How to Bounce Back from a Layoff
With up to 40% of Americans experiencing a job loss at least once in their lives, layoffs are a common occurrence, but that’s hardly reassuring in the moment when you get the boot or in the days and weeks that follow. Mindset here is (nearly) everything, and how you define and perceive your layoff can make or break you and greatly impact the type of actions you’ll take to bounce back and secure gainful employment.
Reflecting on my many years of career coaching, I’ve compiled a non-exhaustive list of thoughts and tips that have helped my clients thrive—yes, even after a particularly painful layoff. Keep in mind that what works for one person may not work for another, but diversifying your post-layoff approach and doing as many of these things as possible tends to increase the chances of a successful outcome.
1. Acknowledge the event. Layoffs can be traumatic experiences, shaking some people to their core. Even if you didn’t love your job and were already looking for greener pastures, becoming suddenly employed is the least-fun surprise and can surely take the wind out of your sails. Acknowledging the reality of what’s just transpired and accepting, rather than resisting, any initial waves of discomfort, doubt, or fear for the journey ahead is perfectly natural, and indeed an important first step to eventually climbing out of the rut of unemployment.
2. Realize that you are not your job. Occasionally, I work with clients who’ve just been laid off (or, yes, who are daydreaming about a layoff because they’re miserable but indecisive) on separating their identities from their jobs, which is sometimes very difficult in this country where many people derive so much of their sense of worth from their employment status or job title. If the following sounds hokey, then perhaps it’s not intended for you, but some folks find it useful to just utter out loud: “I am not my job. I have worth outside of my job.” Sometimes this tiny affirmation takes the edge off and helps folks begin to refocus their energy on the job search ahead, as opposed to wallowing too long and wasting one’s energy on trying to undo the past (spoiler alert: that last part is impossible).
3. Take stock… of everything. Layoffs can sting, but they can also be powerful eye-openers, helping us see more clearly what it is we want either immediately (e.g., what does the next job look like?) or in the longer term (e.g., how do I see my career evolving in the next decade or two?). This is especially true for folks who’ve been laid off from jobs they hated anyway, where the environment was toxic, the boss was a jerk, the job itself was not challenging or rewarding, or perhaps the pay was far too low. Getting laid off can help you crystallize what you didn’t love about your prior company or job function and clarify what you want in the next one.
4. Get specific. And the more specific that your list of pros and cons is, the more useful it will be for charting the path forward. Saying you want a “healthy work environment” is fine, but knowing that you want a boss who (a) doesn’t email you after 6pm and (b) gives you flexibility to work from home at least once a week is much more actionable in terms of defining your job search. Get clear and specific on your wants, your needs, and your non-negotiables—as well as where you might need to compromise in a competitive job market. The clearer your ask is, Layoffs are also a great opportunity for you to take stock of your current skill set, whether technical or so-called “soft” skills (a misnomer since we know how hard, difficult to improve, and highly impactful they can be).
5. Up-skill and up-level your game. If there are skills you’ve neglected over the years, or specific competencies that you see are highly regarded in the current market, now’s your chance to up-skill and up-level your game. You probably know the drill by now: Read job descriptions carefully, taking note of what skills are required or preferred. Talk to industry professionals casually or through more formal informational interviews to get a sense of what companies are seeking these days. And then act on that information: for some people, this means going back to school for a degree, for others, it’s as simple as taking a small-scale online course (often free or low-cost). Make sure you have the skills and credentials, because some companies won’t talk to you until they see that on paper. That is, they won’t get to see your awesome energy, passion and experience until they first see that your LinkedIn and/or resume reflect the core skills required for the job they’re seeking to fill.
