Laid off in America

Monday, June 23, 2003

Falling from Grace

I wasn't going to write this column because the topic depressed me and scared me. But, ever the optimist, I found a way to "reconstruct" what I'm going to write about. And, in fact, the Fast Company article that quoted me helped solidify that reconstruction. On top of that, on Sunday the New York TImes proclaimed it a "bull market", plus it wasn't full of unemployment woes so maybe this whole column will be a mute point! It's also sunny and gorgeous. Maybe that's helping my mood too.

I read a book written in the late 80s called "Falling From Grace: The experience of downward mobility in the american middle class" by Katherine S. Newman. The research for the book was collected during the early 80s (when we were in another recession, I was in Peoria, IL when this book was written and I remember bumper stickers reading "Will the last one to leave Peoria please turn out the lights?"--has anyone else noticed that unemployment seems to peak and ebb every 10 years?) and it is about the hundreds of thousands of middle class americans who plunge down the social ladder every year, losing their jobs, suffering sharp drops of income and prolonged economic hardship.

I also read the recent article in CNNMoney (6/17/03): (sorry still haven't conquered the art of hyperlinking--it's probably easy) called "Here come the Duppies: Tough times have spawned a new class of depressed urban professionals" by Leslie Haggin Geary. She quotes some statistics "According to government labor statistics, 4.8 million individuals are underemployed. That's on top of the 8.7 million counted as unemployed and looking for jobs, not to mention the 4.2 million non-working who don't bother."

We all believe in the American Dream--work hard and we will work our way up. We will be at higher levels and earning more when we retire than when we start our working life. Way more. But that is only illusion for many people. Particularly when markets shift. Particularly when there is a market downturn. The hot, fast moving, innovative job you are in turns into a commodity (think tech, heck, think leadership development!).

We also have two other tendencies. I'm certainly guilty of the first one--we define ourselves heavily by our careers. I almost always ask people what they "do" when I first meet them--that's how I define them (of course I AM an Industrial and Organizational Psychologist). Second we have a tendency to equate more money with more happiness and think we will be happier when our paycheck is bigger rather than now. (Hey wait a minute, these last two statements are slightly paradoxical-go figure). So the idea of taking a less challenging job, or a less payng one, can do real damage to our psyches.

But instead, I would like to reframe the issue. Perhaps market downturns such as these can be a good thing for some of us. Most people won't leave a perfectly good paycheck without some prompting (say, a lucrative call from a head hunter) even if we hate our jobs. While many of us may feel it necessary to take a job, any job, once our savings are depleted to stay off the streets (a real concern during a prolonged downturn), others of us reevaluate and take a different path. I think that if you MUST take a lower job and a paycut, then you should at least try to do something new (so you can learn), fun (so you can enjoy going to work), or meaningful (so that even if the job is beneath you and you are earning magnitudes less at least you know that you are doing a good deed to society).

I took a lesser paying, but I think higher status job that probably fits my interests and skills a whole lot better. I won't retire rich, but I'll retire happier and probably live longer. I have a friend who was laid off from the financial industry. She just took a job as a fund raiser in a not-for-profit (she was volunteering there anyway). I think she has finally found her niche and may be mentally healthier as a result. I have another friend who voluntarily left her job (in fund raising for a non-profit) to become a full time piano and music teacher--her true love.

And heck, I have a husband who is leaving a perfectly good job as Chief Technology Officer at a tech firm that is doing okay (now that's a job many of us would drool over) to find himself and be a stay-at-home daddy. I don't believe I mentioned that on top of all this--being laid off, networking, finding a new job, etc., I'm also pregnant and will be taking a leave of absence from my new job right after I start it. Fortunately my university and department couldn't be more supportive of such matters! And I am confident that as a result of this, my husband and our family as a whole will come out of this happier and more fulfilled, despite the fact that we will be living on a junior professor rather than a CTO salary.

posted by Valerie 9:14 AM

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Friday, June 20, 2003

Thanks to Wai Cheng for passing along this information: To improve your networking skill, I suggest reading The Savvy Networker by Caryl Rae Krannich and How to make hot cold calls by Steven J. Schwartz. Hope this helps.

