For the past two years, I’ve been working on a book idea. The book was to be called “The Pain of It All,” and it was to chronicle the stories of Americans that had lost their jobs. I have always been fascinated with the mental struggle that people go through when they lose their job, especially the fact that life’s circumstances usually dictate that they get right back out there and find new employment. When you’re feeling confused, mourning the loss of your job, or just down in the dumps, it makes convincing that next employer that you’re right for the position all that much harder.
I have since switched gears. The Pain of It All may someday be published, but it will not be my first book. As I went through the planning and interview process, I discovered something. I remain fascinated with one’s psyche after a job loss, but there is a greater dynamic in play between employer and employee. This new book concept seems like something I just have to execute on. More on that in the near future.
Meanwhile, I had already done some writing. Below is a chapter I completed on an unemployed Twitter friend named Erik. I asked for his permission to put this up on my blog, and he graciously agreed. As I said, stories like this may someday land in hardback, but in the meantime, I am moving in a different direction. Enjoy this story and please feel free to let me know what you think in the comments below, including full critique on my writing style and the idea for this shelved book idea.
p.s. This chapter never went through the professional editing process. Therefore, it likely contains various mistakes.
I put out the call on Twitter. “Looking for people to tell their story of job loss for my book project.” I received many responses, but perhaps the one with the most conviction? “I’m totally in. I have a story I need to tell.” So began my correspondence with Erik (name changed upon request).
Erik was Director of Corporate Marketing at a “well-funded high-tech startup” on the East Coast that upon request I will not identify. His duties involved creative marketing and branding. “I did it all – I had my hands on everything our target audience experienced. The VP of Marketing (to whom he reported) did not have much marketing experience, so I was the face of the company’s marketing without any of the credit or glory. I was OK with that.
“I started the job in summer 2005. I actually resigned after two years due to boredom. I pursued another opportunity that didn’t work out, so I began freelancing. My previous employer was one of my first freelance clients, and after a few months they hired me back full-time. I negotiated a better title and salary, but who was I kidding? Nothing changed, and I quickly became just as bored as I had been before.”
I asked Erik to elaborate on the onset of his job boredom. “They weren’t a very marketing-minded company. To them, my role in the company was an afterthought. Marketing was something they did at the end of the day, when and if there was remaining time and budget. Since the VP of Marketing had no clue what he was doing, and because they weren’t a very open-minded organization when it came to marketing, I ended up having more downtime than uptime. That is the kiss of death for a creative professional.” Nevertheless, the company knew that Erik was the brains behind what marketing they did have, and as he put it, “Marketing was the first and sometimes last thing their target audience saw. That was my trump card.”
If the organization didn’t value marketing, and Erik’s boss was not a great marketer, why wasn’t Erik put in charge? Or, why employ such people at all? “Both parties tried to make it a full-time job, but it never really was,” Erik said. “Management didn’t have a full-time marketing mindset to begin with. My days were numbered the moment I first took the job.”
He had hung on through several rounds of layoffs, just like he had at other organizations. “I pride myself on making companies dependent on my skills and experience and becoming part of the company DNA to the point where its hard to get rid of me. It was familiar territory to me.”
However, according to Erik, 2008 was different. “It was a brutal year for the company. The VP of Marketing needed my expertise for his own survival. But there was a different smell in the air. The banking system was failing, and people were getting laid off across the country by the thousands. I had a gut feeling there was something different. The country was headed into interesting times.
“For the remainder of my tenure, I saw my workload decrease and decrease some more. The company went from holding very few company meetings to none. Many employees started working from home, and when people did go into the office, it was an absolute ghost town in the hallways. For the last six months that I was there, during a 40 hour week, I probably did about, on average, five hours worth of work. I had become the orphan child of the company, or at least felt like it. I saw my boss maybe twice a month. With the economy faltering, all non-management employees were playing it safe. They became yes-men and yes-women. Management employees would only interact with their teams when they had to. It was the ‘classic’ working environment I had heard about from friends who worked elsewhere. There were so many layoffs nationwide from 2008-10 that very few people actually ‘feared’ getting laid off. It was more a matter of when.”
