(As part of Next Avenue’s commitment to publish helpful career advice and information for people over 50, here’s an excerpt about rebounding from an involuntary layoff adapted from the new book by Reynold Levy, Start Now: Because That Meaningful Job Is Out There, Just Waiting for You, printed with permission from RosettaBooks. Although Levy has had an impressive career, including stints as president of Lincoln Center and the AT&T Foundation, he had one unexpected layoff, too, and offers the lessons he learned from that experience.)
I did not see it coming.
I was taken by complete surprise.
Nine months earlier, in the fall of 1974, I had submitted my resignation from a terrific post as director of external affairs and special assistant to the executive director of the Jewish Board of Guardians (JBG), the nation’s largest and most comprehensive mental health agency.
I was departing to join the Aspen Institute. There, I would collaborate with my new boss, Waldemar A. Nielsen, noted author of The Big Foundations, among other books, former president of the African American Institute and program officer at the Ford Foundation.
I was dumbfounded. Blindsided. Furious. Deeply embarrassed.
Wally asked me to join him to develop a paper to President Gerald Ford about America’s nonprofit sector, working on an intense six-month timetable.
We got along famously. Our jointly written white paper was very well received and my participation in groups convened by Wally was warmly recognized and appreciated.
The 3 Words I Heard
At summer’s end, Wally suggested that I begin familiarizing myself with extensive files at his office. Maybe I could even sketch out a book outline. I spent 16-hour days and weekends on this assignment and crafted a book prospectus that I thought held promise of launching me and Wally into a new phase of our work together.
When Wally returned to Manhattan and his office, he asked to have some words with me.
Actually, there were only three that mattered.
You are fired.
There had been no warning whatsoever. No red or even blinking yellow lights about our work or our relationship.
I was dumbfounded. Blindsided. Furious. Deeply embarrassed.
After a Layoff, Doing Everything Wrong
Totally unfamiliar with how to conduct myself under such circumstances, at 29, I did everything wrong.
I did not attempt to engage in a conversation about the whys or wherefores of this surprising decision, let alone its timing. All Wally would say was that he had harbored second thoughts about having a co-author, since all of his books until then were written only by him.
Nor did I request any kind of transitional assistance. Might I stay with Aspen at the New York City office for three months or so, while looking for a substitute position? Could Wally see his way to a severance of any kind to cushion this blow? Did he know of any open positions at the Aspen Institute or otherwise for which I might be qualified? Might he introduce me to some VIPs for prospecting interviews?
I put none of these questions to him.
It was September 1975. Good jobs were scarce: public, private, nonprofit. Wally must have known that he was delivering this news to me in a terrible economic environment. He also must have known that I had no reason to expect to be shown the door.
I was livid. My shattered ego and anger got the better of me. Upon hearing the news from Wally, I gathered my personal belongings, walked through that door he had opened and never returned.
I was now out on the street.
What Not to Do After a Layoff
Before I use myself as a case example of what to do when you need a job and have not prepared to look for one, here — from personal experience — is an encapsulation of what not to do.
Do not fail to discuss the terms of separation. Particularly when you are being dismissed without notice and arbitrarily, ask for time and/or money to ease the transition.
Such a request is not unexpected. And the funds that I should have requested were readily available to Wally. His budget could easily accommodate it.
Calm down and chill out. Do not react immediately when your emotions have taken over. Request time to meet with your soon-to-be former boss after you have composed yourself and recovered somewhat from the suddenness of devastating news.
And, most importantly, do not ever accept a job without engaging in due diligence about your employer. I had read all of Wally’s books and many of his essays and speeches. But I never spoke with anyone who had worked with him or for him. I never asked what it was really like to be his colleague.
Especially in a work setting of just me, Wally and an assistant, how could I possibly agree to a professional engagement without the functional equivalent of at least dating? At the very least, I could have suggested a luncheon conversation or two to acquire a better sense of what he was really like.
My 6-Point Recovery Plan After a Layoff
Now, if you unexpectedly lose a job, beyond what not to do, here is the six-point recovery plan I then hastily improvised. You may find it of some value:
1. Keep busy. Take any part-time job you can. Staying active is important, psychologically and practically. For me, that meant teaching political science as an adjunct assistant professor at Herbert Lehman College-CUNY, resuming some part-time work in the teenage department of the Shorefront Y and engaging in some paid public speaking gigs.
Build on any such schedule of activity.
2. Ask for help. Hustle. Overcome your sense of disappointment. Precisely because when you need a job it is hardly the ideal time to find one and precisely because a catastrophic local economy does not help, place your foot on the accelerator.
I reached anyone and everyone who might help. Former professors at Columbia Law School and the University of Virginia. Contacts within the Federation of Jewish Philanthropies, of which JBG was only one of many members. Conversations with a few associates of my parents. Even my long-term pediatrician, internist and dentist were included on a growing phone list.
Having spent seven solid years in academia after college, there had been little time for me to build a support group. But I did whatever I could to connect with whoever I knew or even knew of.
Often, it is acquaintances drawn to you who are willing to help the most. Do not hesitate to reach them.
3. Get out of your home. Jobs are hiding in the rough and tumble of the marketplace. Find them. Attend conferences, professional meetings and networking breakfasts. Meet with anyone who can offer useful leads. Mix and mingle. Hand out business cards, so those with whom you speak know how best to reach you.
As a workplace refugee, concentrate undistractedly on your resettlement, not on your resentment.
4. Look forward. It will be tempting to dwell on what just happened to you and why. Don’t. As a workplace refugee, concentrate undistractedly on your resettlement, not on your resentment.
5. Volunteer. Sure, you are now in a fix. But there is no need to panic. Gain some satisfaction from helping others. It’s all part of an effort to circulate and to make yourself better known. Besides, helping others far less fortunate will be good for your own morale.
6. Stay positive. Summon the energy to believe in yourself. You misjudged the situation. You took a risk. It only paid off partially. Get over the dismissal. Keep moving. Channel your anger into proving that there is a productive and satisfying working life ahead.
As predictions go, this last one proved to me to be on the money. Seven months after my humiliating experience in Wally’s company, I was appointed the executive director of the task force on the New York City fiscal crisis.
It was a new beginning, and my career never subsequently experienced so much as a hiccup.
But 45 years have passed since my involuntary layoff and this failure still stings. It demonstrates, however, that you can learn as much from committing an error in judgment as you can from multiple successes.
Never again would I fail to think about what could go wrong in my current job and prepare for undesirable possibilities. Never again would I enter a new employment setting without learning as much as possible about it, my new boss and my immediate colleagues.
Should the unanticipated happen to you, I hope this description of my early career debacle will serve as an instructive negative model and a positive comeback story.
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