And for sending me a copy of the Fast Company Article. The article made me realize that I have one more column to write. One I didn't want to write, decided not to write because it depresses me to think about it. But one that might be realistic for some of us who go through unemployment. Check back next week for the column. I still don't want to write it because it depresses me :-( posted by Valerie 7:37 AM

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Thursday, June 12, 2003

My commenting system is down. I am using a service through Apparently they are so overloaded from popularity that their server is down. If anyone knows another one to recommend, please let me know! In the meantime, while I figure this out, comment using either the right side bar or send me an email directly.

I just heard from someone that this blog was mentioned in Fast Company. I'm pretty excited. I can't find the mention on-line so am going to run out and find a hard copy. posted by Valerie 12:30 PM

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Monday, June 09, 2003

I'm still getting comments from readers about this blog, so I'm keeping it up although I won't be updating it. And I'm willing to add links to other people's unemployment blogs. In fact, I just added one based on Homee's trials and tribulations of a young IT just graduating college. I graduated during an economic downturn, so I know what it's like to try to launch yourself. It's pretty scary. But I'm becoming more optimistic. Despite last month's stats that say we now have the highest unemployment in over a decade, I'm also seeing an upturn (not stable yet) in more leading economic indicators. Hopefully we are pulling ourselves out! posted by Valerie 2:30 PM

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Thursday, May 29, 2003

I think this will be my last column for this blog. I had several reasons for doing a blog on unemployment. I wanted to purge the experience. It was not altogether a pleasant experience and I wanted to get the negative feelings out of me. I wanted to record my experience. In the near future, I'm hoping to study people who are between jobs--how they cope, what their strategies are, how they use their time off, and if and when they land another job, how that compares to the one they left. I'm one subject in my data collection and I wanted a record while I was still fresh. Maybe I'll get a book out of this experience! I wanted to learn about blogs. I kept this one fairly simple, just to learn the basics. But I already have a new one in mind--a group one that will be syndicated. It will be a next generation for me. And finally, I was hoping to help a few people with my experiences. For no advertising and staying low key, I have been thrilled at the number of hits my blog has received. And from the comments of a few of my readers, I believe I accomplished this goal as well. So my first blogging experience has been a success.

The topic of this week's blog is a gift to my readers. It was a huge gift to me and one I found invaluable during interviews. My counselor, Joanne M., at my outplacement firm, in helping me prepare for interviews, gave me a list of really good questions she has collected to ask during interviews. She gave me tons of questions, and I will give you a subset here--as I re-wrote them to apply to my situation. Remember, I was applying in the HR department for succession planning and leadership development positions. I didn't have time to ask all of these during my interviews. And some of the questions were answered during the course of the interview of course. But the list ensured that I had questions ready when the chance arose for me to ask them. In one case, I had the confidence enough to call back and set up another interview just so I could ask my questions. I was a top candidate for that job. I didn't get it because the organization reorganized... c'est la vie.

1. Is there a succession plan (or leadership development process) in place now? Describe it. How well is it working?
2. Why is the job open and for how long?
If a new position, who did the directive come from? Did s/he request it? Does s/he support the need for succession planning?
3. How does this job fit in with the new emphasis on ... (any new initiatives taking place on an organization wide level that is in company materials or the press,for example for one job: results based performance and the balanced scorecard you are using?)
4. What are the major responsibilities of this job? Does it include managing others? If so, how many? Does it include working closely with operating units? How much autonomy is there in this position? Would you say that the expectations for this job are more strategic and long term focused, more tactical and day-to-day, or a mixture of both?
5. What are your expectations of the position beyond the job description?
6. What qualifications do you expect the best candidate to have?
7. What would a successful incumbent be like? What characteristics are necessary to be a successful contributor.
8. What are the long and short term goals of this position? Of (this area) and HR as a whole?
9. What do management, employees, clients expect and want from the HR department, this area in particular?
10. What are the contributions you would expect me to make in the first 6-8 months?
11. How is the HR department structured? What is the headcount? What are the roles and positions?
12. Describe how this particular group works together.
13. Do the various HR departments also work in partnership with each other? For example, will I be working with folks from the leadership development program, performance management, and training to ensure that all are in alignment? (This job was for succession planning)
14. What other infrastructure departments support this department to help it accomplish its goals and overall how well do they work together?
15. Describe interdepartmental relationships between this department and other functional areas. Between this department and operations areas?
16. What opinion do the operating units have of the HR department?
17. Does this area have its own budget? Who manages it and how? What would my role be?
18. Do you have documented departmental policies and procedures?
19. Do you have a performance management system in place for HR folks? How does it work?
20. How is performance measured against the goals of the department and of the organization overall? How well is it meeting those goals?
21. How would my position be evaluated and who has input into the assessment?
22. How would you describe the culture/environment of this company and of HR?
23. To boss: What is your management/leadership style?
24. (If there is a new CEO). What is X's leadership philosophy? What does s/he think of this initiative? Will s/he continue to be supportive of it?

