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Doomsday Prep: 7 Things Every Successful Guy Should Do Before a Layoff

Learn these key tips for making a career comeback—just in case the worst happens.
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All around the world, corporations have been acting like horny college seniors the week before graduation: hooking up with other corporations with such abandon—by mid-August more than $3 trillion in deals had been consummated—that Bloomberg predicted 2015 would break all records for mergers and acquisitions. They do this to boost sales—then cut employees from the combined company to reduce costs. Wall Street calls it “synergy.” A more accurate word would be “layoffs.” 

Sooner or later it seems to happen to everyone. I was laid off in the last down- turn, but luckily I’d made the right moves ahead of time to set myself up for a quick bounce back. Now, I’m assuming you’re already doing everything you can to keep your name off the boss’s list of guys he’d cut loose if he had to (trust me, that list exists). And I get it: You’re the guy whose work is directly tied to revenue, who catches the crucial assignment because his boss knows he won’t screw it up. So losing you would cost them more than keeping you. But let’s face it: No one is invincible.

Here are the steps to take now so you’re prepared when the HR manager stops by your desk and asks, “Could I see you in my office?”

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1. Save cash first, ask questions later

When you worry about getting axed, you think about where your next job would be, what would happen to your health insurance...But the truth is, there’s only one reason the thought of a layoff should make you break out in a sweat: Because your money would stop flowing—and your bills would keep on coming.

But there are ways to lessen the threat. Mark Horstman, co-owner of consulting firm Manager Tools, recommends putting aside a portion of your paycheck till you’ve built up an emergency account that would cover six months of expenses. That may sound impossible but, the truth is, making a sacrifice now would be nothing compared with entering your third month of unemployment and not having money to pay rent.

The first rule of saving money is to automate the process. Log in to your bank account and set up automatic transfers from your checking to your savings every two weeks on the day after you get paid. Now figure out how you’re going to tighten your budget to accommodate this new austerity. For the low-hanging fruit, check your recurring monthly bills to see what you can cut. Are you paying for Netflix but watching the NFL Network? Eating lots of lunches out? If you start brown-bagging it to the office and drop the Netflix, you’ll be healthier and richer.

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2. Become an HR insider...

It’s easy to dismiss the human resources department as a cubicle farm for bureaucratic drones, but why turn a potential ally into an enemy?

Everyone needs a buddy in HR. It ups the odds you’ll get advance warning of layoffs, and puts you in a better position to hear about any (real) openings in other departments if your job is eliminated. Remember, when the company starts slashing and burning, so-called “open positions” aren’t really open at all, as managers agree to leave seats unfilled to avoid cutting existing staff. HR knows the difference between those bargaining chips and real opportunities.

For the same reasons, you should cultivate a mentor who can keep you in the loop. Now, when you don’t have an obvious agenda, is the time to build contacts. If your company sponsors a Turkey Trot, run. And find any excuse to follow up with any interactions you have within the company.

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3. ...but work the outside, too

If you don’t have contacts throughout your industry, start building them. Attend industry conferences, and when the panels are over, spend some quality time at the bar with folks from other companies. Try to get yourself on a panel—if you do become a speaker, you’ll be flooded with business cards.

Also—this is second nature to sales people—join a trade association (you may be able to expense the dues; if not, you can deduct them on your tax return) and attend networking events. Once you’ve got a few good contacts, consider whom you’d want to call if you lost your job today, and follow up with them, even if it’s just for coffee or a beer. Look for a chance to do them a favor, and maybe someday they’ll return it.

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4. Polish your LinkedIn profile asap

Use lots of specific examples, and banish all jargon. But first follow the advice of Caroline Ceniza-Levine, a career expert with SixFigureStart: Go to your profile and turn off the notification that alerts your network whenever you update your status. You don’t need to tip off your co-workers that you’re polishing your credentials. And if you lose your job, you don’t want to spam all your contacts every time you tweak your profile.

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5. Think like a spy

All these great contacts you’re collecting? They won’t do you any good if their info is stuck on an office computer you can’t access. At the very least, e-mail a copy of your contact list to your personal e-mail account. Horstman also suggests printing a physical copy and keeping it at home. Imagine not only losing your job but also getting marched out of the office with an escort from security—it happens. What would you regret leaving at your desk or on your computer?

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6. Interview for jobs you don’t want

If you get a call for a less-than-perfect job from a good company, don’t ignore it. Explain that you’re very happy in your current position, and aren’t looking to move, but if they’d still like to meet you, you’d be happy to come in.

Prep for that interview as if your career depended on it, and blow them away. Maybe you’ll get a great offer; if nothing else, you’ll have built a bridge. I once got a call from a guy looking to fill a senior position that would’ve earned me a nice bump in pay. When I showed up for the interview, he said they’d decided to cut the budget and had a lower-level slot they’d love to offer me. I was tempted to tell him where he could stick it, but I kept smiling through the interview and wrote a nice follow-up note.

Five years later, hours after I learned my entire business unit was being shut down, that guy called—with a much better offer, which I accepted.

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7. Buff up your résumé

Always have an up-to-date résumé, in PDF format, ready to send out. In the hectic days after a layoff, you’ll have better things to do than struggle over your CV, scrambling to access your old files and overlooking ugly typos.

Horstman’s rules for résumés include: Have an e-mail address that sounds professional (not beerpongking@aol .com); describe your accomplishments with action verbs; and, unless you’ve served as secretary of state for multiple administrations, keep it to one page.

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