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Fired--But Not Finished:
Your Job Ends, Your New Life Begins

by Bill Lampton, Ph.D.

You can't believe what your supervisor just said: "Our company is feeling the impact of the economic nose dive. So we're going to have to eliminate your position, effective today. Now let's take a minute to review your severance plan."

Instantly, you're in shock. Controlling your inner turmoil isn't easy. A tidal wave of emotion sweeps over you. You feel cheated: "This isn't fair," you're thinking, "because I've been loyal and productive. Why not Alice, who never got her work done on time?"

You are afraid: "How am I going to pay our mortgage? And Jenny has three more years of college. Where is her tuition coming from?"

You are resentful: "After all I have done for these people, they owe me a promotion, not a pink slip."

Your feelings are hurt. You are profoundly sad. As your supervisor asks for your office keys, your eyes sting from the mounting tears that are ready to flow.

You want to protest, fight back, demand an appointment with the CEO, and even talk to an attorney.

FIRST MAJOR PROBLEM: To subdue your anxiety, despair, and resentment

I faced that problem too. In 1996, the year had dawned with great promise. As vice president of a charitable organization, I had exceeded my fund raising goals by thirty-one percent. My salary was excellent, and I had just deposited a strong year-end bonus. The signs pointed toward remaining in my current position until voluntary retirement.

Then my supervisor entered my office, shut the door, and said, "I have an unpleasant job to do today."

From a couple of vantage points, the odds didn't look good for me. My fiftieth birthday was behind me, and I was well aware of an unspoken managerial preference for "new faces and fresh ideas," which ordinarily translates into younger employees. My quest would be tougher than the same challenge a decade earlier.

Too, my salary had been at a high level I wasn't sure I could match. And I was racing against time, as my severance package would last just a few months.

Like you, I felt like launching a counterattack, starting with, "You've had your say, now you're going to listen to what I really think about you and everybody else in management."

What stopped me? An inner voice told me that combative response would only make my situation worse. Whether my firing was justifiable or not, I would need positive references. A potential employer might ask my HR Director, "Did Bill leave a good impression there?" Then too, spiteful words would rule out possibilities of eventually asking for an extension of benefits.

SECOND MAJOR PROBLEM: Telling relatives and friends

On your way home, you're likely to feel ashamed. You silently ask, "How could I let down those who love me and believe in me?" Facing your family and friends seems unbearably tough.

I still remember when my wife came home from work that January day, asking the usual, "Well, how was your day?" Without delay, I told her what had happened. I didn't blame anybody else, nor did I play the victim's role.

"But we'll lose our home," she said. "That's a logical fear," I responded, "but you can take my word that won't happen." I was right. Ten years later, we made our final mortgage payment.

That night, we called my wife's mother, our daughters, my brother and two sisters. We made a list of friends to call the next day. I opened those phone conversations with, "I want to tell you something before you hear it from anybody else."

THIRD MAJOR PROBLEM: The tendency to postpone your job search

You are tempted to share relaxed lunches with friends you didn't have time for before. You can head to the gym mid morning, and find other unemployed people to talk with. And isn't this an opportune time to take a few golf lessons? "Gotta wait until I'm in a better mood," you reason, "before I start knocking on doors."

I faced those temptations, because leisure and recreation are unquestionably more enjoyable than a job search. Yet they don't move you closer to a paycheck. So-with the help of an outplacement specialist my former employer provided-I mapped out a job search strategy. Instead of giving myself a vacation, I went after my next job with the persistence that got me my first professional position.

During the next six months, I phoned every colleague who might know about job openings, and followed referrals diligently.

FOURTH MAJOR PROBLEM: Taking the wrong job just so you'll get paid

As your bank account dwindles and your benefits deadline approaches, you might feel obligated to take the first job offer you get. "Whew," you sigh with relief, "that was a close one. At least now I've got some income."

After chasing many empty leads, I took that misstep which is common for the unemployed. I accepted a job that didn't match my interest or skills. Almost immediately, I felt out of place. My employer sensed a mismatch at least as soon as I did. After four months out of state, I returned home, once again off the payroll.

Now I had two recent job losses to explain. I hadn't simplified my quest, I had complicated it.

Learn from my mistake before you impulsively grab the first job offer.

FIFTH MAJOR PROBLEM: Failing to overcome your deficiencies

During candid analysis of your skill set, you will identify gaps that might limit your marketability. Let's assume that you live in a bilingual community, yet you can't read or speak anything other than your native tongue. All right, now is the time to erase that limitation. Enroll in language classes or hire a tutor.

