What employed person hasn't reluctantly settled into bed on a Sunday night, the economy's woes sparking up the amygdala, and thought: Why not me? There were 700 applications for one janitorial position at an Ohio middle school in March, for heaven's sake. Why not me?
Larry Hughes lost his job in February. His was just one of the 651,000 positions wiped from the payrolls that month. It's a little strange experiencing personal tragedy en masse: your paycheck, livelihood, and nameplate eliminated along with a group roughly equal to the population of Memphis.
It's also incredibly frustrating because, during a recession, layoff notices rain down on the competent and incompetent alike. Hughes had just gotten his five-year service award at HarperCollins, where he drummed up publicity for such suddenly ironic titles as Bulletproof Your Job and Executricks: Or How to Retire While You're Still Working. His anger was real--but brief, as he realized the scale of the losses put him in good company.
Within weeks, he'd given himself a new job title: "the most visible unemployed publishing industry publicity director." Hughes immediately put his transferable skills to work in his unemployment. He wrote a column for Publishers Weekly the day after he'd lost his job. He sat on a Fox News set with two other unemployed men for a segment titled "Taking It Like a Man." Because his layoff was largely unanticipated, I wondered what Hughes would have done in the months prior if he had been able to see into the proverbial crystal ball and perceive his empty office. (It might have been more honest if I'd pleaded: Be our cautionary tale!) Hughes was generously willing to oblige.
So, here it is from the horse's mouth. Ignore this advice at your peril:
"First, I would have made sure I had a database of my industry contacts somewhere other than my work computer," Hughes says. "The morning I was let go, I was dismayed to find that by the time I got back to my desk, I'd been locked out of my computer. No access to the address book I'd created there--and that included not just work-related contacts but friends, my doctor, the woman who cuts my hair. I've had to rely on memory and have spent a lot of time figuring out how to reconnect with those people." Hughes muses that many of us settle in and make a home for ourselves in our workplaces. "As I've learned, that can all be taken away," he says. Job Lesson: Assume the ax could fall at any time.
"Second, I would have prepared a better record of my professional accomplishments," Hughes says. His portfolio would have included media from successful publicity campaigns and praise from authors he'd worked with. In other jobs, the accomplishments worth recording or preserving would obviously be different. The key is to recognize that, if you wait, the information may be unavailable to you right when you need it the most. Job Lesson: Be at the ready to market yourself.
"Third, I'd have ramped up my networking--something I really haven't paid sufficient attention to," he says. Well, he corrects himself: "I think the truth is, I'm not comfortable doing it and don't feel that I'm particularly good at it. However, if you wait until you're out of a job to begin, it's twice as hard because you feel your motives are completely transparent." Job Lesson: Always be networking.
But what if, by the time you read this, you're already out of work? What if the question "Why not me?" was answered with "Yes, indeed, you!" Well, Hughes says, "I can tell you, based on my own recent experience, that people are unbelievably supportive and are happy to help you if they can, even if you haven't been in touch for years."
There's an important lesson there, too. The vast majority of working Americans will hang on to their jobs through this recession--the unemployment rate was 25 percent at the peak of the Great Depression. If we're lucky, the worst of the payroll cutting is already behind us. Just don't sit on your office laurels, counting on such luck. Most economists expect job losses to continue through the end of this year and very likely beyond. If you happen to be employed right now, spend some time helping a friend, colleague, or family member improve a résumé, practice interviewing, or make a connection. You may find yourself knocking on that person's door in the not so distant future.
Note: This blog post was adapted from a column in this month's magazine. You can find Larry Hughes blogging at Book Flack at Large.