And Erik was no different. “I totally knew I was getting laid off, and I was actually OK with it. It was a dysfunctional business relationship all along. Finally, my boss pulled the trigger.”
His layoff was not conducted in person. “My boss called me and told me in a very scripted and carefully worded way. It was a very short call; there wasn’t much for either party to say.” The phone call was followed by a similarly scripted email “almost verbatim from the phone call. It came across as a bit cold, but I guess these things always do.” They asked Erik to “stick around for two weeks for ‘transitional reasons’ and to finish a few things up.” His final cleanup work took two days to complete. “I think I was gone after a week or so.”
What ultimately led to Erik’s layoff? He feels the recession placed additional pressure on the organization, which left them “strategically lost.” He feels their lack of emphasis on marketing was an obvious factor. “The phrase from the layoff email that sticks out to me was ‘due to an allocation of resources, we have had to eliminate your position.’ It’s all a bunch of carefully worded shit. I’m sure the lawyers were involved.”
The Aftermath and The Struggle
Upon receiving the news, Erik immediately called his wife and told her “the eagle has landed.” He also described it as “a relief, a huge exhale.” They had both been anticipating this day. Erik called it “overdue.” He recalls having a beer on D-day, but not doing much else. His resume, portfolio and references had been prepared for months, and he had some freelance work waiting in the wings. He felt no immediate need to do anything but relax. However, the next day brought thoughts of the future. “I wasn’t yet fearful, but I started dwelling on the recession and knew there was going to be many chores ahead for me. It was the great unknown.” The real emotional challenges didn’t present themselves until months later.
“I didn’t fall into a funk until about five to six months later. I bypassed filing for unemployment benefits at first, because I had a rush of freelance work come in. So I didn’t think I needed it. However, I suddenly found myself dealing with a freelance client from hell that was stressing me out in every kind of way. They wanted way too much of my time (days and nights), for weeks on end, and did not pay their invoices on time. The freelance money that was supposed to carry me through to my next job was not coming in as expected. Things got very tense, and I was totally stressed out and pissed off.”
At the urging of his wife, he finally filed for unemployment. “You have to report to the state any side money you make from freelance work, so they can deduct it from the benefit they pay you. After a few reports, they booted me out of the system saying I was making too much money, which was a joke. I was barely making anything. My hope was to pull my own weight via freelance until my next full-time job.”
He had previously set up an LLC to run freelance work through, and now it was time to use it. However, he revealed that he had never really wanted to go in this direction. “I’ve had bosses over the years tell me I should start my own company, but I’ve never wanted to be a business owner, and I still don’t. I’ve always just wanted to be happily employed somewhere, doing what I love, but not running the whole show.”
At this point, he realized he was sitting in the wrong seat on the bus, and he wasn’t happy about it. Doing freelance work, while generating some income for his family, further fueled the funk he was in. “I was totally stressed out. Having to market myself as both an individual seeking a job and a (reluctant) business owner was very frustrating, depressing, lonely and isolating. I ‘wigged out’ a few times in front of my wife. Just breaking down and stressing. It was a very emotional time for me.” I found this to be an interesting revelation. We typically revere the entrepreneur, and yet Erik wanted no part of it.
I asked about job interviews. “I got my first interview fairly quickly, and it went well. They wanted to call me in for a second round. I was very qualified for the job and would have been great there, but it almost seemed ‘too familiar.’ It didn’t seem like a challenge, so I turned down the second interview. Little did I know that over the next 18 months, I would have only six interviews. Should I have taken that second interview? I don’t know, but my gut feeling at the time told me no.
“The one thing I never saw coming was the emotional toll of being unemployed for so long. I have never felt so isolated in my career. Folks who have been gainfully employed throughout the Great Recession really can’t comprehend it. I actually don’t like talking about my situation with my employed friends, because they just don’t get it. It’s a very uncomfortable situation for both parties, because there’s really nothing positive for either to say. It’s socially awkward for all, and I hear this same sentiment from many other unemployed folks as well. As a result, we internalize a lot, and that’s not healthy.
