed Americans, which would mean well over 20 million people in the civilian labor force are not fully employed. Your tragic story shows that even the healthcare industry is not immune from this recession.

  14. I disagree to some extent on the “your job is to find a job.” Sometimes the best way to find a job is through indirect means.

    My husband was laid off in mid-January. He’d suspected it was coming and already had his ducks in a row the morning he had to do the box walk. After the first week of tying up loose ends and getting his resume more heavily in circulation, etc. there was no way he could fill 40 hours a week looking for work.

    He made a deal with himself that aside from the ten minutes of CNBC he’d always watched in the morning, he wouldn’t watch any TV during the day (a big time suck from what we’d heard) and limit his computer usage to job related activities.

    Still, that left a lot of time, esp. with the few interviews he landed.

    To fill the days he volunteered, which ended up being a great way to network though it wasn’t his intent going in. He volunteered as much as he could in our children’s school, and in the spring he coached our son’s Little League and soccer teams.

    He also started volunteering at the nonforprofit he’d been involved in through his former employer. He did this to keep his skills fresh and give some structure to his days.

    Then two weeks ago, they hired him at a rate less than what he was making previously but comparable to the jobs he’s been interviewing for, with a much better commute.

    I won’t say the past six months have been a picnic, but I think they could have been a lot worse. Fiscally, we were already frugal going into it, so we’re in no worse shape than we were before. I keep reminding myself that that alone is a significant victory.

    Emotionally though, it’s actually been a really good thing. My husband is much less stressed than he was back in December, and he’s a much more involved parent. It’s as if our family has been given a reset button, and it’s a nice feeling.

    Now if I could get him to pick up his socks and sort the laundry, life would be perfect 😉

  15. Unlike Dan, I was notified months ago about having to find a new job, as my bank was taken over by another late last year. I don’t know what’s worse, really, finding out THAT day or 6 months early. I’ve been in both positions now and neither one is good.

    Best of luck to all of you (us) that have, or will have, lost their jobs this year. Most of this has nothing to do with you personally: Business has especially contracted this time around. It may be a while before the “job market” rebounds, but rebound it will.

    In the mean time, keep your chin up, be ready, always network, and start a business of your own!

  16. Great article, Dan. When I got laid off, a friend of mine told me that I was my own worst enemy, and he was right. Maintaining your confidence is so important while you’re trying to find a new job.

    I’d like to read this entry out loud on Monday during my next Money Cooler online group discussion. Let me know if you’re interested in joining us, Dan. 🙂

  17. Any insight for those folks like me that live paycheck to paycheck even though it is a 6 figure paycheck?

    I would appreciate any financial guidance.