In just the eight years since graduating college with a degree in International Studies and Environmental Studies, I have been laid off two times. It’s still shocking when I think about it, and it leaves me feeling a little sheepish to write about it. However, I’d like to help others who find themselves in the same position I did (twice), as I only learned what to do by stumbling along the way.
The Story of My Two Lay-Offs
In 2006—just one year after I walked across the stage at Washington College in Chestertown, MD—I was walking across somewhere else for the last time: the driveway to my car from my place of work. I was pulled into the boss’ office, and knew something was wrong when one of the lower bosses was there as well. It turns out that I had been hired on a one-year grant from the USDA, and that year was up. The company could no longer support my salary, and so I was being let go. Fortunately for me, the President of the company had already crafted a letter saying that none of this was my fault, that he wholeheartedly recommends me as a future employee, and that I am a bright person. It helped to take the sting off (a bit).
After three months, I found a job in market research in Florida. So I moved my life hundreds of miles away and started down a slightly different career path. Things were going pretty well at this job (heck, I made it over the one-year mark and heaved a sigh of relief). Then, the company was bought out by a much larger, internationally known, company. My position was eliminated entirely. Once again, the President of the company had crafted a letter to say that none of this was my fault, yada, yada, yada. I packed up my box and headed on home. It would be another three months until I found my next, and third job out of college.
Steps to Take Immediately After Becoming Unemployed
Not only do you have to actually meet with someone (typically your boss and then HR), pack up your belongings, and head on home after being given such devastating news, but there are other things that you need to take care of in this small window of time before being officially severed from your employer.
- Secure References Before You Leave the Office: Even though you might not be thinking of this at the time, it would be very helpful for you to ask whether or not your boss would serve as a positive reference for you to use in your upcoming job search. If you can get this in writing, like both of my ex-bosses supplied for me, that would be even better.
- Carefully Read Any Contract You Sign: Each of my jobs offered me a different severance package in exchange for me signing a contract. The contract basically stated that if I accepted the package, I waived rights to sue them. I was given a 1-2 week time limit to decide on this, so there was not much time. Make sure you read any contracts you are given and understand the terms. You may be able to talk with HR to help with this.
- Submit for Any Reimbursements Due from Your Company: I almost left my second job without realizing that I had a $150 reimbursement claim to submit from a focus group we had just conducted that week. When I realized this, I asked if I could have the rights back to my computer to fill the paperwork out, and they said yes. Make sure you think about this and any other unfinished business before leaving the office.
- Find Out if You Can Apply for Unemployment Insurance: Unemployment  insurance can take several weeks to go into effect, so you will want to look into it right away.
- Find Out About Your Benefits: How long will your health insurance last? Determine if you be eligible for the Health Insurance Premium Tax Credit  or have to pay the health insurance penalty .
- Take a Week to Process: Don’t forget that something potentially tragic and sudden has just happened to you. It’s a good idea to take a little bit of time to really process it, soak it in, and feel what you want to feel. After that, it’s time to get to work on finding a new job.
Steps to Take a Few Weeks After Becoming Unemployed
In the next few weeks of being unemployed, these are the things that you should be doing:
- Consult with Your College Career Counselor: If you have a career counselor at your disposal, then it’s a good idea to go and visit them (even if just to talk to someone about what happened). Fortunately for me, my first post-college job was in my college town, so my career counselor readily agreed to meet with me.
- Come Up with a New Budget: You must realize that your income has changed; therefore your spending needs to change accordingly. Otherwise you may find yourself in a very bad position. You have no idea how long you will be unemployed for, so it is important to cut back on spending in every facet of your life that you can. Protect your savings, or even just survive without charging lots of things onto your credit card (something you will loathe paying back when you do find that new job). Remember that others will probably be sympathetic to your situation, so if you can’t afford to meet up with your friends, host a dinner, or anything else, just be honest. Most people have found themselves in your position sometime in their lives (or know someone who has). For inspiration see How to Have a Life While Living On a Tight Budget .
- Polish Your Resume:You have time on your side, so really put some effort and energy into updating and making your resume sing! Go to the library and check out some books on how to write superb resumes, then go to town. After you think you have gotten it right, let your friends and family members (career counselor as well, if you have access to one) look at it and make corrections/suggestions.
- Begin the Job Search: This one is a no-brainer, but something that you should know is that while you accept unemployment you will typically need to show proof that you are actively seeking work. Each state has their own laws, so be sure you clearly understand what you need to be doing.
One other thing that you should do, but that may not seem like a priority, is to enjoy the time you have been given. In my first stint of unemployment, it was difficult for me to see that I would eventually be employed again, and so I did not take advantage of that precious time. During the second bout, I did some wonderful things. I knew that I would be employed for most of the rest of my life, so while job searching and working on my resume I visited my family for 11 days in PA, I took a few day trips to the beach, I took the time to create a website, and I made a mini-yoga retreat out of a free trial period I found at a gym right down the road. It was wonderful, and I would not trade that time, or those lessons learned, for anything.