Top 10 Things I Learned on My Way (Back) to the Unemployment Office

Almost 17% of all Americans are now either jobless or underemployed (forced to work fewer hours for less pay and probably no benefits). Think about it: one of every 6 working-age adults you encounter isn’t employed at all or is working far less than he or she would like to be. Some worked simply for a paycheck and the ability to provide for themselves and their families. Others, like me, had spent years making their careers a focal point of their very identities. Either way, we’ve been robbed of something most Americans are hard-wired to believe is just always there. When it's suddenly not, it can be debilitating, demoralizing and devastating.

As I embark on figuring out what the hell my newest career adventure will be, I compiled a "Top 10 List" of the most important things I’ve learned during my three career “sabbaticals.” I hope the list will help those looking for work:

1. In today’s work world, employees should be committed to their professions and careers, not attached to their employers or jobs.

2. Your resume should ALWAYS be up-to-date.

3. Companies should handle downsizings with empathy and respect, but most don’t. If you can truly, deep-down accept that, the humiliations and indignities you experience will be less humiliating and debilitating.

4. If you’re unlucky enough to lose your job, maintain your professionalism, but push for what will help you stay afloat until you find new employment. Offer specifics as to why you deserve additional compensation. If at first you’re told “no,” approach someone higher up the company’s food chain, ideally someone with whom you have a relationship. (In the past, I’ve been able to negotiate 1) a six-month extension of my health insurance; 2) the right to keep my company-issued laptop computer; 3) a six-week extension of my employment to enable my 401(k) to vest; and 4) a doubling of an initial severance offer. In two instances, I had to go all the way to CEO to win those concessions.) If that prospect makes you uncomfortable, recall everything you’ve done for this company: the long days (and nights); the weekend work in the deserted office; the snotty, entitled executive/manager comebacks in response to honorable and well-considered work; and the other miscellaneous sacrifices and indignities. Then ask yourself, “What’s the worst that can happen?” After all, they’ve already taken your livelihood.

5. Always talk to a headhunter – even if you’re happy in your current job. But never forget that a headhunter works for the hiring company, not for you.

6. Most jobs (especially during uncertain economic times) come through personal contacts, not through Internet job boards or newspaper ads. Yes, it’s uncomfortable, but contact everyone you know and tell them that you’re seeking work. Losing a job no longer has the stigma it once did, and you’ll be surprised how often people are willing to help. And then periodically follow up. When I changed careers years ago, the absolute best job I’ve ever had – a senior corporate communications position at Playboy Enterprises, Inc. – came through a graduate school mentor with whom I stayed in touch and whose wife became my boss at Playboy.

7. While everyone hopes his or her “time out” will be brief, it may not be, so line up contract work. I invested $800 to become an S-Corp., and after two years, was billing $15,000 a month. Incorporating offers both tax advantages and headaches. (Note to self: QuickBooks is NOT your friend.) But most important, having my own company gave me psychological solace, a business with which I could legitimately claim affiliation. And I now anticipate returning to my S-Corp and remaining at least partially self-employed, probably for the remainder of my working life.)

8. Although interviewing companies should be polite, many won’t be. (For more on this, read an article I freelanced for the Chicago Tribune about this demoralizing phenomenon by clicking here.)  If you’re looking for work, you truly have no choice except to keep plugging away and do your best not to take it personally.

9. Curb your excitement about a job prospect until you have an offer letter in hand.

10. Especially in our modern world that includes the trauma and soul-searching invoked by Sept. 11 and our current struggles with the worst recession since the "Great D," use your “time out” to appreciate all you have for which to be grateful. Go to the public library. See a weekday matinee. Take a week during a non-holiday season to visit relatives or friends. After all, as I try to periodically remind myself, things always can be worse.