“You have to keep our American culture in mind. We’re not good at dealing with other people’s grief. It makes us feel uncomfortable and awkward. We don’t like to complain or express our grief because we don’t want others to feel uncomfortable and awkward on account of us. It’s all a bunch of macho American B.S. if you ask me, but that’s just the way we are as a culture. So I tend to avoid bringing up the topic much with friends so the life doesn’t get sucked out of the room.
“The negative feelings aren’t going away. It’s something I deal with on a daily basis. Some days are better than others, but not many. There will be no closure until I find my career in a more permanent place, and I’m actually not sure what that place looks like anymore.”
What Does It Mean, and What Can He Do About It?
Erik works in a tough industry. Marketing and advertising is a people business, a service business, and working with people is not always easy. The measure of success in that world is often subjective, and clients come and go. Think about this: if you’re an attorney, it is conceivable that you could have a client for life. You’re a 30-year-old attorney, and you secure a client that’s also 30 years old. He could be your client for 50 years. That is not possible in the ad world. Agencies will eventually lose every client they have. Like the Emperor said, “It is your destiny.” This fact is simply unavoidable. No matter how great the work is, how strong the relationship is, or how advantageous you make the financial terms, every client will walk someday. It’s just how the industry works. A new CMO comes in, and they’re paid to shake things up. They bring their own agency contacts, have a different take on the creative direction of the messaging, and you’re gone. I have fallen victim to this very situation, losing one of the highest paying jobs I’ve ever had (it was a CFO job in my old CPA career. Don’t cry for me). This is the industry in which Erik works.
I asked Erik about his search process. “When it comes to job searching, ‘process’ is not a word that makes any sense anymore,” he said. “Nobody is getting hired these days. All of the traditional processes’ have been blown out of the water.
“I set up profiles on many of the popular job sites, as well as some industry-specific ones. I go through them each morning, I conduct a manual search on a few other sites, and I fire off resumes for any relevant positions I see. After about an hour of that in the morning, I begin looking for freelance work. One challenge is the sheer number of job search sites out there. You could set up 100 profiles if you wanted. Could I maintain all of them? It all gets to be too much. I also began receiving a great deal of phone and email spam as a result of the listings.”
I know Erik via Twitter, and as mentioned throughout this book, social media is a great way to increase your visibility. I think Erik uses Twitter well, but he says he’s had challenges. “I’ve had to live a double life on social media – as a job seeker, and as a self-employed business owner. I find that mixing the two sends mixed signals and confuses potential employers. This is perhaps the most frustrating thing about my unemployment – the need to live this ‘double life.’ It does not matter if I’m an individual job seeker or a business owner. My audience is the exact same. I have to market myself to the same crowd in two different ways. Sometimes I don’t know whom to lead with: myself #1 or myself #2. No strategy I come up with feels perfect.”
He also maintains two websites. Each contains his portfolio and a way to contact him. However, one is job search-themed, and the other is freelance business owner-themed. The goal of the former is to help him secure full-time employment, and without revealing the URL, the name of his site is rather catchy. The latter is to help him find freelance work. These feel like diverging goals to him, but I’m not sure they need to be. As is the case with most messaging strategies, it’s all in how you market it.
I have often advocated for the “one person, one persona” strategy in not only social media, but life. Whenever I’m making a public presentation and someone says, “Yeah, I have my personal Facebook account, which is where I post family stuff, and then I created a business personal Facebook account, so that I could keep things separated.” Besides being against Facebook’s Terms of Service, my joke question I often ask is, “What are you, a secret agent?” It usually gets laughs, but think about it. Why do we separate the two? It’s based on an old work construct where we watched the clock until 5pm, turned off our IBM 486 or Pentium II, got in our Toyota Celica and drove home, not to think about work again until 8am the next day. Life is not like that anymore. Your iPhone will assure you of this. If you’re not checking work email after hours, your colleagues are. Do not lament this fact; it should not be a problem unless you hate your job. Then, checking emails late is not your problem. You have a crappy job.
