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What to do after a layoff: Everything you need to know

Layoffs often happen suddenly for reasons outside your control. If they happen, focus on what you can control.

Layoffs often occur during times of economic volatility beyond any one company's control.

The American economy has been especially volatile in recent years, in part due to the COVID-19 pandemic and resulting fallout. In the first 44 days of 2023 alone, more than 100,000 employees were laid off, according to Layoffs.fyi. In that time, 345 of the companies with layoffs were tech companies.

Some economists have dubbed the recent economic volatility a rolling recession, where some pockets of the U.S. economy remain unaffected while others experience strife. Not every industry experiences a recession at once, meaning that mass layoffs and job growth can be happening simultaneously.

But if you are laid off, here are some next steps to take.

Get organized

Take stock of final pay and benefits to get from your employer before leaving:

  • Request a severance letter. Request a letter that explains the exact reason for being terminated. This will probably already be part of a severance package, but request one if it is not. Have HR forward the letter and any other communications regarding the layoff to a personal email since you will likely no longer have access to company email once you have left. The severance letter should include all the details of the separation, such as the date of your last day and when benefits end. Having this document will be useful in the event of legal issues.
  • Collect severance pay. Collect your final paycheck and make sure that it is the correct amount.
  • Account for paid time off. Some companies pay out unused vacation and sick days when an employee is laid off. Consult your employee handbook regarding the company's PTO policy.
  • Review 401(k) and pension plans. Ask HR if the old 401(k) can be consolidated with a new one at your next job. If it can't, open a rollover IRA to reinvest the old 401(k). Another option is to cash out the old 401(k), but this comes with significant penalties.
  • Review insurance benefits. Look at which insurance benefits will be removed and in what time frame. And don't be afraid to ask your employer to clarify anything you don't understand. Insurance benefits typically last as long as the premiums are paid. Many companies pay a month in advance. In the event of a mass layoff, the federal Worker Adjustment and Retraining Notification Act requires that all employers provide 60 days' notice in advance of plant closings and mass layoffs. Benefits and pay are received as normal until the end of that 60 days when the final check is administered.
Bar graph of January 2023 layoff numbers.
Many big tech companies had layoffs in the beginning of 2023.

Remain calm

Layoffs are not personal, and they are not a result of poor performance -- they are systemic decisions. They generally occur because of restructuring, economic recession, mergers and buyouts. Still, they can be jarring and cause a lot of negative emotions. It's important not to act on these. Handle the departure courteously and professionally so that your reputation remains intact and no bridges are burned.

Professional connections from an old job remain valuable even if you're terminated. Maintaining these can only help your chances of being hired in the future. You can also try the following:

  • Ask about outplacement. Outplacement gives ex-employees counseling and access to staffing agencies that can help you get your next job.
  • Negotiate severance. Some severance packages are negotiable. You should compare your severance package to others in the industry to see if you're able to get more. Some negotiable points include how long you will continue to be paid and when your benefits expire.
  • Seek legal advice. You might want advice to determine if the decision to terminate you was discriminatory, retaliatory or in violation of the employment agreement.
  • Tell colleagues. Openly tell old connections that you are looking for another job.

Meet basic needs

Anything previously covered by your employer will need to come from somewhere else. A job provides necessities. If you've been recently laid off, you should do the following:

  • Register for unemployment. Unemployment benefits are generally slow to kick in, so apply as soon as possible. Eligibility, amount and duration of benefits all depend on individual state laws, so check those to confirm what you are entitled to. Unemployment benefits are based on what you earned at your last job. Each state also has a maximum and minimum benefit amount.
  • Register for health insurance. Once health benefits end, you have a few choices. You can go without health insurance, dependent on state laws; enroll in coverage under the Consolidated Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act (COBRA); or shop for an individual health plan on the Affordable Care Act's health exchange. COBRA allows you to continue coverage for up to 18 months if you were laid off by a company with 20 or more employees. The health exchange provides a variety of health plan choices, and you can register outside of open enrollment time because being laid off is considered an unforeseen life event. If possible, you might be able to join a family member's or spouse's plan.
  • Stick to a daily routine. Jobs provide a structure. It's good to retain this daily structure to remain organized and motivated -- and for general wellness. Dedicate the time you used for work to looking for jobs or other organized activities.

Prepare for the future

Now that the old job is in the rearview, it's time to move forward.

  • Write down accomplishments. Take stock of your skills and write them down. This helps reconfigure your perspective and reinforces that layoffs are not skill or performance based. This also helps you prepare for interviews that ask about these qualities.
  • Write down what you want. Decide what is important in your next move. Although a layoff is a loss, it can also be an opportunity for a new start. Define your values and use them to evaluate new employers. Some example values include location, company size, role type and pay. Sticking to these values will support success in the next job.
  • Create a schedule. Determine a process for job hunting and stick to it. Set a goal or intention for each day. Some items to consider in your job search program include the following:
    • When will you network?
    • Who do you want to network with?
    • How often will you update your resume and cover letter?
    • What platforms will you use to search for jobs?
    • How often will you practice interview questions?

The schedule can be augmented as you embark further on your job search journey, but answering these questions initially helps get the ball rolling.

Start your job search

Now that you have a plan, your values defined and your intentions set, it's time to begin your search.

  • Search job boards such as LinkedIn, Indeed, Monster and ZipRecruiter for viable positions.
  • Search professional associations pertaining to the industry you want to be in. Some examples are the Society for Human Resource Management for HR jobs and the National Association of Science Writers.
  • Use Google to do a Boolean search. For example, type writer + jobs to return websites with both terms.
  • Mark interesting job descriptions and highlight relevant keywords with which you can update your resume and search for jobs. Look for themes in the keywords and craft resumes based on the themes related to a specific role. For example, job postings might repeatedly use the keywords collaborates and coordinates. If so, be sure to include them in the actual text of your resume.
  • Take your time when applying. If the perfect job presents itself, there's nothing wrong with crafting a resume specifically for it.
  • Be visible on social media. Post updated information on platforms such as LinkedIn and Indeed. Enable statuses that indicate your openness to work so that recruiters can see you and send you open jobs you might have missed in your search.

Continue learning

In your search, you might decide that you want to develop new skills or take on a new direction in your career. Taking courses or pursuing certifications can be a great way to bolster your skill set. And if you haven't yet mastered the art of Microsoft Teams and Zoom meetings, this is a good opportunity to brush up on those skills too.

Still, tech skills remain valuable. Some of the best entry-level tech jobs include the following:

  • web developer
  • software engineer
  • DevOps engineer
  • data scientist

In tech, there are many certifications and learning resources available. These are some of the highest-paying tech certifications:

  • CISM: Certified Information Security Manager
  • CISSP: Certified Information Systems Security Professional
  • PMP: Project Management Professional
  • CISA: Certified Information Systems Auditor

Career-specific certifications

Click on the links below to find more career-specific courses and certifications:

A subset of cybersecurity is the ethical hacker profession. Check out these ethical hacker certifications.

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