In 2009, George Clooney starred in the film, "Up In The Air." He played the role of an external consultant retained by companies to come in and deliver bad news to their employees. His only job was to assist in downsizing companies, and to that end he met one on one with employees who had been marked for termination. As their meeting took place, the employee's office was cleaned out, and they were quietly escorted from the building. Some were in shock. Some sobbed. And one elegant lady calmly remarked, "There's this beautiful bridge by my house. I'm going to go jump off it."
And that is exactly what she did. Now I realize this is a description from a scene in a movie, but the truth is, it is fairly accurate in real life. Being separated from a job is a very traumatic experience. At some point, it will likely happen to you or to someone you care deeply about. There's no way to really get prepared for such an event, but there are things you definitely can do to navigate through the transition and land safely on the other side.
First, and most importantly, remember you are not your job. So many times people get so enmeshed with their organization they lose track of where they end and it begins. Being separated from a position does not mean you are a different person. Your talents, skills and abilities stay with you wherever you travel. Safeguard yourself from falling into the trap of believing your self-worth is tied to a job.
If you find yourself in the situation of being downsized, step back, take a breath, and remember that even though it feels like the sky is falling, in reality it is not. It is very hard in the beginning to think this change could catapult you to a new, better place, but that may very well be exactly what happens. Before you get to that place, though, there is work to do. The crucial thing is to remember to stay centered, reclaim your personal power, and reach out to your most trusted supporters. Allow yourself time to grieve, but set a limit for how long you let that continue. I often refer to this period as my, "Doritos and Sleepless in Seattle" phase when I am speaking about this topic to an audience. It is a very personal example that describes days that I feel beaten up and beaten down by the world. You may well find me laying on my couch, tears rolling into my ears, as I watch Tom Hanks search for a new life and a new wife. And yes, the biggest bag of Doritos is usually on the couch with me. The secret I have learned is to put a hard stop to the amount of time I allow myself to do this. Cry it out, but then know when it is time to get back up. You can't move forward unless you do.
If you find yourself being tapped by someone who is going through a negative transition at work, remember you have a very important role to play. It can be exhausting to support someone you care about and to feel first hand the depth of the wound they are struggling to heal. It is OK to not know exactly what to say. It is also OK to communicate that you are low in the emotional gas tank yourself on those days you don't have a lot to offer. What isn't OK is to contribute to the feelings of pain, and abandonment that the person reaching out to you is already experiencing. I've known of examples where people unexpectedly cut off a friend or colleague who they had been supporting, quite suddenly, reopening the wound for the person who has been fired. If you need a break, just say so. And also remember that it isn't your decision to make regarding how long it takes someone to grieve and process through the negative experience. A good rule of thumb is to follow the pace and lead of the person affected, unless, of course, you believe they are getting into a pattern that could result in a harmful outcome. Access professional help and advice if you are hearing threats of someone harming themselves or others.
And for the employers.....remember when approaching decisions about letting an employee go you are dealing with real people, who have real lives and responsibilities. Not a bottom line on a budget spreadsheet. It is also very important to problem solve how to execute a separation. There are cases where an employee behaves in a manner that is so egregious they must be a, "one strike and you are out" scenario, but that is rarely the case. Employees deserve to be treated respectfully and to be given every consideration to enable them to successfully navigate a professional transition. I have seen presidents removed from their positions over allowing unfair and inequitable treatment to their employees during transition processes. And if that doesn't get your attention let me bottom line it for you. I've seen companies and corporations lose millions of dollars in wrongful termination settlements and charges from EEOC violations. At times, the boss has to pay personal funds for wrongdoing on their watch. Do the right thing because it is the right thing to do and these painful, expensive consequences won't happen to your organization.
To recap, YOU ARE NOT YOUR JOB! You have the capacity to turn your power up, and thrive if you find yourself in a negative situation with a current or former employer. Stop by that beautiful bridge on your way home. Be still, and remember all that you have to be grateful for in your life and move forward into new beginnings.