6. Build new connections—and rebuild old ones. Ideally, networking should be an ongoing practice, not just when you’re laid off and looking for work. Some people think it comes across as desperate if you’re only networking when you’re unemployed. That depends on the energy and expectations you bring to the conversation. If you’re asking everyone you meet whether they know of any job leads, that might come off as very transactional and brusque, even downright rude depending on the relationship. But if instead you approach networking as a way to catch up, lend and ear and listen to someone else’s story, and have an organic conversation where you value the other person’s time and attention, that’s usually a recipe for a positive interaction—one that may, one day, lead to job leads or other professional benefits. Some of my clients feel like they’ve tapped out their existing network, and it’s because their social circles are quite small. In reality, they usually have a sizable social network but they’ve perhaps lost touch with a lot of people (think friends or acquaintances from high school or college, from previous jobs, from the local community). There is never a bad time to network. Some of my clients worry that the experience will be awkward, and they’ll come across as desperate, but afterwards they often share their surprise at how well the conversation went, how glad both parties were to catch up on life (not just on career matters), and how the chat led to further positive action steps (professional introduction and referrals, job and interview leads, future fun hangouts, etc.).
7. Put in the work. Especially into networking. In a competitive market, where some job listings receive hundreds of resume applications per opening, networking is what helps candidates gain an edge. But it does require time and energy. It’s a numbers game: talking to one person once a year probably won’t amount to much but reaching out to dozens of folks each month (or week, if you can muster it) tends to reap bigger and better rewards. Think: in-person coffee chats, Zoom calls, even thoughtful texts. Where appropriate and feasible, you might want to treat the other person to the coffee or demonstrate your gratitude in some other appropriate way. If all this sounds a little bit daunting, remember that the job search can indeed feel like a full-time job, and it often takes a serious commitment (and sometimes a bit of luck) if you want to build momentum and land some interviews. If you identify as an introvert, and large-scale conferences or networking mixers give you the creeps, find smaller social opportunities, possibly ones that feature your hobby so you’re more likely to be your natural, relaxed, excited or happy self—that’s when networking can feel effortless.
8. Consider a pivot. Explore new options. Some layoffs amount to nothing but writing on the wall. If the reason behind your layoff was that your job has been largely automated/replaced by AI, perhaps now is the time to shift gears. Not just learn new skills (it is generally a good idea to keep learning throughout life), but perhaps pivot into a new industry or job function. It’s important to remember that the job landscape isn’t some monolith. Some sectors and industries get hit hard by layoffs, and others thrive. For example, in 2023, tech took a tumble while healthcare and construction seem to be going strong. Some of my clients take a layoff as a sign from the universe to carve out an entirely new path, going from non-profit to corporate (or the other way around), pivoting from back-of-house to customer-facing positions (or vice versa), switching disciplines (functions) but staying in the same industry (e.g., going from tech sales to tech marketing), or moving from one city/state/country to another. Some clients want to avoid future layoffs and aim to become freelancers, consultants, or business owners. Chasing your own clients or starting your own business is hard work and not without its challenges, but at least you can make sure that you won’t fire yourself. The point is, there are options out there. Another possibility that is often overlooked? Boomeranging. Some folks actually return to the companies that laid them off. Keep in touch with the company. While it may be tempting to burn bridges and resent the company that terminated you, keep in mind that it’s not unheard of for people to return to boomerang and end up back at the same company months or years later— sometimes for significantly more pay.
9. Fuel your confidence. Put yourself first, but don’t go it alone. Your mindset affects nearly everything about the job search: how often and to which jobs you apply (e.g., are you only applying for jobs for which you’re clearly overqualified), how frequently you network, how energetically and confidently your interview. If your self-esteem is in the gutter, the entire job search will feel like a slog. Layoffs can make you feel like crap (that is the technical term), so make sure you invest in activities that energize you, because the job search can very quickly deplete you (that’s if you weren’t already burned out at the company that just laid you off). Define—and stick to—your boundaries with family, friends, and random LinkedIn connections. No is a full and complete sentence. Hang with people who support you and boost your self-esteem and overall well-being. Practice self-care, tending to your mind, body and spirit (yes, that includes eating well, exercising, getting good sleep, socializing). Rest. Have fun. Explore. Make space for new adventures (whether traveling across the world, hitting up the new restaurant down the block, or cooking your own meal if that’s something you’re not used to). A long-haul job search can make you feel defeated, and it’s important to nourish yourself in all ways so you can keep up your stamina for the road ahead. Social interactions are key here. Being laid off can be an isolating experience, but talking to others often holds the key to getting out of the fog and getting clear (and maybe even excited) about next steps. Keep a brag sheet of all the noteworthy things you did while laid off—everything from classes you took, countries you’ve visited, kids you’ve raised, events you’ve organized or attended, books you’ve read, podcasts you’ve listened to, relationships you’ve built, hobbies you’ve started, organizations you’ve volunteered for, people you’ve mentored or otherwise made time for, etc.
