How to rebound from a mid-career layoff: ‘Be your own HR department’

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After a particularly restless night last November, Liz Mclemore checked her work email around 3 a.m. and felt her stomach drop. A meeting had been added to her calendar for the next day with the Chief People Officer—and even more ominously, without a subject line.

“I had been working long enough to know that’s never a good sign,” the 45-year-old tells Fortune. “I knew this was a fork in the road.” Sure enough, she found out her position in email marketing at a tech company had been eliminated; for the second time in three years, she was out of a job.

Experiencing a lay off mid-career presents its own unique challenges for workers. They may face age discrimination, or a dearth of jobs available at their experience level and salary requirements.

But it can also present plenty of opportunities, as Mclemore found. She had some savings—after experiencing previous job losses, she made building a hefty emergency fund a priority—and decided to meet with a career coach, who helped her identify what was most important to her in her next role.

She decided working crazy hours and progressing to the C level was less important than finding a future employer that aligned with her values. Once she had that established, she posted on LinkedIn that she was looking for a new role—within days, she had an interview scheduled at a company that eventually hired her.

Though a mid-career layoff can be scary, Mclemore says it turned out to be empowering: She finally had the confidence—and the wisdom—to go after what she actually wanted.

“I’m a person who really needs to be aligned on values, regardless of what I'm doing. Even being able to express that, to identify that that’s important to me was huge,” she says. Being laid off “gave me the reins to help craft what I want these next 20 years to look like.”

Take care of yourself

Even if a layoff turns out for the better, like Mclemore’s, they are also traumatic—especially if you haven’t been in the job market for a while. Not only do workers lose their income, health insurance, retirement match, and stability, but many lose their sense of identity. A job loss can take a profound toll on mental, and even physical, health.

Your community can offer support to help you to get through a difficult time, says Lindsey Pollak, a career and workplace expert.  She’s seen former coworkers connect via group text chains, checking in with each other, offering words of encouragement, and sharing job listings.

Friends and professional associations can also provide support and reassurance as you start your search.

Beyond feelings of loneliness and isolation, the financial strain of a layoff can be especially acute. Though mid-career professionals typically earn more than younger workers, they also tend to have more expenses, says Kyle Elliott, a California-based career coach. And in today’s economy, even workers earning six figures are living paycheck to paycheck, especially if they are raising kids.

That can make finding a new role extra pressing. “Consider targeting 'lilypad' roles that can sustain you until you find that dream job,” says Elliott. “It can be helpful to have a backup if the job search takes longer than you're used to.”

While you can take a few days to decompress, take care of your mental health, and get organized, James Nicholas Kinney, chief people officer at a leading advertising agency, seconds Elliott’s advice. He argues that having a big career gap can be potentially detrimental to future opportunities. If you can’t find something at a similar company, it’s a great time to consider applying for a cross-industry role, he says.

“There’s a lot of people who want to be really choosy and want only what they have had, and they spend two years out of the job market,” says Kinney. “That time will kill you more than anything else.”

Make the most of your network

But how do you find that new role? At a certain point in your career, your network becomes much more important than crafting the perfect resume. “It’s not what you know, it’s who you know” is an adage for a reason.

Your network includes LinkedIn, Pollak says. If there’s one good thing to come out of the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s that job loss is not as stigmatized as it once was, she says—so many workers have experienced one over the past three years. Don’t be wary about posting on social media that you are open to opportunities, and reach out to people you have good relationships with. Be proactive.

It’s important to maintain your relationships well before the layoff occurs. If you’re anxious about the current climate, then start sending out messages to let people know you’re thinking about them.

“This is a time to be your own advocate,” Pollak says. “You have to be your own HR department, your own learning and development department. This is not a time to sit and wait and see.”

Update your profile

There are plenty of ways to upgrade your LinkedIn profile and your resume to get more attention, says Kinney. Many companies now use software to sort resumés, and LinkedIn relies on an algorithm to determine who sees what posts. You’ll want to familiarize yourself with how hiring technology works, and include keywords for the roles you’re applying to.

“Go and find three job descriptions for your dream job, and write your resumé off of those job descriptions,” Kinney says. If you can afford it, hire someone from Fiverr or Upwork to craft an optimized profile for you. Likewise, your alma mater’s career services may offer resumé and job interview help to alumni.

Keep things current. “No one uses ‘Microsoft Office proficient’ anymore,” Kinney jokes. You need to add the platforms and skills relevant to today’s job market. If an employer is looking for someone with Adobe Creative Cloud experience, include a list of the Adobe applications you excel at using.

To that end: Never stop learning, Pollak says. While many mid-career professionals may feel comfortable with their roles, skills, and status, those who remain stagnant will not be successful for long. That doesn’t necessarily mean going back to school and taking on debt. You can look for a certificate program, or even take a course on LinkedIn Learning (Pollak is an instructor of two LinkedIn courses) or Udemy.

Add the courses you’ve taken or certificates gained to your LinkedIn profile and your resumé to show employers you’re adaptable.

“My rule of thumb is if I hear of something twice I don't know about, I learn about it, “ Pollak says, noting that that could be A.I., ChatGPT, cryptocurrency, Diversity, Equity & Inclusion efforts, etc.

Reframing a mid-career layoff as an opportunity can provide clarity and help you recenter your career.

“A layoff can be a blessing in disguise,” says Pollak. “It forces you to make a change you may have wanted to make.”

This article appears in the April/May 2023 issue of Fortune with the headline, "How to handle a mid-career layoff."

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