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A Downsizing Survival Kit

May 6, 2008
It's no secret that corporate downsizings are stressful. A recent study found that employees over fifty who lost their jobs involuntarily more than doubled their risk for heart attack or stroke. (Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine 7/2006) The outlook isn't any rosier for those who remain. According to a Finnish study, survivors of a major downsizing doubled their risk of heart attack, with the risk growing to five times normal after five years. (British Medical Journal 2/2004) Apparently, keeping one's job just to be overworked and under-staffed may be even more risky than getting a pink slip.

A downsizing threat triggers our biological flight or fight mechanism. "It's nothing personal," organizations try to assure their staff, "It's simply a business decision." But a business decision to terminate employment impacts employees in very personal ways. It affects family, financial security and, perhaps most importantly, personal identity. When we feel like we're losing control, our stress level shoots through the roof. During a downsizing, decisions about our careers are being made without our input. Reclaiming control seems all but impossible, but reclaiming control is exactly what we must do to protect our health and our careers. Understanding what we can control helps reduce the stress and allows us to put our lives and dreams back on track.

Asset Inventory

The first thing that a business professional should do when a layoff looms is to conduct a quick but thorough inventory of assets. Like a business, an individual has a portfolio of financial and intellectual assets that requires regular maintenance. It's these assets that provide the bridge from the here and now to the next professional situation. What new skills might increase value immediately? What areas of expertise need to be refreshed? What degrees or certifications would build overall value? What adjustments can be made to improve financial health?

Intelligence Analysis

Rumors run rampant during a downsizing. An Australian study conducted on the rumors that circulated in a hospital during a major layoff identified them as a coping mechanism that allowed people to express their deepest, darkest fears. (Eastern Academy of Management 10/2006) In other words, rumors are more accurate expressions of fear than facts. Developing a good intelligence system that can separate fact from fiction is critical. The best way to vet an intelligence source is to verify information through a variety of avenues. Developing good information sources provides useful communication that works both internally, regarding the organization, as well as externally, regarding job market opportunities and allows a business professional to exercise good strategic decisions instead of knee-jerk reactions.

Support Coalition

All professional transitions require a broad network of support to be successful. This is true whether the transition is a job search, a promotion or a new entrepreneurial adventure. It's never too early to start building a business coalition. In fact, the last thing a business professional wants to do is to touch base with a key contact only when they need something. Building a business coalition involves regularly supporting the agenda of others. Some believe that business coalitions are built on country club golf courses or in smoky back rooms. That might be true, but coalitions are not built with golf balls and cigars. Coalitions are built by understanding and supporting the agendas of associates. This can be done in lunchrooms, at water coolers, in the hallways and at the PTA potluck. Never miss an opportunity to contribute to the success of a co-worker, subordinate, boss or neighbor. The career you save may be your own.

Career Focus

Are you doing what you love or would you rather be doing something else? For all the fear, discomfort and angst that accompanies a layoff, it has been my experience that an unexpected termination is often the spark that ignites a stalled career. Change is coming so why not use its momentum to move out of your rut? Focus on what you really want. What would it take to live your dreams? Start putting your plan together. As I often tell my clients, "If you can tell me what you want I can show you how to get there." If you were living your dream before the layoff, chances are very good that you will be living that dream at another location fairly soon. If you were never that satisfied with your job, now is the perfect time to put together a solid plan for achieving your dreams.

The best survival tactic for a layoff is recognizing that it's your life and you are ultimately the one in control. Although it is tempting to turn your career over to an employer and hope that hard work and dedication will pay off, the current riff of mergers, acquisitions, layoffs and downsizings would seem to indicate that that course of action is just too risky for both your career and your health. Decide what you want, inventory your assets, gather the intelligence you need to make good strategic decisions and build a thriving business coalition to support your dreams. You are the one in control of your own professional journey.
About the Author
Pat Faber-Garey, Worklife Agility Coach, brings two decades of workforce transition management to bear in helping business leaders take advantage of change. A published author, her 2006 book GREAT JOBS FOR GRADUATES: 90 Days to the Career of a Lifetime, is used as a university textbook. She is a regular speaker and industry source on workforce management and human resource development topics. Extreme Agility, LLC
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