I'll leave the site up for a few more weeks. Maybe a few late comers will stumble upon it and findit helpful. In the meantime, if you want to reach me, please send an email directly to me.

Happy searching and good luck! The U.S economy looks like it is getting better so maybe we are over the hump?

posted by Valerie 9:36 AM

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Monday, May 19, 2003

I didn't realize what a huge column I wrote last week. It's gorgeous out today, so this one will be short.

Where did my job interviews come from? I only had 6. Two came directly from networks (and I've gone on ad nauseum about networking in previous sites). Two came from search firms. Both of those search firms contacted me because they had received my name from networks. And two I got by applying through a website--a highly specialized website that specializes in I/O psychologists. And those same two were the ones I "almost got" an offer on and received an offer on.

I found search firms to be really difficult to work with. First, there aren't a whole lot of job openings in my area of expertise in the NYC metropolitan area. Most search professionals I knew were having a hard time surviving. Second, my background is not your typical background. It's an interesting,eclectic one, but when you are a search professional who wants, no, NEEDS to make a connection, there are a lot of candidates available who have a more low risk portfolio--they've worked in the business or done a similar job in another industry. But I tried to keep in touch with about 1/2 dozen head hunters anyway. I figured it couldn't hurt and it didn't take much time.

I have a mixed review of the use of the web. I found the larger, generalist websites to be useless for my purposes. I did apply to jobs off of them, but felt like I was sending my resume into a big black hole. I also applied directly to some company specific websites. Also a big black hole. I'm guessing several things are going on here. First, it's so easy to apply for jobs this way that everyone does it and companies are overwhelmed with the responses they get. I'm guessing that in many cases they aren't even able to look at all the resumes they get this way--but there are search engines coming out that are awesome and might be able to help with the sorting in the near future. Second, so many people are networking right now that it is easier to hire someone who is standing in front of you than to even look at the morass of resumes. Third, many of those jobs aren't real jobs. I had no idea companies did this, but they do. They may want to bring a specific someone in or up, but are required to do a full job search and this is how they do it. Alternatively, they may just want to keep tabs on who is out there--the stateof the market. Or worse, they may just be looking for information (I've had colleagues pour their time, heart, and soul into a lead only to find out later that the company/hirer was merely trolling for ideas. Fourth, the job doesn't come through--they requested to fill a position but don't get the budget. Fifth, it may be that positions and levels I was looking for just aren't on the web yet. I would still recommend looking for a job this way. But if you do find a job opening that was clearly written with you in mind, I would spend a lot of time finding out who the hiring manager is and contacting them directly.

Alternatively, I found the specialized websites to be great. My background was understood and appreciated by organizations and hiring managers who published jobs on these sites. And I think these are great sites to regularly check anyway just to get a pulse on what's going on in my field. If your field has specialized sites (usually as part of a professional group), I would recommend checking on this regularly regardless of your state of employment.

Where do most of you do your searching? What is your luck with them? posted by Valerie 11:34 AM

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Wednesday, May 14, 2003

I just read another NYT's article this morning about unemployment. This time it was about how difficult it is for college seniors to get jobs. Places that are "less sexy", not-for-profits, and organizations that can't pay well can be selective in who they hire right now. Graduate school applications are up. And I continue to read articles about how our recovery probably isn't enough to get us out of this employment slump. I talked to a networking buddy of mine who landed THE PERFECT JOB. She was thrilled. At least a few months ago she was. Now, she's scared. Her company declared chapter 11 and is starting to lay another round of people off. She had been out of a job for over a year and is not financially or emotionally prepared to go through another round. I talked to a middle aged woman yesterday as I stood volunteering to solicit votes for the candidate of my choice on the street corner. She's a techie and has been out of work for years. She doesn't EVER expect to work again (at least in that field). I was planning to talk today about how I prepare for interviews. But that's not much help when so many people can't even get an invitation to get interviewed. But I'm going to talk about the topic anyway because I have a funny story to tell.

