Pink Slip Survival Guide

As the economy continues to flounder, a growing number of British Columbians are joining the ranks of Canada’s unemployed. Vicki O’Brien talks to four people who were pink-slipped and not only survived but thrived.

As the economy continues to flounder, a growing number of British Columbians are joining the ranks of Canada’s unemployed. Vicki O’Brien talks to four people who were pink-slipped and not only survived but thrived.

Whether you’re escorted from the workplace by security or forced to spend weeks toiling alongside shell-shocked co-workers before making your final exit, the pain of being laid off is like no other. In one brief moment, the familiar blanket of financial security and comfortable routine is ripped away, replaced by what feels like a leaden shroud of panic, fear and self-doubt.

In its 2009 economic outlook, issued last December, the Business Council of B.C. expected our province to weather the current global economic crisis better than most jurisdictions, with a contraction of between one and two per cent. Still, it predicted our unemployment rate would rise to an average of six per cent this year. Less than a month later, respected Central 1 Credit Union chief economist Helmut Pastrick told a Vancouver Board of Trade audience that more than 42,500 British Columbians could lose their jobs in 2009, with another 6,500 losses projected in 2010 before employment recovers to 2008 levels in 2011. While such job losses represent less than two per cent of our total provincial workforce, it’s cold comfort for those receiving pink slips who now need to figure out how to pay their mortgage and put food on the table.

Susan Fugman saw the writing on the wall long before she was let go by a North Vancouver-based financial services firm in November 2007. “I was manager of mortgage development and I had seen the money drying up. But even when you know it’s a possibility, when it happens, it’s very emotional. I worried I might never work again.” At age 47, single and suddenly unemployed, Fugman says, she was determined to “make lemonade out of lemons.”

With support from friends and family and a career transitions counsellor (whose services came with her severance package), she decided to build on a long list of skills accumulated over a 20-year career in banking and financial planning. “I was someone who should probably have moved on years ago; I needed to do something completely different,” she says. “I started visualizing what my next job would look like and decided to focus on the non-profit sector to see if I could get paid to give back.” While her search for the perfect new role took close to a year, it also enabled her to spend time with her ailing father and to travel. Fugman rejected her first post-layoff job offer, eventually settling on a position as business advisor in the YMCA’s New Venture program (which offers training, mentoring and support for would-be entrepreneurs).

“It was worth the wait,” she says. “Now I look forward to going to work every day. This job is much more aligned with my values and goals, enables me to apply my years of experience and, most importantly, we laugh a lot. I would encourage anyone who loses their job to use it as an opportunity to find something they care passionately about.” Given the depth of this recession, it’s hard to imagine how getting turfed could be the opportunity of a lifetime. Yet Gregg Taylor, president of Vancouver’s Transitions Career and Business Consultants, says British Columbians such as Fugman are living proof that it often can be. Most pink slips have little to do with individual performance, he says, so should not be viewed as career ending. Instead, he adds, we should see our layoff as a roadblock – one that gives us an opportunity to reconsider our career path and rethink goals and priorities.

This sort of self-examination is a rare luxury for busy workers caught up in the nine-to-five grind. Taylor says that after a period of soul searching, many layoff victims report (anecdotally, at least) finding new work that is more fulfilling, more lucrative or both. Sometimes the change can be quite extreme, he adds, as in the case of a former stockbroker client, in his 30s, who after getting laid off decided to go into commercial plumbing. “When he went through the self-evaluation process, he realized he enjoyed working with his hands and liked the sense of accomplishment that came from completing a project. He later described how he was out on a job one day when he heard a phone ring.

It sounded just like the one he had when he worked for a financial services firm, and it immediately brought back all his old physical feelings of stress. It reminded him that he’d made the right career choice.” [pagebreak] Few of us will choose such a dramatic shift; more likely what we need, says Taylor, is a career “tweak.” It’s often not the kind of work we do that bothers us but rather where or how we are working. He says corporate belt tightening creates more opportunity for would-be entrepreneurs and consultants ready to replace expensive full-time workers. However, adds Taylor, that means finding and serving more than one client at a time (which is not for everyone), plus acquiring the business smarts to make it on your own.

After the Axe

Pink-slip survivor Susan Fugman offers the following advice for those who suddenly find themselves out of a job: – Surround yourself with positive people – Do a values inventory – Determine what’s important to you – Grow and build on your current network – Structure this process – Have a trusted friend or professional be honest with you about your resumé to ensure it reflects what you have accomplished – Once you decide on a course, don’t give up on it but be prepared to accept change – Don’t automatically take the first job offer you get – Practice your 30-second pitch to networking supports and prospective employers – Go on as many interviews as possible – Volunteer – Follow your instinct – Talk to people to let them know what you are doing and how they can help you – If you do not get a position, don’t take it personally. You never know what is going on behind the scenes

Twenty years ago, Hamish McIntosh, a former actor who switched into advertising when he became a single parent, was fired from his junior copywriting job at an international ad agency after a protracted conflict with a co-worker. “It was a very unpleasant environment,” he says. “But I was stretched to the nines financially and really needed the job, so I stuck it out.” Eventually, their boss decided someone had to go and McIntosh drew the short straw. “With a small child depending on me, and only five weeks’ pay to cover the bills, I really didn’t have time to get depressed,” he recalls. “Of course I was scared, but that’s not a bad place to be as long as you don’t get paralyzed by it.

The next morning I woke up and realized I didn’t have to go back into that horrible, stressful situation anymore. That’s when I began to view losing my job as an opportunity.” McIntosh began calling his contacts and within weeks had landed some small freelance copywriting assignments. His new business snowballed from there, and by the end of that first year he had doubled his take-home pay, reduced his stress and achieved a flexible lifestyle more suited to his single-parent role. “I have worked for other people on and off since then, but I’ve always felt happier and more in control of my life when I was self-employed or freelancing.”

