Sept. 18, 2008 -- Even if you don't work for Lehman Brothers or Merrill Lynch, it's a scary time to be an employee. If you don't have any friends, relatives or neighbors whose job is currently on the chopping block, it's probably because you don't have any friends, relatives or neighbors.
In April, a survey conducted by the Pew Research Center found that one in seven employees frets that they'll get laid off in the next year, with the lowest-earning workers understandably worried most about getting the axe.
But that doesn't mean you have to take the economic downturn lying down. For starters, you can create a layoff preparedness kit, so that if the worst happens and you find yourself on the wrong end of a pink slip with just 10 minutes to vacate the premises, you're not frantic.
"Keep contact information for your colleagues somewhere off site so that when you leave, you can stay in touch," said Dr. Janet Scarborough Civitelli, president of Bridgeway Career Development, a career coaching firm based in Seattle. "Any one of these colleagues might be the connection that helps you land your next job."
Likewise, keep your resume current, your office spare (easier to pack up in a pinch) and copies of any non-proprietary work samples stored at home.
Of course, if career disaster strikes, an updated resume and tidy desk will only get you so far. So let's go over what else you'll immediately need to do and consider should you lose your job.
1) Reign in your emotions. When you lose your livelihood, it's understandable you might be peeved, depressed or incredibly freaked out. But do your best to keep your feelings in check. Like mom used to say, if you don't have anything nice to say, keep your trap shut.
If someone asks you a question you don't feel equipped to answer without drop-kicking them, Scarborough Civitelli recommends offering a civil, "I need to think through some things and I'll touch base with you about that later."
Finding Your Next Job
2) Grab your valuables. Assuming you do have access to your computer and more than 10 minutes to clear your desk, what should you salvage besides your work samples and your colleagues' contact info? Letters of praise from customers and coworkers, winning performance reviews and anything else that proves you know how to hit it out of the ballpark.
Forget about cleaning personal e-mails off the company computer, though. "They've been backed up to a corporate server, anyway," said Scarborough Civitelli.
And don't overlook memberships to professional associations or subscriptions to industry publications and databases that your employer purchased for you to keep, Scarborough Civitelli advises. Be sure to grab the necessary contact information so you can transfer these to your personal e-mail or snail mail address.
3) Don't leave benefits on the table. Depending on which state you live in, you may be entitled to cash in your accrued vacation days when you lose your job, said Maurice Emsellem, public policy director of the National Employment Law Project, an employment research and advocacy organization. According to Workplace Fairness, a worker advocacy Web site, 24 states -- including New York and California -- require employers to add accrued vacation pay to your last paycheck.
Then there's the pesky matter of health insurance. If you can't jump on a spouse or domestic partner's plan, it's worth looking into whether you're eligible for COBRA benefits -- essentially, continuing the health plan you had through your employer for the next 18 months, only on your own dime -- and how much it will cost you. But before you sign up for COBRA coverage, compare the cost with buying a plan of your own. (See eHealthInsurance.com or contact a health insurance agent in your neck of the woods for help.) Reason being, the COBRA route often costs a pretty penny. Whatever you do, don't let your health coverage lapse, unless you don't mind being hit with nasty waiting periods or denial of coverage for pre-existing conditions.
You may also be eligible for other severance benefits, such as access to company premises and equipment while conducting your job search. (One high-tech firm I contracted at gave laid-off employees access to company equipment and resources for six weeks after their last day of work.) To make sure you receive all the benefits you're due and get all your questions answered, Scarborough Civitelli recommends going home, collecting your thoughts and coming up with a list of queries for HR.
4) Take the government handout. You pay into the system, so you might as well reap the rewards of unemployment insurance while looking for a new position. And although those unemployment checks won't match the salary you had at your job, some money is better than none, right?
You can find out how to apply for unemployment benefits in your state on the site CareerOneStop funded by the U.S. Department of Labor. (Most states let you file a claim by phone or online.) To estimate what your weekly unemployment benefits might be, see this Economic Policy Institute calculator.
"It's important to apply right away," as your unemployment benefits won't kick in for a few weeks, said Emsellem. "Most people who get laid off should be eligible."
And if Hurricane Ike or any other natural disaster cost you your job, Emsellem said, you may be eligible for disaster recovery benefits, even if you're self-employed. For details, see the Disaster Recovery Services page of CareerOneStop.
5) Put a positive spin on it. Moan all you want behind the scenes, to your friends and family. But how you talk about your newfound unemployment within your professional community could affect your ability to land your next job. If you reach out to past clients or business partners -- or cross paths with them at a networking function -- a simple "I'm no longer with the company" is all you need to say.
"If you are pressed for details," Scarborough Civitelli said, "it is fine to say that your position was eliminated as part of a larger layoff."
During job interviews, too, keep your explanation of your job loss short, sweet and upbeat. No one wants to hire a candidate with a chip on their shoulder the size of Wall Street. Remember, the goal is to win employers over with your sparkling personality and unmatched talent, just as you did the last time you were hired.
This work is the opinion of the columnist and in no way reflects the opinion of ABC News.
Michelle Goodman is a freelance journalist, author and former cubicle dweller. Her books — "The Anti 9-to-5 Guide: Practical Career Advice for Women Who Think Outside the Cube" and "My So-Called Freelance Life: How to Survive and Thrive as a Creative Professional for Hire" (October 2008) — offer an irreverent take on the traditional career guide. More tips on career change, flex work and the freelance life can be found on her blog, Anti9to5Guide.com.