I start by finding out everything I can about the company. That was actually much easier when I had access to the outplacement firm. They had subscriptions to all kinds of websites. It was much more difficult once I had to search on my own. And it was just plain difficult, period, to get information about private companies. So I often felt like I was lacking in my company knowledge. But what I could get, I read voraciously, and made sure I knew the information well enough to bring a juicy tidbit up here and there during the interview. I also used that information to form a few questions that I would plan to ask (which I will talk about in the next week or so). If I knew who I was going to talk to (which surprisingly often I didn't!!!), I would try to get information about them. Sometimes company websites had bios. Sometimes folks were "grooveable". If I shared any commonalitieis with the person, I would note that. If they were somehow known outside the company, I would note that. If I knew someone who knew that person, and I felt comfortable, I would call and talk to them. If I knew anyone who worked at the company (or even better, used to work there) I would talk to them. Once I even had the chance to sit in the lobby of a company and struck up a conversation with an employee. That was a goldmine of information. The key, I learned though, is to make sure you do your research on the RIGHT company...

The next thing I do is take apart the job description, piece by piece, to determine what exactly I want to concentrate on in the interview. What kind of person are they actually looking for? Where do I fit particularly well? And where do I have less of a fit. I want to make sure I zero in how my strengths meet their needs. I want to mention in passing detail how I have done other things that aren't as pivotal in the job description. And I want to be upfront about where I don't have experience in some areas they are looking for (never the main areas though) and why that won't be a problem (thinking of other things I've done that are similar for example).

Finally, I write, yes write, a several page document. This is for my eyes only. In school, I found that if I write something down, in detail, I'm more likely to remember at least the essence of it. No, I don't memorize this part,I just want it in my mind somewhere I can easily access it. In the document, I put the questions I know I will be asked.

There will ALWAYS be a question that is something like "Tell me about yourself". Guaranteed. I always have a nice pat answer that covers what I want to cover during my interview. I start with some summary statement that's basically my objective. But at the end of it, I tack on a statement that says, "As I look back over my career to date, three (or sometimes 4) themes stick out for me. And then I list, without going into detail, 3 or 4 themes about myself that I think particularly fit what they are looking for in the job. And I leave it at that.

Another question that often gets asked is "Why are you looking?" I actually have an exit statement for why I left my last company. It is short, pat, and completely benign about both myself and my previous company. I say it calmly, without any rancor or depression and keep my non-verbals upbeat. Then I move on. This is one of those questions that having a nice short answer and positive (or at least nuetral ) nonverbals and nothing else counts.

A question will come up about values, skills, strengths. This is the one to shine on. This is the one that I make sure I can talk on from now to the day before forever. I take each one of those themes I listed in the "Tell me about yourself" question and expound. In my interview preparation, I literally write stories (real examples that is) to demonstrate each one of those themes. And I practice them out loud to hear my own voice (very key, especially if you haven't told stories before). If the company is looking for someone who can handle project management, for example, I have implanted in my brain several "stories" about my project management. Details about how I can handle multiple, complex, large, long term projects that include many people with relative ease. I sometimes have 2 or 3 stories prepared about each one. If I have a difficulty that I had to overcome on my way to success, that goes in as well (think plotline and conflict in stories). And if I can refer to the new company in some way, I throw that in too--but it has to fit and be natural. Why stories and not bulletpoints? First, for me, it is easier to remember the story. And I like to tell stories. My energy and personality bubbles out (both strengths of mine anyway). Second, people like to listen to and remember stories better than a short list of skills with no examples attached. They will remember that yes, I have something that they were looking for, that I gave a behavioral example about it, in relative detail, and that I was successful at it, despite a difficulty or two. Third, It sure makes the interview go quickly, smoothly, and even enjoyably for both parties (no one likes a lot of uncomfortable silent space in an interview). Fourth, the interviewer will get a better feel for your "fit" (personality, style, etc.) to the organization. You definitely don't want to work for a place that doesn't "fit" you, at least I know that I'm miserable.

