How to Prepare for a Possible Layoff

Tech booms and busts are nothing new, so the recent layoffs at places like Facebook and Google may not be that surprising. The media industry is its own perpetual roller-coaster ride, so forced departures from NBC News and Gannett are understandable.

But when companies like 3M, Disney and FedEx push employees out the door, as they have in recent weeks, it makes sense for most people to sit up and stare squarely at the situation. With tens of thousands of employees from scores of employers having lost their jobs since the beginning of the year, it’s well worth asking two questions.

Am I next? And if I might be, what should I do to prepare?

There is, in fact, a lot you can do, according to experts from fields as diverse as personal technology, career management, finance and employment law. And all of their advice can help you tighten up your life even if your job does not end up being on the line.

Do a career checkup while you are still employed.

First, keep a close eye on your employer’s health. If your workplace holds regular staff meetings, ask about whether it is meeting its financial goals. If you work for a company that trades its shares publicly, this information will be readily accessible.

“Before you freak out and wonder if you’re next, get a sense of how well your business is doing,” said Scott Dobroski, a career expert at Indeed, the job search site. “If the business is staying flat or going down, you might want to start preparing.”

Mr. Dobroski recommends annual career checkups, just like an annual physical exam with a doctor. Assess your résumé and make sure it reflects new skills you’ve acquired and projects you’ve tackled. You can also draft a generic cover letter.

It’s easy to network with people you know, but push yourself to network outside your usual social and professional circle, too. You never know who will reach out with an opportunity — what social scientists call “the strength of weak ties.”

Introduce yourself to people who work at companies or in industries you’re interested in, and keep in touch with them intermittently, through platforms like LinkedIn. Mr. Dobroski also advised being mindful when speaking with competitors.

“It’s always a good rule of thumb to act with transparency and take actions you’d feel comfortable with your boss, or colleagues, knowing,” he said.

J.T. O’Donnell, a career coach, noted that you can set up your LinkedIn profile to ensure recruiters are able to get in touch with opportunities. That means turning on the feature in privacy settings that indicates you’re open to being contacted, updating your headline on LinkedIn with top skills, updating your work history to quantify accomplishments in various positions (with data when possible) and posting your perspective on industry news so LinkedIn followers get a sense of your voice.

Developing personal relationships with colleagues in a remote-work environment requires more effort, especially when you’ve never met in person. If you’ve collaborated with someone consistently, and you trust the person, ask for his or her personal email address and phone number. That way, if layoffs arrive abruptly or unexpectedly, you can reach out, whether you need a reference or just want to talk.

Many companies offer professional development budgets. Take advantage of those to build skills that will make it easier to land your next role. According to Handshake, a job search platform for students and early-career workers, notable skills that employers are searching for include Microsoft Excel, Python, Java, Adobe Illustrator, Canva, machine learning and Adobe InDesign. There has also been a nearly 17-times increase in Handshake job openings mentioning TikTok since 2019.

Save emails that you’ve received praising your work and testifying to your abilities. When applying for jobs in the future, you might want to reread those as a reminder of some of the strongest work you’ve done, or even to quote from. Those notes will also be useful as a reminder that losing a job often has nothing to do with your skills and abilities.

Separate your personal and work data, and make a plan to retain important information.

The shift to remote work during the pandemic forced many workers to blend together their professional and personal lives. This inevitably led workers to use their work devices at home for personal tasks.

Though convenient and cost effective, using an office computer for personal use poses serious risks to your private data in the event of a layoff, said Brian Fitzpatrick, the founder of Google’s Data Liberation Front, a team that developed products for people to manage their Google data.

Anything that you do on company equipment can be monitored and obtained by your employer. If you became involved in a legal issue, all of your data — including photos, browser history and personal messages — could become exposed in the discovery process.

That’s why Mr. Fitzpatrick responds from his personal address when friends and family send emails to his professional email accounts.

“You should absolutely never put any of your personal data in your work account,” he said. “You don’t own that data if it goes to your company account.”

The simplest way to divorce personal data from work machines is to use only devices you own for personal matters. Buying your own computer is one solution — and there are plenty of options for less than $200, like Chromebooks or refurbished machines.

Realistically, however, when workers are in the office they will deal with some personal matters on their devices, Mr. Fitzpatrick said. Do what you can to keep that activity off the work machine.

For instance, if you take your own smartphone to the office, use it to message your friends and check your social media accounts. If you must use your office machine for personal matters, create a separate profile in a web browser. In the Chrome web browser, for example, click on the profile icon in the upper-right corner and choose “Add” to create a separate profile for personal use. When done, toggle back to your work profile.

Workers should download copies of all their data that they would legally be allowed to take with them. Many employers forbid sales workers to take copies of their contacts, because client lists are deemed confidential — so check the legality of what you can take before downloading copies.

If you’ve determined there is personal data on your work devices, download a copy and store it elsewhere, like a personal cloud service such as a Dropbox account or a USB thumb drive.

Here are some examples of how to download copies of your data:

  • If your office uses Google services, you can visit From there, you can follow Google’s steps to grab copies of your contacts list, files stored in Google Drive, chat histories and photos. (If your office has disabled Takeout, it’s on you to manually dig through your machine and Google account for personal data, drag and copy that data to your own cloud drive or storage device and purge it from the machine.)