Erik’s work situation might be a little bit different, but I’d like to apply the same thought process here. I believe he can have one website where he displays his portfolio, explains where he’s come from and why he’s currently freelancing, and thoughtfully describes what he wants out of his future. Besides, it is much, much easier to be one person than two, and I wonder how much it would help his psyche to make this shift. He admits how exhausting this has all been, particularly having to maintain two personas. This is no way to live, and I don’t think he needs to continue this.
He also used to maintain two Twitter accounts: one for the job seeker and one for the business owner. “That got too confusing, time consuming and depressing, so I kept the business one.” While it’s a business account, I feel like I know him. He’s doing well on Twitter, and I applaud his move to a single account. By the way, that second Twitter account was his “layoff” Twitter account, and he shared some interesting thoughts on it. “I followed a different crowd there. Many of the followers were like me: unemployed for way too long. Sometimes it was therapeutic hearing stories and connecting with others in the same boat or worse. On the other hand, it was really depressing hearing the same thing over and over, because just like the Great Recession, it never ended. Then the Occupy Wall Street movement started and the audience’s tone there turned much more angry and bitter. Rightfully so, but emotionally it was too much for me. It was a constant reminder of the situation I found myself in, as well as where the country was in general. I needed to be spending time having a more positive experience on Twitter.”
He says he does not use Facebook for his job search. “I go to Facebook to get away from my career woes. My Facebook friends do not want to hear me whine about being unemployed for so long, and I don’t blame them. They know the story.” I do think it’s OK for Erik to share on Facebook any successes he has, such as a sizeable freelance win or a job interview. His friends are undoubtedly rooting for him; give them some good news to consume. If they remain engaged with his search, they might keep their ears more open and pass along opportunities.
LinkedIn presents the same challenge: should he be Erik the unemployed or Erik the business owner? Similar to his website dilemma, I believe Erik should only have one LinkedIn profile, which he does (full disclosure: I once had two. Long story). I’d like to see him find a way to explain why he freelances, why he’d like to have full-time employment and what kind of job he’s seeking. As an aside, for reasons I won’t go into, Erik does not use his first name in his LinkedIn profile. His full name is presented as “E Lastname” (last name obviously withheld.) He explained why this was the case and it made sense to me, but I do wonder if certain potential employers could consider it a lack of transparency and take a pass. My thought on searching for a job is that all obstacles must be removed between the job seeker and the job offer.
If you know anything about me, you know that I used social media to change my life. Unhappy CPA to happy ad man to unlikely author. But Erik had an interesting take on social media from where he’s sitting. “You have to keep in mind that with a lot of long-term unemployed folks, focus is at a premium. Depression can kill anyone’s concentration even in a great economy, but throw in being unemployed and out of a structured work environment for a very long time, and it can be a huge barrier to finding a new job. This is where social media is not always a healthy thing. It’s a very noisy place that isn’t exactly ‘focused’ by its own nature. For anyone that needs more focus and concentration, social media is not a place to be. However, the long-term unemployed person still needs to feel connected to others. Social media can be both a blessing and a curse in this regard.”
Is Erik using a blog to give potential employers another way to get to know him? “I have blogged off and on throughout my career, but do not currently have one up and running,” he said. “I used to do it for ‘business therapy,’ but I don’t like filtering myself for an open audience, so my blogs don’t tend to last very long. Another reason is my overall business and career mentality. What I do for a living is not about ‘me,’ so adding ‘blogger’ to my profile just doesn’t feel right. It can come across as very self-centered to some people. The problem with the blogging world is that everyone is an ‘expert’ now. I prefer to prove it with my work, and not just with talk. I don’t feel the need to jockey for position among the millions of aspiring ‘thought leaders’ of the blogging world. It’s too crowded of a space and it’s not what pays my mortgage anyway.” I differ from Erik here. Instead of jockeying for position in the blogging world, think of it as jockeying for position in your field of expertise in your hometown. It can help turn a “no” into a “yes!” Just as the job search is emotional for the job seeker, the hiring decision is emotional for the employer. Perhaps they’re replacing a rock star, somebody that everyone really misses. Or maybe they had to fire someone and now they’re picking up the pieces. Either way, the pressure is on to find the best employee possible, the person that can take the department and the company to new heights. They have so much they can consider now that their process, if conducted correctly, is more fine-tuned than ever. Smart employers will do as much due diligence as time allows. Frankly, dumb employers make the same emotional decision too. No matter their mental acuity, an employer’s decision is often based on gut. Job applicants need to do everything they can to appeal to these decision makers, and in my opinion, that includes blogging. Your blog, similar to samples of your work, let’s me get to know who you are, what makes you tick, and how you think. After talking with Erik, he’s a tough character with a strong soul, so I mean no disrespect when I say that I am not intimidated by the sheer number of bloggers out there trying to claim thought leadership in my area of expertise. Maybe I’m the dumb one, but I’m going to write and public speak and mentor and do great work and do anything I can to continue to grow as a person. I want an employer to know all of that so they can make an informed decision.
