Monday, July 21, 2008

Layoffs and the world around you

I have written quite a few times about posts by Jill at Brilliant at Breakfast; I find her passion infectious and her frankness refreshing. Well, Jill has been laid off (and why have we all so willingly bought into this euphemism for "no-good-reason firing"?) from her IT job (chronicled here last Wednesday), and had more to say about her feelings on Saturday.

She is wonderfully positive, as befits someone who was psychologically prepared for this to happen, and I certainly hope that her attitude manifests itself in her quick re-employment. However, while every situation is different, whether Jill's search results in a new job soon or not, based on my own situation her optimism is likely misplaced.

I was laid off five years ago; since then, I have fallen into the permanent contingent role. While I would rather have a real job on a real job at a real company, I have instead lurched from short-term positions to periods of unemployment - in the process, much of what I believed about people has been turned upside-down and, in all frankness, has made me seriously doubt the word and the friendship of pretty much everyone in my life. Perhaps I have simply had a knack for welcoming people of questionable character into my world, or perhaps there is something more systemic going on. Either way, while I wouldn't wish my experiences on anyone else (well, there may be a few people who deserve it), I fear that Jill and others like her are riding for a fall as they find their assumptions are phenomenally flawed.

Jill was prepared, despite being at her job for 7-1/2 years. Her resume has been "more-or-less ready for the last three years." This is fine, most people are far less prepared, but she doesn't understand that she doesn't need a resume, she needs hundreds of them. Every job has different sets of requirements, and companies (or, I should say, their computerized screening programs) expect an exact match. If they ask for 3 years of Java, you better have 3 - not 2, not 4. In the former case, no matter what you actually did, it can't possibly be enough; in the latter, you will be seen as hopelessly over-qualified, which makes you a flight risk.

Here's my recommendation. Sit down and prepare an ur-resume, with everything you've ever done, thought of, or heard of that might possibly be marketable. That's training courses, subjects of one-off meetings. If you surfed the Web when you were a developer, then you were a Web developer of sorts. Did you ever watch Caliente on Univision? Then you know some Spanish. All of that goes in, every last thing. (If you want to be thorough, you can put down, for yourself, your perceived proficiency in each of these skills.)

For a career of any length, you will have pages and pages of stuff. But, as we all know, resumes should be limited to no more than a single page (take 20-30 years of progressive experience and boil it down to 1 page, that's a good plan for giving an employer that complete picture). And you have everything you need. Just take the relevant experience out of your RESUME, and you're good to go. This is the most efficient way of creating the infinite number of resumes you will need.

Jill is pleased that:
[J]ob searching has become easier, despite the prevalence of online job application software, much of which is quirky at best and nonfunctional at worst. But at least today you don't need to practically hire a secretary just to organize the paper from a job search.
This is true, as far as it goes, in terms of finding about open positions and being able to formulate a response. But, you know what, everyone in the world has an Internet connection, so the ease of application has been trumped by the ability of people from Topeka to Tallinn to apply for that same job.

Furthermore, many of the positions listed are not real; they're put on the job boards to fulfill the minimal legal requirements to apply for visas, or to provide cover for offshoring (what can we do, we posted the job and couldn't find anyone who could do it, wink, wink).

Then Jill gets into the psychology of it:
It feels strange to have all these e-mails about job opportunities flying around among not just the casualties, but also the survivors, as the combination of impending loss of friends and survivors' guilt sets in among those who will remain. In my more optimistic moments, I think that perhaps this is a case of ultimately the living (those keeping their jobs) may very well envy the dead (those of us being jettisoned).
Again, I don't want to get in the way of whatever coping mechanisms Jill has erected, but this comforting thought is completely misguided. I will agree that the living say that they envy the dead, that knowing one's fate is preferable to uncertainty, and that's very seductive; I'm sure I said the same thing when my job remained as five other waves of people were laid off (in a company that eventually let 2/3 of their employees go). But the reality is that you're trading a paycheck for nothing, accomplishment for the mental vacuity of looking for work (people will tell you it's a full-time job - yes, an incredibly menial and boring full-time job), work in the actual skills you've gained through a lifetime of study and effort for what is, in effect, a low-level marketing job (selling a product, yourself, that you'll quickly get sick of).

