What to Do When You Unexpectedly Lose Your Job

May 14, 2018 at 5:00 p.m. ET
Image: Johner Images/Getty Images/Design: Kenzie Mastroe/SheKnows

Sometimes you see it coming from a mile away, and other times, it comes as a complete shock: losing your job.

And regardless of how it happens, it hits you hard.

For me, it was a massive blow to my self-worth, my confidence as a professional and, of course, my bank account. As the type of person who needs structure and financial security, the not-so-expected loss turned my world upside down. And when it happened, I felt myself kick into overdrive, asking myself (and admittedly googling), "What are the next steps? How do I make money now? How long can I sustain myself before I go completely crazy?" All valid questions we'll get to, but the one question that really struck a chord?

"What did I do wrong?"

Don't get caught up on the why

It's the most difficult thing not to do when you lose a job: blaming yourself and/or wanting to know why you were fired.

"Searching for a why or validation will not change the outcome," says career coach Ren Burgett of 3R Coach.

"When you lose your job, you'll want to get the scoop and find out what's happening or what was said about you," he continues. "Secretly, you want to know how bad things are now that you're gone, but it's the worst thing you can do because it prevents you from moving forward. Take the needed time to mourn the job you had and then move forward. Use this as an opportunity to create a new direction for yourself and discover a new passion, and let the past be in the past."

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Sometimes, losing your job has nothing to do with your job performance (if you were laid off due to downsizing, for instance). Sometimes, it's a blessing in disguise. For me, it was both. But this took a long time for me to realize — and I have my large, incredibly strong support system to thank for that.

And this is where the next step comes in: Find someone you trust to talk to.

Talk about it

"Losing a job can trigger all kinds of feelings," human resources expert, consultant and therapist Laura MacLeod says, "so you'll need to be able to share that with a trusted colleague, friend, partner, family member. Look for somebody who will listen, empathize and not give you advice or help you immediately find a new job — too soon."

It's incredibly important to take time between job hunting and refining your résumé to focus on you. Take time to work through your feelings and thoughts; be honest with yourself.

"You may feel sad, angry and lost. Sit with this and work through it," MacLeod says. "Losing your job is a loss, no matter how you felt about the job, so you'll need to treat it as such — not ignore and figure you'll just dust yourself off and start looking for a new job. This will only push the feelings deeper, not get rid of them. Once you have worked through, you can look at future plans. But don't rush. You'll be sorry."

This isn't something that'll happen overnight or even in a few days. But as you navigate these feelings, you must also address and get a handle on your immediate needs, including — and most important — your finances.

Get your finances in order & tighten your budget

"First of all, for the sake of practicality, file for unemployment if you are eligible and/or make use of your severance package, if applicable," says human resources manager for Maple Holistics Nate Masterson. "The government takes money out of your paycheck each month, and it is precisely in cases like these where it actually comes to your aid. This isn't meant to be a long-term solution, of course, but it's a start. It is a way for you to be more stable, relatively speaking, while you process and figure out your next move."

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Once unemployment is filed (again, for those who are eligible), next ask yourself: What is your real financial solution, not your "panic" financial solution? This means creating a budget for how long you can realistically support yourself without a consistent income. For me, it was more important to immediately begin freelancing so I could slowly wean myself off unemployment. To echo Masterson, look at unemployment as a very temporary life vest to keep you afloat.

Burgett also points out, "You may have to rely on your credit card more now, and that's OK."

In short, tighten your budget. Cut off unnecessary monthly expenses, like streaming services, subscription boxes, etc. They may seem small, but those extra few dollars per month can help you pay for groceries and utility bills.

"More likely than not, you will be able to find a way to cut down on nonnecessity expenses and create a budget that will help you stay afloat financially while you are in between jobs," says Alayna Pehrson of Best Company.

Some may also feel tempted to cut off their gym membership, but — and this is my personal opinion — if you can hold onto it, keep it. For me, working out frequently helped me take out any frustrations I had and release tension. It was also the best place for me to escape to remind myself this was a temporary problem — and it won't last forever.

"Worrying about money can be extremely stressful," Burgett says. "Focus on what is happening today. Are you out of money today? If the answer is no, then you're OK. Remember, life can change in just one day. So don't worry about the future, just worry about today. If you're not out of money today then you're not out of money. Keep it that simple."

Apply, apply, apply

The obvious next step: Fix up your résumé and get back out there. Now, this is easier said than done, but be confident in your skills. You were hired for a reason, and you haven't lost your strengths, so get back out there.

"Looking for a job can be really hard, especially when you don't have one to fall back on," says Masterson. "It brings high anxiety and tension into the mix. It makes every interview more stressful, and it isn't easy. But you will need to get back out there and do your best."

Now, you're probably asking yourself, "What do I do about the letter of recommendation?" Valid question. First, if you left the company with bad blood (i.e., you were fired for disloyalty, an illegal act or some unethical deed), you likely won't receive one. Instead, Burgett suggests asking a trusted peer or subordinate if you were in a leadership role for one.

"Sometimes, a letter of recommendation can be more powerful from the perspective of a person that worked alongside you or for you," he says. "Potential employers want to know what you're like to work with and about your leadership skills. Have your letters of recommendation from a peer focus on teamwork, collaboration and communication skills. If your letter of recommendation is from a subordinate, have the focus be on mentorship, leading by example and your coaching skills. These are all important traits that will help set you apart from other candidates."

However, if you were laid off due to cutbacks or downsizing, then asking for a letter is acceptable. "If there is some animosity between you and your manager, and you don't think they will be into signing a letter of that kind, consider bypassing them and going to a higher-up," Masterson advises. "If an executive is sympathetic to your predicament, you may end up with much more than you bargained for."

More: So, You Burned a Professional Bridge — Now What?

Get your side hustle on

The job hunt can be a long one, so ensure you're also doing what you can to make money on the side. Either freelance or obtain some sort of side job — something that will help you stay on your feet until you can find a full-time position.

"Although this type of income may not be the most substantial, it can help you pay the bills and help you avoid drowning in too much debt," Pehrson says. "Something is better than nothing, after all."

Another tip: Learn new skills. You'll likely find yourself with much more free time than you had before, so use it to your advantage.

"If you get laid off and find yourself with a good amount of free time, you can try to learn new skills like sewing, cooking, gardening, carpentry, machinery, etc.," says Pehrson. "All of these skills can save you quite a bit of money, especially if you are having a hard time making ends meet."

Stay positive!

Now, this may all seem incredibly overwhelming, but as you take steps to find a new job and make ends meet, one bit of advice helped keep me sane: Stay positive.

"Remember the fundamental law of attraction and mindfulness: What you practice grows stronger," says Masterson. "You never know what may come up if you make room for it in your life."

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