His “layoff” website, as he calls it, is the one he sends potential employers when seeking full-time employment. Two things of note. One, the site has a counter on it that tabulates and displays the number of days since his layoff. There is no doubt that he lives this life every day, but I’m fearful that potential employers may view the clock and think of him as damaged goods. He’s not damaged goods, as far as I can tell, but perception can be reality. Therefore, perception is important during a job search. If the clock is there for therapy, I understand. But if it could give a potential employer pause, I’d eliminate it. Two, I’d like to see a bit more biographical information. He does provide a few paragraphs where he mentions his 15 years of experience and his desire to find full-time employment. Is Erik married? Does he have kids? I’ll tell you this – those are just two examples of things employers cannot help but feel emotional about when reading. They’ll either think, “Kids… he’ll be too distracted.” That’s OK; you don’t want that job anyway. Or, “He’s a family man. Poor guy, he has kids and he’s looking for work.” Remember, employers have emotions just like employees. Provide that employer information about yourself in a non-sappy way. Allow them to get to know you before they even meet you. That gives you not only a better chance of getting an interview, but it gives employers the chance to pre-select you for the right job for you.
One positive that Erik identified was that his experience has sharpened his intuition. “My accuracy for reading people and certain situations seems to be very keen now, and I would like to hope that this will help my employment cause in the long term.”
What Did They Do About It, and Was There a Happy Ending?
At this date, 18 months after his displacement, Erik continues to search for a full-time job. I asked him why he feels success has eluded him. “This is the million dollar question for everyone right now. According to ‘the rules,’ I’m doing everything right. I have a competitive portfolio and a great resume. I have many recommendations, and I’m willing to do the grunt work in my field. I keep improving my skills via freelance, so I’m not getting rusty. As with so many other unemployed people, it just doesn’t add up.
“The jobs just aren’t coming across the wire. There’s nothing to send resumes to. It’s like trying to play basketball without a ball. It doesn’t matter how good your jump shot is, or if you can dunk. If there’s no ball, you’re not playing.
“You hear a lot in the news about many long-term unemployed folks ‘giving up’ on their search. That’s not true. The angle that doesn’t get a lot of publicity is how employers have given up on hiring. Who really has given up on who?
“So if you have a job, here’s what you do. If you know someone who is unemployed, call them up. Shoot the shit. Invite them out for a beer or a cup of coffee. Talk about the weather. Tell bad jokes. Do it often, because they need it. Don’t just send them an email or a tweet or a Facebook message. Be human – engage in person. They still need to feel a part of the world that gave up ON THEM. The tables might be turned some day – perhaps soon if this economy doesn’t improve.
“I’m one of those folks being referred to as the “Self-unemployed” – long-term unemployed people who have gone into self-employment not as a career strategy, but purely out of a need to survive and put food on the table. I have 15 years of experience, more hands-on talent than you can shake a stick at, 17 LinkedIn recommendations, and I can’t get a job. There is so much great talent out on the streets; it’s talent going to waste. These are very interesting times in American history.”
As with all contributors to this book, I asked Erik if there was anything he’d change about his ordeal and the process he continues to go through. “As me that question when it’s all over. Maybe I’ll have the answer.”