I have probably been critical enough of Jill's posts. It's her layoff, not mine, and she may be one of those folks who slaps her standard resume into a couple of job board posts and gets a job. At any rate, she's stronger when talking to the people, family and friends with whom she will be interacting. To summarize her advice:
  • DON'T look at the person with what I call the Basset Hound Face.
  • If you don't know what to say, DO say "I don't know what to say."
  • DON'T ask if the person needs money, and DON'T ask the person to "not hesitate to call" if s/he needs anything....if you're in a position to share your network of contacts who might be in a position to hire, or if you can offer compensated work, or a reference letter, then just do it.
  • DON'T ask the person to call if s/he needs to talk. Check in every now and then to see how the person is doing.
  • DO tell the friend about friends of yours who were in a similar predicament and who came out on top. Especially if the unemployed person is over 50, DO tell him/her about middle-aged friends of yours who may have taken the better part of a year to find a job, but who found one before the year was out and are now blissfully happy and making money hand over fist. Your middle-aged friend who lost his job and then hung himself in the bathroom after the unemployment ran out? DON'T tell us about him. We don't want to know.
  • DON'T belittle the loss. It may be "just a job", but for most of us, the job is 1/3 of our day. We spend more time with our co-workers than we do with our spouses and families.
This is all pretty good counsel, and perhaps Jill has people in her life who will listen to it. My experience has been somewhat different, and, as I said above, far more troubling in terms of what I feel about humanity.

Keep in mind what the standard advice is to the job seeker: everyone you know and everyone they know is a contact, and you should shamelessly use them in just that way. Your barber's wife's brother-in-law's golf partner may have just the job that's perfect for you in his hands, and your job is to unlock that series of link and make it happen for yourself. So carry that resume with you everywhere (better yet, carry a box with your various resumes) and hand it out to everybody. Make sure that everyone knows that their relationship with you is based on their usefulness to you. And everyone knows that this is what you're doing, and so, the job seeker becomes toxic to everyone they've ever known.

There's a larger stigma attached to the out-of-work. I have friends at my former job who won't have lunch with me during the week because they don't want to be seen with a "tainted one." The number of people who call or e-mail to see how I'm doing dropped off quickly, and is now down to zero. I have out-of-town "friends" who promised to get together next time they were in 2003, and that follow-up has never come (and yes, they've been here, I've received their Christmas newsletter in which they've chronicled their visits to Mom and Dad).

But the worst people are those who hold out hope, who "might know of something," or have "something coming up at our shop," but never deliver, and never say another word about it, forcing you to come, once again, hat in hand, to inquire, only to be put off. And, remember, I'm not talking here about those nebulous "contacts," I'm talking about friends, people with whom you've shared late-night pizza and bad movies, marriages, births, even deaths.

There are people whose careers I've assisted who don't even return my e-mails (and I am far from being a noodge). I'm not saying they put me off - they act as if I don't even exist.

I've attempted to rationalize this behavior: people are busy, or they'd like to do something for me but just aren't in a position right now, or whatever. Or maybe I'm really not that good, and I should face that and go do something else.

But none of those rationalizations explain the way people behave, and none of them will. I have to accept that I have chosen people to whom to be close who have no interest in my fate or my well-being, who are indifferent to me as a person. These are things you can mask when you have a job; you have to interact with the folks on that job, and you tend to miss that the people outside of that job are pulling away. But the loss of that job makes it all very clear, that, bottom-line, people just don't care much at all. And the ability to get past that is a far greater struggle than figuring out which job boards to search or whether to include your MBA on a specific resume.


Steven Davies said...


Thanks to Google Alerts, I just saw your post about job hunting, and its challenges. I agree that there is no silver bullet, but now that I'm in the business of helping people find jobs, I've learned a lot about networking.

* Often people don't know what they can do to help, so they look sheepish, make inane comments, or don't call back. The answer is to tell them explicitly what they can do to help, and make them glad for anything they did (even if it was just to return the call)

* Some people just aren't helpful. I add that to the pastiche that is my sense of them, and keep moving forward.

* Often second-order networking contacts are the most helpful. You've been recommended by someone they like, so somehow that gives you a positive aura. I don't get it, but I and many others have experienced it.


Androcass said...


Your points are undoubtedly well-taken, but I still find it hard to get by the predominance of "softness" in this process. When actual demonstrable skills take a back seat (way in the back) to having to make other people glad for minimal help, or being concerned about one's "aura," it seems to me something's gone seriously off track with the process.

I accept that there is a personal component to the hiring process (though one that is minimized by screening software), but, when I can sit through a 2-hour interview for a technical job, only to be told at the end that the decision is going to be made on "fit," not technical ability, it's hard to believe that we're trying to optimize our workplace.

Perhaps part of the reason we're losing in the global economy is that we treat the important process of hiring as fraternity rush week.

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