10. Put yourself out there. Networking is an important tool, but it’s not the only way to send a signal to the world that you are (1) awesome and (2) ready for a new job. Platforms like LinkedIn (or personal blogs) offer you a chance to share your expertise, insights, and passions with the world. You already know this, but people read and consume content. And when that content is even half-decent and resonates, people share it. This doesn’t mean everyone needs to write a book (even if it feels that way sometimes). But if you have a unique take on your industry or job function, or even if you have some common tips to share with others (e.g., junior professionals) that may seem obvious to you but aren’t to others, don’t hold in all that wisdom. Pen an article or two. Find ways to write, speak, or dance it if you have to. Not everyone will be a keynote speaker, but you can find ways to connect and speak at your local organizations, business chambers of commerce, libraries or bookstores, shops, etc. Don’t be limited by what you’ve done until now. Chances are, what good you to this point isn’t what will get you to the next one. Sometimes you really do have to step out of that comfort zone. And you don’t have to be a “thought leader” or “expert.” In fact, sometimes it’s the unvarnished, unembellished and plain truths that capture readers’ attention the most. If you’ve been laid off, and your default is to disconnect from the world (e.g., due to shame, discomfort, lack of focus or energy), sometimes putting yourself out there is the thing that will reenergize you and help you make the connections that lead to good things for your job search. As trite as it sounds, you simply won’t know if you don’t try.
11. Volunteer. Mentor. Give back. This might seem like the opposite of the advice earlier of “put yourself first”—but it isn’t exactly. Sometimes the job search makes folks obsess and over-think, navel-gazing to the extreme. But focusing some of our time and energy on others can be immensely helpful. Volunteering feels good, providing us with a sense of purpose and fulfillment and a great reminder that we are on this planet not just for ourselves, but for those around us. Beyond maintaining healthy social ties with family and friends, donating our time to strangers is a great way to feel useful, especially when unemployed. There are countless ways, formal or otherwise, you can mentor and volunteer—whether it's through Zoom internationally, or in person down the street in your local community. You can of course add these volunteering experiences to your resume and LinkedIn, but the real value is in the human connection.
And now, here is a shorter hodge-podge list of the other perhaps more commonly seen tips, many of which we know about, but the value is in doing them (not just knowing them).
Update your resume. Make sure it’s something clean, impactful, error-free, and generally something you’re proud of.
Keep your LinkedIn updated and attractive. While LinkedIn is not heavily used in some industries, it’s a broadly used networking and job/talent search tool by recruiters, business owners, and professionals in general. Make sure your “brand” is clear and aligned with what you’re seeking.
Polish your interview skills. Record yourself. Practice in front of a mirror if you have to. But it’s best when you can get feedback from others, for example, a trusted friend, mentor or professional coach. Interviewing is by its nature a social act, so it’s best to not (just) practice alone.
Manage layoff anxiety. There’s quite a bit of layoff anxiety floating around given the post-COVID world and the hard-to-label economy—it seems we’re always at the precipice of another crisis. Remember to take care of your anxiety, if you’re experiencing any post-layoff. Whether your ideal solution is vegetable, mineral, chemical, physical-kinetic or spiritual (or all of the above) remember that layoff anxiety is common, that you’re definitely not the first or last one to experience it, but that ultimately you’re the one who can take steps to manage it and emerge from it stronger.
While there is no fool-proof to land a job faster and certainly no way to prevent a future layoff, these are some of the steps you can take to future-proof yourself best you can and mitigate risk for the uncertain road ahead. No single tip or strategy is better than another, but doing as many of them as you reasonably together can help increase the chances of success. Both from my own experience and from the journeys of countless clients, it is often the case that when one door closes another one eventually opens. Sometimes an unpleasant layoff leads to incredible career opportunities and thrilling life adventures that otherwise might have been impossible.