Layoff rumors? Gird yourself before the axe falls

NEW YORK Fri Dec 7, 2012 2:30pm EST

Passersby walk in front of a Citibank branch in New York, October 16, 2012. REUTERS/Keith Bedford

Passersby walk in front of a Citibank branch in New York, October 16, 2012.

Credit: Reuters/Keith Bedford

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NEW YORK (Reuters) - Never mind coal. There may be pink slips in some holiday stockings this year.

The end of the year can be a dangerous season for employees. As companies make last-minute attempts to adjust payrolls or to meet earnings goals, layoffs tend to pick up.

Indeed, as many as 150,000 jobs could disappear in the fourth quarter, up 46 percent from the previous quarter, according to consulting firm Challenger, Gray & Christmas Inc.

Citigroup Inc employees know this all too well. The third-largest U.S. bank announced 11,000 job cuts worldwide, affecting 4 percent of its work force, Wednesday.

It's easy to panic as rumors of layoffs fly at the office. Anger, fear and confusion can cloud final days that would be better spent preserving your professional reputation and contacting possible future employers.

So, cancel the bridge-burning email and don't waste time stocking up on pens and paper clips from the supply cabinet.

Instead, take these two steps immediately: Network like crazy, and start working on the most favorable exit package possible.

That's what David Berman wishes he had done when he lost his senior financial adviser post at Morgan Stanley Smith Barney in mid-2011.

"I still believed that I had people fighting for me on the inside," says Berman, who is based in St. Petersburg, Florida. "I was wrong. In hindsight, I was not aggressive enough."

Among other things, Berman regrets not having used LinkedIn.com, the online networking site, to find connections and advice.

And he's still looking for a full-time job.

Here's how you can gird yourself for the best possible outcome if the axe falls.

BE PREPARED

Knowing weeks ahead of a job loss can have its benefits.

Use this time to prepare for your severance meeting with your boss or human resources specialist. It can bring months more of paid health insurance or a longer severance pay period.

Go in with a list of questions, says Brooklyn, New York, executive coach Elaine Weinstein, who runs her own firm.

Weinstein recommends these:

-Is there a severance and how long does it last?

-When does it begin?

-Is it a lump sum and who pays taxes?

-What are your health benefits?

-Do they last as long as severance pay?

-When they end, who will notify you about beginning Cobra?

-What happens to your 401(k) retirement plan?

Make the firm explain in its own words why you're being let go. You can use this terminology when you apply for a new job, if it is favorable.

And, depending on your relationship with your employer and your company's rules, you may be able to walk out with a letter of recommendation, too.

You will probably receive papers to sign. Don't sign them immediately, but ask how long you have to review them.

Threatening to call a lawyer may not be prudent, but it doesn't hurt to suggest - obliquely - that you might consult one, says Weinstein.

You can say something like, "I'm very disappointed in this package. I have to think about this and think about my next actions," suggests Weinstein.

Always ask for more: A longer severance, longer paid health insurance, or a paid career counseling service.

"Fight for it," says Weinstein. "All they can do is say 'no.'"

CONTACTS, AND CONTACT DETAILS

If you don't have a personal cell phone or computer, get one, and transfer your contacts to your new equipment, says Weinstein. Once you leave the company, it won't be possible to access those systems or documents again.

Consider adding your personal email address to your email signature, as appropriate.

Most companies will allow employees a health care coverage grace period, so you may not need to schedule all your doctors appointments immediately. Still, if it takes time to see a medical specialist, make those appointments now.

Immediately activate your business network, Weinstein says. Reach out to professional and personal contacts, even if you have not spoken to them in years. Admit that you may have been "sloppy" about staying in touch, but say you would like to reestablish communication.

Break the ice by offering to help them. Weinstein suggests a humorous approach, such as: 'Other than babysitting, let me know if I can help you in any way.'

SEEK EMPLOYMENT (WHILE EMPLOYED)

In September, New Jersey insurance consultant, Lori Sternthal, learned how valuable a network can be.

When the senior business analyst learned that her contract would end within weeks, she reached out to recruiters, friends and business contacts, using LinkedIn.com, phone calls and emails - using her personal phone and computer and not those of her client's. A recruiter located a full-time staff position and Sternthal was at a new desk within nine weeks.

Recruiters prefer to find someone who is currently employed, says Cobb.

"Otherwise they can't justify their fee," he says.

That makes these precious few weeks remaining at your job vital for reaching recruiters.

No matter how angry, upset or worried you might be, remain positive, says Sternthal. She suggests job seekers say something like, "I had a great experience at the company, but I'm in transition and open to new opportunities." You could say you're open to both staff or contract work.

You'll be surprised how many people will offer help when they learn you're about to lose your job, says Weinstein. "It's survivor guilt."

(Additional reporting by Lou Carlozo; Editing by Linda Stern and Bernadette Baum)

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