I Wish I'd Handled My Layoff Differently

From teary meltdowns to shrinking violets, layoff reactions to regret.

September 09, 2008, 6:15 PM

Jan. 14, 2010 &#151; -- Deborah, a content strategist from Boston, wishes she'd had a different reaction when her boss told her she was being laid off late in 2008.

"I wept," said Deborah, who didn't want her last name mentioned. "Not uncontrollable sobbing, but tears streaming."

The fact that she didn't accept the news "with poise and dignity" still makes her cringe a little today.

"Instead I had to take advantage of the strategically placed box of tissues and ask for a few extra minutes to 'pull myself together,'" said Deborah, who'd been with the company more than a decade and was completely blindsided when she was let go. "And of course, when I returned to my desk and shared the news, the tears kicked in again. For the next 30 minutes or so, I really was inconsolable."

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While some are content with how they handled their layoffs, others wish they had dealt with the moment differently. Some say they regret wearing their hearts on their sleeves. Others wish they had given the manager delivering the news a piece of their minds instead of just nodding compliantly. And some wish they could take back the fact that they stormed out of HR's office and slammed the door.

Granted, it's no easy feat to learn that you're being thrown under an 18-wheeler. But in a business setting, some reactions will serve you better than others.

"In a perfect world, you remain professional and you smile," said Julie Jansen, management consultant and author of "I Don't Know What I Want, But I Know It's Not This: A Step-by-Step Guide to Finding Gratifying Work."

"It's not good to lose your composure or to be emotional because for the person that fired you, that will be their final memory," Jansen said. "And you never know when you might meet them again."

But what if you left your poker face on the bus (or under it) that day and wind up weeping into the HR director's hankie? What if you raise your voice and kick over a chair or two on your way back to your desk?

Those suffering from crier's remorse can still save face, Jansen said.

"It's OK to go back and say, 'I recognize that I was very emotional earlier -- I hope I didn't cause you too much discomfort," she explained.

No need to flat-out apologize, Jansen said. Simply let the person know you realize they're having a brutal day too. (Believe it or not, no one enjoys having to tell someone to pack up their desk.)

Asking Why You Didn't Make the Cut

Of course, there's also such a thing as being too composed. Just ask Michael Sevilla, who was laid off from his executive management position in April.

"My regret is that I did not ask any hard questions," said the Denver resident. "I was a good soldier and walked away quietly rather than digging in and demanding answers."

To this day, he's not entirely sure why he was the only one laid off from the start-up he'd been with for the better part of a year.

"All indicators were positive," said Sevilla, who didn't see his pink slip coming. "I'd been promoted. I was complimented by the board of directors on a presentation I'd given literally a few days before. It didn't make any sense."

Those delivering the crummy news are usually coached to remain tight-lipped about how the company arrived at its decision. Chances are, Jansen said, you'll get nothing more than platitudes like, "It was a business decision," or "We had to make some budget cuts."

Still, it's worth probing, Jansen said, as long as you don't ask, "Why me?" Instead, she suggested, take the focus off yourself and try a more general question like "Can you tell me what the criteria was in deciding who to cut?"

"People are human so things slip out," especially if the person is new to HR or management, or if they feel emotionally attached to you, Jansen said. "I know I've done that when I've liked the person."

It's not leaving without answers that most people regret, though. It's leaving without a fight.

Take "Lynn," a Seattle public relations professional who didn't want her real name used. In early 2009, Lynn won a highly coveted young professional's award from a well-known industry association, earning her a trophy and bringing "huge notoriety" to her employer. Six month later, she got the axe.

"I didn't throw a hissy fit and now wish I did," said Lynn, who had two hours to contemplate her potential layoff on the company's appointed downsizing day. "I wish I would have marched down to the room, trophy in hand, plunked it down on the table and asked what they wanted to discuss. Instead, I quietly accepted my fate."

Telling the company they're being unfair or stupid or inhumane might make you feel better in the moment, but it won't change the outcome.

"It's not like the decision was made yesterday," Jansen said. "A lot of process takes place before people get laid off," usually requiring multiple decision makers to weigh in on the hit list.

As with crying or yelling or shaking your fists, getting argumentative or passive aggressive (or hanging onto the boss' pant leg and pleading for your job) isn't how you want to be remembered. Gossip spreads like wildfire in the workplace and you'll probably need to use some of your colleagues as references.

Revenge Is a Dish Best Served Subtly

Some people have such a bad layoff experience that they can't seem to shake the revenge fantasies.

"Judy," a Las Vegas sales and marketing professional who says her former boss tried to block her unemployment benefits, falls into this category.

"Part of me seriously wishes that I had taken all [my] client files with me and burned them. That I had taken the time to delete every file and e-mail on the computer and make them unrecoverable," said Judy, who was laid off in June.

As tempting as it sounds, you don't need me to tell you that no good can come from taking out revenge on your former employer, unless you consider marring your reputation (and perhaps winding up in the pokey) "good."

Besides, Jansen said, "There's a way to sabotage people without doing anything unethical." If a fellow industry professional asks you about an ex-colleague you can't stand, you can always say, "Oh, I don't have an opinion."

"We all know the neutral comment is a negative comment," Jansen explained. "Eventually if you stay in the same industry long enough, what goes around comes around."

This work is the opinion of the columnist and in no way reflects the opinion of ABC News.

Michelle Goodman is a freelance journalist and former cubicle dweller. She is the author of "My So-Called Freelance Life: How to Survive and Thrive as a Creative Professional for Hire" and "The Anti 9-to-5 Guide: Practical Career Advice for Women Who Think Outside the Cube". For more information, see Anti9to5Guide.com.

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