Today McIntosh, 52, has his own consulting firm, McIntosh Creative Services, is on the faculty of the Vancouver Film School and teaches copywriting through SFU Continuing Studies. “Interestingly, during my career I’ve both been fired and fired other people. I have to tell you I’ve lost a lot more sleep when I’ve had to let someone go.” Few of us know instinctively what we want to do in life or have the intestinal fortitude to go out and beat the bushes like McIntosh, so we may need professional help to take the next step. Taylor’s company, Transitions, is one of an estimated 300 private companies, non-profits and other community-based trainers delivering government-funded career transition programs throughout B.C. (its programs are free to unemployed people as part of government-mandated back-to-work plans).

At the end of a three-week intensive classroom component, Transitions clients set out to implement their action plan – which might require retraining or a job search – and for the next three months meet regularly in smaller “success teams” to review progress, network and hold each other’s feet to the fire. While long-term success is hard to measure, Taylor says that 80 per cent of Transitions graduates have found work within three months, become self-employed, started planning a new business venture, returned to school or embarked on some sort of retraining. Anyone who has lost a job knows that finding your feet again takes time.

A 2001 report by Statistics Canada called After the Layoff, which studied the consequences of layoffs from 1993 to 1998, found that only 50 per cent of pink-slip victims had found work after six months and that one-fifth to one-quarter were still jobless after a year. Taylor notes that there are different unemployment rates in different sectors of the economy – especially today – and that some people with healthy severance or EI benefits will decide to proceed slowly, while others may choose a short-term work break, retire early, go back to school or start a business. All these factors, he says, affect return-to-work statistics. “Obviously, most people hope to find a new job right away, but the process can take longer and be more difficult than they expect.

It’s important to be prepared for that.” In 1993 Rick Fijal lost his job as general manager with a stationery supply firm, after a competitor acquired the company. Part of Fijal’s layoff package included career counselling and use of an office, but the then-44-year-old didn’t feel the need to make a major sea change. And so, after a three-month search, he accepted a position as regional sales manager with a nationwide courier company. Two years later, despite achieving record sales, he once again found himself out of work when the firm consolidated regional offices. “My first thought was, ‘Here I am again,’ ” says Fijal. “I looked at my career and felt I had done everything right. The only problem was I didn’t have control over my own destiny. I decided to do something about it.” [pagebreak] Although he had never been self-employed, Fijal began investigating franchise opportunities that would showcase his people management skills and interest in technology.

“Everyone said I was crazy,” he says with a laugh. “Even though they reminded me how many small businesses fail in the first three years, I pushed ahead.” After a year doing his due diligence, with $150,000 from mortgaging the family home, Fijal opened a Fastsigns franchise business in Surrey. Looking back on the last 12 years, even with the backdrop of today’s challenging business climate, he says it was the right choice to reinvent himself and go it alone. “It was tough at first, but the hard stuff goes away over time,” he says. “At the end of the day, it’s my gig. I get paid what I’m worth and I am in full control of my own destiny.” Fijal is part of a growing army of corporate rebels determined to avoid future pink slips by going it alone. Chindi Varadarajulu was 29 years old when she moved from Singapore to Vancouver in 1996 after falling in love with the city while on vacation four years prior.

While waiting for her Canadian immigration paperwork to go through, Varadarajulu joined the McDonald’s management team and transferred with the organization to Vancouver. Within two years, she switched to another major B.C. fast food chain, where she moved quickly through the management ranks – even getting recognized as its manager of the year. But in 2003, the new life she had built for herself was rocked when she was summarily fired, despite the fact her restaurant had achieved record sales the previous weekend. “Yes, it was a low point, but I truly believe that fear wastes energy and time,” says Varadarajulu, looking back. “I’m a very positive person by nature, so I didn’t allow myself to wallow in self-pity for more than a couple of weeks.” Varadarajulu turned to BCIT’s Entrepreneurial Skills Training program to help produce a viable business plan for establishing Vancouver’s first South Indian restaurant – a lifelong dream of hers. After being rejected for a startup loan by several financial institutions, she applied for a $50,000 loan from the Women’s Enterprise Centre, which was established in 1995 by Western Economic Diversification Canada to help B.C. women start, grow and succeed in business by providing advice, loans, training and mentors. With an additional $50,000 investment from supportive family and friends, Varadarajulu opened Chutney Villa South India Cuisine Inc. in 2004 and began introducing diners to the unusual flavours of South Indian cuisine.

After a slow start, the restaurant won kudos from local food critics Angela Murrills of the Georgia Straight and Mia Stainsby of the Vancouver Sun, which gave business a much-needed boost. Varadarajulu – who as a sideline offers private culinary and cultural tours of India – insists that running a restaurant is “incredibly hard work” and doesn’t always yield a paycheque but that she is proud of her “baby” and her team, which she views as extended family. And while the life of an entrepreneur may not be for everyone, especially in Vancouver’s hypercompetitive restaurant scene, it has proven a life changer for Varadarajulu. “For those who want to work for themselves, I still see plenty of good opportunities out there. If you’re prepared to do your homework, take a risk, work extremely hard and operate in an ethical way, then I think new entrepreneurs have every chance of success.”

Like many fellow layoff victims, Varadarajulu was motivated to switch gears and go it alone by the desire to control her own future. If there is a lesson from her success – as well as from the other “victims” profiled – it is that while a layoff is often painful and stressful, it can also be an opportunity for personal and professional growth, a new beginning.