During my self appraisal, I identified several areas of weakness. Example: While my colleagues were becoming comfortable with computers, I delegated that responsibility to my staff. Now I had no one to delegate to, so I took charge myself. I bought a computer and paid for private tutoring. Soon I became comfortable with the Internet and with word processing. Months later, I enrolled in evening seminars on Power Point and Desktop Publishing.

SIXTH MAJOR PROBLEM: Not identifying your major interests and assets

Having just been told that you are not valuable enough to remain at your company, you could easily lose your self-confidence. Big mistake-because you need strong self esteem now, possibly stronger than ever. So balance your list of liabilities by spotlighting your assets. Write them down, specifically, not generally. Don't be overly modest. Keep an old athletic adage in mind: "It isn't bragging, if you can do it."

I asked myself honestly, "What do I enjoy doing the most, and what do I do best?" I recalled that during all my years of fundraising and management, I had freelanced as a writer, speaker, broadcaster, seminar director, speech coach, and consultant at every opportunity.

In my case, that review of my professional talent and preferences turned me into an entrepreneur. "Now," I decided, "I can do all these communication activities without creating a conflict with an employer."

So exactly one year after my dismissal--including, as I said, another job loss--my wife and I talked about launching a new career thrust. "Let's do it," we agreed. I started outlining speeches and seminars, and boldly chose a company name.

That step toward self-employment might not describe the direction you will take. Even so, you will expand your job options by becoming keenly aware of your in-demand skills and services.

SEVENTH MAJOR PROBLEM: Trying to handle your job search without help

Sort of predictable, don't you think? After all, people you had spent hundreds of hours with just rejected you. If they turned against you, how can you trust strangers?

I felt that way at the start. For six months, I made cold calls-which brought two negative results: a larger phone bill, and a drop in self esteem.

Fortunately, next I turned to respected local business leaders for advice, requesting candid feedback for the speech/seminar titles I showed them. They helped me determine which topics would have the strongest appeal.

My smartest move came when I joined both the Georgia Speakers Association and the National Speakers Association. I attended training sessions and conventions, always learning more about how to position myself to attract clients. Within two years, I was presenting convention programs for the national organization, which I hadn't heard of previously.

EIGHTH MAJOR PROBLEM: Expecting things to happen too quickly.

If this is your first time to be between jobs, your impatience will reach unprecedented levels. You get furious with the comment, "We like your qualifications. When our hiring freeze ends next year, we'll get back with you." Next year. . .how are you supposed to survive and care your family in the meantime?

My progress wasn't immediate either. During the building period, we went months without income from me. I contributed hope, promises, and a rigorous work schedule. And yes, some letters and e-mails went unanswered, calls weren't returned, "sure things" weren't so sure after all, and there was no forecast of when business would increase.

For advice and encouragement, I turned to experienced professional speakers. Even the big names talked about how cyclical this business is. "Hang in there," they advised. "If we made a good living eventually, then so can you."

I heeded their good advice. I began to think of failures and rejections as detours, not dead end streets. This approach became especially beneficial right after 9/11 and during the current economic slump.

So if you don't get instantaneous results, have faith that your dedication and determination will pay off.

Although my beginning months weren't all that encouraging, good things started happening. After hosting my own radio show for a year, I turned the broadcasted material into my book, The Complete Communicator: Change Your Communication, Change Your Life! A Waldenbooks store held the first of a hundred signings in book stores.

More than a dozen years after I started my business, I am delighted to share a few professional highlights:

  • Enrichment Lecturer for Oceania and Celebrity Cruise Lines in the Caribbean and Bermuda
  • Interviewed by more than 300 radio stations
  • Keynote speaker, British Columbia Legal Management Association in Whistler, BC
  • Produced 28 instructional videos for You Tube
  • Stage Fright video on You Tube has attracted 12,755 viewers
  • Directed a management seminar for the Ritz-Carlton Cancun
  • Provided speech coaching for Gillette, Procter & Gamble, Duracell, and others
  • Gave the keynote speech for a bank celebrating its 75th anniversary
  • Interviewed by Cosmopolitan, Entrepreneur, Investor's Business Daily, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Delta's SKY, HR Today, Career Builder, and Working Mother

So if you have gone through a job loss, or expect one soon, consider me an example of a fired person-and an older one at that-who wouldn't consider himself finished because he was fired. Amazingly, I have demonstrated that life after downsizing can become even more joyful and creative than before.

I recommend the recovery process that worked for me. Forget "If only..." and move on to "Here's what I'm going to do." With the understanding and support of family and colleagues, and with dogged determination and drive, you'll achieve those dreams that-like mine-were once just part-time fantasies.

Bill Lampton, Ph.D., Communication Consultant and Speech Coach, "Helping You Finish in First Place." Visit his Web site, Championship Communication. Call Dr. Lampton: 678-316-4300

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