Consultant’s Layoff Leads To Deeper Understanding

Things were bad in consulting: The end was coming, but I had so much fun in my job, I couldn’t bring myself to bolt.

I led a global information-technology team, and my task list was rich and varied. While it wasn’t my “ideal” job, it was a good one, and I hoped I could keep it. I couldn’t.

Rumor had it that the end was coming. Last August, the last three of us were led into a conference room to hear the details of our severance packages. The human-resources person who had called from Colorado tried to keep the conversation friendly with euphemistic patter. Finally, our exasperated administrative assistant blurted, “For God’s sake, you’re canning us!” to which the HR person actually replied, “Oh, no — that’s not what we’re doing.”

At 24, before I received my master’s degree in business administration, got married and started a family, I landed my first “real job.” I had been continually employed since then. My income steadily increased at a succession of companies, of which some were better to work for than others. This involuntary job loss — the first I had experienced — was the beginning of a personal journey through my emotions. I had to learn that the control I prized over my work life was, in actuality, an illusion. I had to become, as author Joseph Campbell said, “the hero of my own personal drama.”

Not all of my past employers were wonderful. A few were even dreadful. But I should have had an inkling that I wasn’t in charge long ago. Even at the best companies, the specter of a job loss due to forces beyond my control was always lurking. This anxiety caused by cost cutting during down cycles is the corporate employee’s nightmare and always a good topic of conversation around the coffeepot, at lunch or after hours.

It was the process of securing unemployment benefits that finally felled me. I registered for them over the Internet the day I was laid off. A week later, I received murky instructions by mail on how to make a claim. I received a void check telling me to claim my benefits by phone, unless I was working, attending school or on vacation. In the latter case, I needed to complete and mail an attached form. I had been paid for my unused vacation days, so I reported that. The data didn’t seem to fit the form, but I took a stab at it. I learned later that I had raised a red flag, which would take two months to remove.

Next, I prepared to travel with a church group to Ghana, in west central Africa. The trip had been planned before my layoff, and the outplacement firm my former employer had engaged for me agreed not to charge while I was away. I looked forward to going, because it seemed an ideal chance for me to ponder my future.

Ghanaians cut and mill timber and grow and dry cocoa, but most of them live a hard life. Many are subsistence farmers and workers in cottage industries, who make jewelry and clothing of native cloth, which they sell in small quantities from stalls along the roadsides. They strive to make money by selling to each other, but there’s no engine to create wealth. Despite the hardships, Ghanaians exude warmth and practice an intuitive and overwhelmingly generous hospitality. I had no trouble forgetting my unemployment.

Once back in the U.S., I plunged into seminars on resume writing, interviewing and negotiating offered by the outplacement firm. I also joined a job-search support group that meets weekly in a Princeton, N.J., church. At the first meeting, a psychologist — a fellow jobseeker — asked me how I was feeling. “Not bad at all,” I replied. “I’m waiting for despair to descend, but it hasn’t yet.” “Oh, you’re in denial, then,” she replied.

Was I? Future lay-off victims often experience a long demoralizing period while waiting for the ax to fall. Consequently, the pain of the actual news is mitigated by a sense of relief and freedom from uncertainty. You’re now in a quandary: When you’re supposed to feel awful, your emotional burden can be lighter.

Still, my awakening had yet to come. I had been trying to schedule a phone interview with the N.J. Department of Labor so it could determine if I qualified for benefits. A computer in the department’s main office sets the date and time for this appointment, and applicants must be at home to take the call at the number they provided. My first interview had been scheduled for when I was in Ghana even though I had called to try — unsuccessfully — to reschedule it. (I learned later that I had to report in person to reschedule the interview instead of attempting to do it by phone.)

My second appointment was set for Oct. 10. As I waited to hear from the state examiner, my minister phoned to discuss a new church project. I didn’t rush the conversation, and we talked for about five minutes. After I hung up, I checked my voice messages. The call from the examiner had come in the meantime. It was then I felt I was losing control over my life. I felt victim to a quota system. It was my first feeling of despair.

A job loss can bring a new sense of freedom. It’s a chance to re-evaluate how you created your career path. Career professionals say this is an opportunity to make improvements, yet some changes don’t always lead to improvements. Things can get worse. While there’s freedom and relief from the uncertainty of your last job, your uncertainty has merely changed focus.

In the end, my transition has been about control — who’s in charge of my life? A farmer has to worry about the weather, but society determines the fate of the rest of us. We can still try to realize our best vision for the future. While we’re never completely in control, we need to be the heroes of our own personal drama.

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