I used to complain that my parents never taught me how to negotiate for a pay raise. Turns out, that wasn’t my only knowledge gap—nobody told me how to navigate a pay elimination. I’m not just talking about what to do with the severance papers and your 401 (k), but how to feel like the world hasn’t been turned inside-out. So for all the rest of you, here’s my hard-won advice for the first hours, days, and weeks after a layoff.
Call the most sympathetic person in your life. This may or may not be your mother. Save anyone who is prone to freakouts for later in the day—or year. (My grandfather thinks it’s my fault I got laid off, which is one reason I’ve been “too busy” to visit.) Call the person who is going to listen, commiserate, stroke your ego, and think no less of you if you cry. That last part goes double if you’re a dude.
Turn off the lights. Or whatever will make you feel like you’re doing something—anything—to improve the situation. I called a friend in California the day the magazine I was planning to work for closed; as I told him my story, I walked around the apartment shutting off lights to save money. Difference to my wallet: none. Difference to my psyche: I felt slightly less terrible.
Hit the sofa. You’d be a moron or a robot if losing your job didn’t upset you. My early response to being laid off was to go into action mode, sending out emails about how everything was going to be fine, fine, fine. I hit a wall after about two weeks and collapsed onto the sofa, where I spent most of three days staring at the ceiling. My misery was compounded by the fear that I would never be able to motivate off the couch again. I did, of course—but only after I’d let myself wallow guilt-free for a little while.
Remember that it’s not you. More than 3.6 million Americans have lost their jobs in this downturn. It’s not because they’re lazy or stupid. (Just you. Just kidding.) Some of the most talented people I know have been laid off.
Start making lists–fun ones. Once you’ve done some grieving, start thinking possibility. What’s your dream job? What project have you wanted to take on for ages? What would you do with a little free time? (Besides look for a job.) This could be an opportunity for change and growth—plus, in this environment, we have to be creative. So write down everything that springs to mind, even if it’s far-fetched. Among the many things on my list were: spend a month in Paris, go to law school, finish an Olympic-length triathlon, play a lot of tennis, write a book, and open a shop. Oddly, “launch a website” was not on there.
Network. After you’ve been laid off, it’s tempting to crawl into a hole and not tell anyone what’s happened. But friends and colleagues are most sympathetic early on; take advantage of it. When they say, “Let me know if there’s anything I can do to help,” reply: “Why yes, in fact, there is…” Then attach your resume, or at least ask them to buy drinks.
Look at your money. Unless you’ve saved aggressively, this part will probably suck. But ignoring your finances will only make things worse later on. So do a rough estimate of what you have, what you owe, and what you need to live on so you can start planning.
Sign up for unemployment. This will also suck, because it means admitting that you really don’t have a job. But you’ll want that $405 a week, and there is a short waiting period before you start receiving it. (Filing is not difficult, and every state I’ve checked allows you to do it online.) ADDENDUM: After posting I learned that $405 is what New York State pays a week–benefits vary from state to state. There is a great overview here.
Plan a trip. Sounds irresponsible, but it makes the transition to jobless far less painful. Schedule it for right after your last day at work, so you have something to look forward to. It doesn’t have to be expensive. Use frequent flyer miles. Stay with friends a few hours away. Just get out of town, at least for a weekend.
And then you can start looking for a job.