There might be a question about style. I have a few stories for that as well. Here, I include a story about how I discovered I needed to manage in a way that I was not accustomed to managing and how I changed my style, what I learned, and how it worked (successfully of course). I figure that the extent to which I can include certain strengths without actually mentioning them by name (in this case, flexibility and willingness and ability to learn) is good too.

There probably will be a question about limitations or weaknesses. This question is like the "why are you looking" question. It needs a pat, well thought out answer that is over quickly. And it shouldn't be too "weak", but instead developmental (why this particular job is a key and natural next step). I usually say something like (and it was true), "I have been able to do a variety of different aspects of ...(usually leadership development or succession planning)...but have never had the chance to bring all the pieces together into one. I'm really excited about this opportunity because I will be able to bring all the different pieces together plus have a chance to use my management skills to do so.

There might be one on future goals. I never really knew how to answer this one well. I usually said that the world was changing so fast that it was hard to know and I wanted to be open to a variety of opportunities. But I did know that I wanted to do something that takes my core skills to a broader and deeper level and hopefully add additional skills along the way. But I do think of what I do as a profession, not as a step in the organizational ladder. Others who want to move up might want to add that as well.

There MIGHT be a question on compensation during the first interview. I usually dodged that completely and truthfully by saying that I needed to better know the scope and scale of the job and whether I would be a good fit before discussing compensation, but that if it came to that, I was confident we could work something out. I don't know how to negotiate salary and frankly, no interview came to that anyway. The job offer I eventually accepted is unionized. There was little room for any kind of negotiation.

And usually, by this time, the interview had run its time or had gone overtime. So those were the basic questions I got. If I did get some others I wasn't expecting, I usually was on such a story telling roll that I just yanked another few (turning them a bit to fulfill the question) out of my bag of stories or retold a portion of one I already used. I rarely had a lot of time to ask my own questions (not good time management), but I had a list prepared anyway.

For each organization, I put together a packet of the organization materials I had gathered, my "written report" I had created including the list of questions I wanted to ask, and LOTS of extra resumes and lists of my publications and presentations. And I took this packet with me. It made me feel comfortable to have all my "stuff" at my fingertips although I would have died of embarassment if anyone saw my "written report". I also, if possible, scoped the place out before hand so I would smoothly know where to go with no glitches.

So I actually enjoyed the interviewing process. Except for one that didn't go so well. I got the lead through one of my networks. And landed the interview. I prepared intensely for the interview--exploring the company in depth because there was a lot of information about it. The company was an international recognized company that consisted of a holding company, and a bunch of entities that it owned, one of which had the same name as the holding company. I spent my time and effort on the holding company, and glossed over the other companies, just remembering enough to sound like I knew they existed. And I confidently went to my interview. Within the first few minutes, I mentioned something about the new CEO and the interviewer said a different name than I expected, I blurted out, "I thought X was the new CEO?" And the interviewer said "oh, that's for the holding company." I was prepared for the wrong company. GULP. The rest of the interview proceeded the same way. Every time I opened my mouth, frogs, toads, and salamanders came out rather than pearls, diamonds, rubies, and emeralds. I tripped over my tongue. Even when something came out smoothly, it was the wrong answer (for example, in the goals statement, I gave my usual answer and they were looking for someone who wanted to move up in the organization). At the end, I casually mentioned that I also liked to write and gave the interviewer the address of the website my husband and I keep together on our travels (now why the heck did I say that, kick myself in the butt!). I felt like a total loser dork. I walked out exhausted, confident I could write that company off... and a little giggly.

Well, much to my surprise, they called me in for round two. So you never know. Sometimes things go perfectly and you walk out confident that the job is yours and you never hear a thing again. And sometimes you walk out knowing you screwed that one up royally and for some reason you get another chance. I ultimately canceled the second interview because I received another completely different and non-comparable job offer that I accepted. But I will always wonder at least a little, what I missed on that path. posted by Valerie 6:51 AM

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The experience of the new rite of passage among today's professionals: Being Unemployed

Contact me
You can contact me by sending me email at

This blog's mention in the July 2003 issue of Fast Company
Web of Despair.

Other unemployment blogs I have found
Ask your ass.
All about Jen.
Homee's job search.
Get that job.

Some blogs I like but haven't been updated in a while
Where The Hell Did My Job Go.
Invisible Matrix.

Credit problems?

What's keeping me occupied while I'm unemployed?
My husband and my travel photography blog.


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