Dear Crucial Skills,
I was very surprised earlier this year to lose my job of 20 years as a registered nurse in a layoff. I had been repeatedly reassured that I would be safe earlier in the year.
Is there anything I can be sure to bring up with a new employer to avoid this happening again? I know I need to move on from the violated expectations of my previous job, but how can I be sure I have an open, honest relationship in the next place so I don’t get the rug yanked from under me a second time?
Out of the Blue
Dear Out of the Blue,
I’m very sorry for the setback you’ve experienced. I can’t imagine how it would feel to be abruptly dislocated from a community you’d served for 20 years. And on top of that, to feel the process was disrespectful and even dishonest. I can understand why you’d want to regain a sense of control over your life and are anxious to avoid even the possibility of a repeat.
Let me offer a few ways of thinking about your question. I hope at least one is useful.
1. Challenge your story. The first thing you might want to do is examine your “story”—the conclusions you’ve drawn about the process of your dismissal. It sounds like you’ve concluded that the assurances earlier in the year were permanent. Of course, no matter how open a company is, circumstances can change. There’s every possibility that your supervisor reassured you of your safety and, at the time, that statement was true. However, after another month of low census at the hospital, perhaps new cuts were needed.
If you’re feeling violated or angry about your layoff, it could be because you had placed responsibility for your security on your boss or your company. You shouldn’t. As you now know, it’s up to you. No company is even capable of making blanket assurances of security to people. I am not attempting to absolve employers of responsibility for honesty. I am simply encouraging you not to interpret a company’s response to changing conditions as certain evidence of their dishonesty. If your employer is announcing repeated layoffs, the conclusion you should draw is that everyone’s job is conditional. And then act accordingly.
2. Select for respect. With that said, let me entertain for a moment the possibility that your company or boss were disingenuous with you. Perhaps your boss did know you were vulnerable and failed to warn you. This often happens because your boss has no authority to give early warnings—and those who do violate their honor toward the company in order to show loyalty to friends.
I would encourage you to interview your future employers on this exact issue. Ask them to describe how any previous layoffs were handled. And don’t just listen to the HR reps; interview some long-timers inside the company. If they were disrespectful of employee needs in the past, you should bet they’ll do the same in the future.
I have a dear friend who, after years of loyal service, was literally told of his layoff, escorted by armed security to his desk, ordered to clean it out, and then walked to the front door of the building. He was humiliated. He was devastated. He was treated like a common criminal when he had done nothing but serve faithfully in everything that was asked of him. Had I been one of his colleagues, I would have immediately sought employment elsewhere. First of all, because I wouldn’t want to work for such a company. But secondly, because if they would do it to him… well, you get the idea. If you want to know whether someone you intend to marry will be faithful for life, look at how he or she treated people in previous relationships. The same is true of a potential employer.
3. Make it safe for your supervisor. Bosses almost always have some say in layoffs. And our research shows that most bosses are far less than forthcoming about his or her true feelings towards an employee. According to our research, the reason bosses withhold their true feelings is because they don’t feel safe.
Begin the relationship with your new boss by discussing ground rules about feedback. Give your new boss the glorious news that you hunger for candid feedback. Ask him or her for a commitment to be direct and prompt with any ways he or she sees you can improve. Then, don’t leave it to chance. “Prime the pump” of feedback by mentioning a couple of development areas you’ve been working on. Let your boss know that if he or she sees any slippage, you would like to know about it. For example, you might say, “When I get buried and overwhelmed I sometimes get stressed and can be curt with people. I’ve worked on this and believe I’ve made a lot of progress. But I’m still me. If you see me being curt with others, I really want to know.” If you establish this kind of openness with your boss in the beginning, it increases the chance you’ll know if you’re someone he or she would place lower on his or her “keep” list in a layoff.
I wish you the best in your transition to a new place. I’m sure the great service you’ve offered in the past will find a welcome home.