  • If your company uses Microsoft tools, Microsoft lists some simple steps to download copies of your Outlook contacts list and calendar; it also has steps on how to download copies of documents created with Microsoft Word and presentations made with PowerPoint.

Many offices also use password managers that store all of a user’s passwords in a digital vault. Most vaults are likely to contain passwords for personal accounts, so it’s important to have a copy of your vault to continue to have access to those accounts. LastPass and 1Password, two popular password managers, list steps on their websites for how to download a copy of your vault.

Make your money moves.

Standard personal finance rules apply when considering the possibility of a layoff.

If you have cash in an emergency savings account, it will supplement any severance pay and unemployment insurance you receive. If you don’t, now is a fine time to start putting money away, given that many banks are offering savings account interest rates of 3 percent or more.

If you can’t put much in savings, going into debt could be necessary if you stop getting a paycheck. The best time to apply for loans, however, is now — when you do have regular income to report on any application. If you’re a homeowner, consider opening a home equity line of credit. If you aren’t, a new low-interest credit card might be in order.

Many people borrow from their workplace 401(k) and similar plans. If that’s you, keep in mind that leaving or losing your job can trigger the need for more immediate repayment.

Fidelity and Vanguard, which are big administrators of such plans, note that upon the termination of your job, you may have as little as 30 days to repay the debt — and usually no longer than 90 or so. If you don’t pay in time, the balance could become a distribution that could come with a tax bill and a possible 10 percent penalty.

Some employers offer more generous terms, so check your plan’s details if you’ve taken out this type of loan. Better yet, chip away at the debt while you can, if you can, before any potential layoff.

If your employer offers pretax health care flexible spending accounts or dependent care accounts, this might be a good time to seek any reimbursements throughout the year as you incur eligible expenses. That way, you are not scrambling to file one giant pile of claims in the midst of the chaos of a job loss.

But if you don’t do this ahead of time, you should still have at least a bit of time after termination to put in for reimbursement before you would forfeit the money in the accounts. Employers allow an average of 90 days to file those claims — sometimes from the date of your departure and sometimes from the end of the plan’s year, according to HealthEquity, a company that administers these plans. Some employers are more strict, however, so ask about this before you make any assumptions.

Employees who get some compensation via stock or options will want to plan as well. Start by checking the vesting schedule for anything you’re eligible for, and then see what you can learn about the so-called post-termination exercise period.

You usually have 95 days or less after losing your job to exercise stock options, according to Carta, a company that helps employers and employees manage such compensation, though some companies are more generous.

One task worth doing now: See if your bank account information with a service like Carta is updated so you can quickly transfer money to buy stock options if you want to after losing your job.

Understand your legal options.

If you believe that your employer might sweep you into a layoff for reasons that are illegal, you’ll want to retain evidence that could support any legal claim.

Employment lawyers offer several suggestions, and the first one is just basic career hygiene. “Ask for feedback, or demand it, on your performance so you have a record of it,” said Lisa J. Banks, a partner in Washington with the firm Katz Banks Kumin.

Employers are often bad at keeping piecemeal records of high performance, but you can be good at it. According to Ms. Banks, emails like “Hey, Bob, thanks, we really rely on you” could be useful later. It is fine to forward these messages to a personal email address, as long as they don’t contain any confidential or proprietary information that you were not supposed to have in the first place.

If bad things are happening to you, you’ll want to document those as well. It may make sense to consult with a lawyer to make sure you don’t break any laws while gathering evidence. Legal counsel might also help you weigh whether to register a formal complaint with your employer while you still have a job (which may subject you to retaliation) or do nothing for now (which, if you threaten legal action after a layoff, may lead the employer to argue that you would have filed a formal complaint sooner if the problem had been real).

At the very least, it makes sense to document any sketchy workplace doings for yourself as they happen, said Jennifer Liu, the managing partner at the law firm of Liu Peterson-Fisher in Burlingame, Calif.

“They can’t say that you’re making things up now if you have a time-stamped chronology of the last 10 years on the job,” she said. “Use your personal email, and email yourself.”

Ms. Liu also suggested talking to trustworthy people about what is happening as it happens. Think, too, about who might be willing to speak on your behalf someday if a post-layoff dispute arises.

“When one person says something, it’s not as credible as three people saying it,” she said.

Plan for the moment.

Layoffs may come without notice, and you may suddenly find yourself on Zoom or in a room with someone who is as uncomfortable as you are. Let that person marinate in those feelings a bit, wallow in any silence and possibly fill it to avoid discomfort.

“When presented with the pink slip, the best thing to do is to listen to what they’re saying,” said Wendi S. Lazar, a partner in New York City with the law firm Outten & Golden. “People often say, ‘I don’t remember what they said to me.’ Ask for a pencil and paper.”

Then ask why you were let go. “They may say: ‘Oh, well, we had a mass layoff. There were no performance issues involved at all,’” Ms. Lazar said. “And let’s say you end up with a discrimination case and opposing counsel says that you were fired for performance reasons. That’s in direct conflict.”

Whatever someone says to or about you, try to sit on your hands and hold your tongue. “Don’t agree to anything, sign anything or engage in a debate over the merits of the termination right then and there,” Ms. Banks said. “There is a possibility that what you say might be construed as some kind of admission of wrongdoing.”

And, once more with feeling, transcribe as much of the conversation as you can. “Documentation is all important,” she said. “In good times and bad.”

Tara Siegel Bernard contributed reporting.

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