How to rock your lay-off

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The last Strategy Session, and my official exit as a business writer.

Strategy Session): Rocking Your Lay-Off (Alberta Venture, November 2015)

by Marzena Czarnecka

Hey, babe. Rub that frown off your face; there’s someone I want to introduce you to. C’mere. This, my lovely, is Melissa, and, like you, she’s an oil patch lay off casualty. Ever see anyone happier? No, I didn’t think so, and neither have I. I knew she was something special the second we met, dancing on a cold September Wednesday night in Calgary in a giant sandbox. But that’s another story. Today, let’s talk about how Melissa’s rocking her lay-off—and what you should be doing during yours.

Actually, before we get to that, let’s do this: I want you to forgive the HR manager who gave you the talk-slip-bad news. K? I know you’re angry. It is not with her that you should be angry. She’s got the second crappiest job in any non-growing company right now. Yeah, yeah, I know, she’s employed and you’re not. But she’s a Betazoid-class empath, dearest, as those human resources types tend to be, and so she’s not sleeping, she’s feeling survivor guilt, and after she told you the company was laying you off, she cried in the restroom for two hours. So lay off her. And if you bump into her downtown while you’re lay-off networking, say hi. Also, ask her if she’s seeing anyone. Not romantically, but, you know. For therapy. Because telling people “We need to let you go” kind of destroys your humanity. Unless you’re a psychopath to begin with—and she’s not. She’s not.

OK, back to Melissa. She got laid off back in February; since then, she’s travelled through China and she’s heading to Mexico and Central America in a couple of weeks. She’s been helping her friends with an assortment of entrepreneurial ventures, and she’s been pursuing this and that interest that she had no time for when putting in 50-60 hour weeks at the job that paid her a salary calculated on a 35-hour work week. She’s job hunting intermittently and casually—and she won’t say no if a good opportunity presents itself—but she’s not killing herself looking for work in an industry that’s in a downward tailspin. She’s taking the time to figure out who she wants to be when she grows up this time around—cause that whole ‘get a geology degree, get a good job’ thing? Well. Not the “safe” choice her parents, professors, and career counselors assured her it was. So. What instead, what next?

She’s taking this unexpected prolonged “vacation” to figure it out.

Now, she can do this with substantially less hyperventilation than I’m observing in you at this moment, dearest, because she’s dependent-light, debt-free, and has not yet become accustomed to a lifestyle that’s unsustainable come a rollback, a paycut, or unemployment. Don’t worry, I’m not going to lecture you about your Audi, your mortgage, or your three-cruises-a-year habit. Too late to undo those choices—and, you know what? It’s worth every penny, no matter how brutal the exchange rate, to snorkel in Hawaii when it’s -30 Celsius in Alberta.

By the way: I totally understand your situation. There won’t be a Hawaii get-away this year; frankly, you’re not sure you’re going to be able to keep on servicing your mortgage, and—babe, you’ve got to do something about that hyperventilating. Slow breaths. In. And out. In. And out. I’m not going to prescribe yoga or meditation, by the way—although Melissa does both, and she says laying on the floor in the dark breathing deeply is a great way to get past that “OMFG-I’m-never-going-to-work-again” feeling—but I want you to listen and learn how to rock your lay-off, even if you didn’t save your pennies and have three children bleeding you for university tuition this year.

First—remember, I got you to forgive your HR manager? Great. Now, for step two to rocking your lay-off, give me some of that anger back. I don’t want you to forgive your company. Hell, no. What I want you to do is start making a list—a meticulous list—of every oil patch company that’s laying off on-the-ground staff. Four columns: Company Name; Number of Lay-Offs; CEO’s name; CEO’s salary—and what was done with it? It’s a vindictive, somewhat sick exercise, but it has a purpose. See, it’s a cyclical thing, and when those companies start hiring? Don’t apply there.

Start a second list: the companies that aren’t laying off. They’re hurting too. Everyone is. Companies that know how to thrive in a cyclical industry explore every single possible strategy, and then some, before letting their people go. Wage roll-backs—starting at the top. Asking people to work reduced work weeks. Looking at other ways to deal with their balance sheets. Because it is a cyclical thing. It always has been, always will be. The people and companies who are innovative at dealing with the downturns excel at the upswing. Learn who they are. Follow them—go into business with them, invest in them, get them to hire you, and, when Fate smiles on you, hire them.

Third thing. This cycle. Good, bad. Boom, bust. Up, down. The people who thrive in it know how to ride the cycles. Do you?

Unfortunately, I think most of the people in the industry—particularly those in the thick middle—don’t. They overextend and overspend in the good years when the bonuses are high. They upgrade their lifestyles as if that’s the way it’s going to be year after year after year… and then are utterly shattered and unable to deal with the thin years.

The cyclical nature of the oil and gas industry is not for everyone. And this is the time to ask yourself—is it for you? If you chose to pursue a career within the oil and gas industry—or within one of its myriad supports—for stability… maybe that wasn’t the best decision. If stability and predictability are important to you—maybe this isn’t the industry (or the province) for you to be. And there’s never a better time to leave a profession—an industry—than when it’s telling you that it doesn’t want you. That there are too many of you.

Think about it. Hard. Why do you do what you do for a living? Does it make sense? Do you want to keep on doing it—given that ‘it’s a cyclical thing,’ and it’s not stable-reliable-predictable?

Fourth thing. Melissa’s minimalist angst over her situation has a great deal to do with the fact that she’s educated as a geologist and she worked as a geologist—but she is Melissa, world traveller, lifelong learner, dancer, yogi, aspiring entrepreneur, friend, daughter, sister, human. Geologist? It’s what she does (did). It’s not who she is. Who are you, apart from that job you’ve lost?

(For the record: as I write this, I know I’m being a hypocrite. I am a writer. Take the ability to spout written words at people away from me, and I need medication. So if you are an engineer—if you are a CEO—if you are a manger—I know your pain, intimately. The lay-off isn’t just about money, position, status, prestige. It’s about identity. Are you your job? Do you want to be your job? Spend some time angsting over that. I did. I decided, I was. It’s ok to be what you do. But there are huge emotional consequences to that—if doing what you are is taken away from you.)

Fifth thing. I’m not sure for how many years you’ve been bitching at me that you’re so busy, that you don’t have enough time. Well. Guess what you’ve got now? So much of it. All yours.

Use it.

Not to send out 50 resumes a week—for positions you’re overqualified for—at companies that are laying off even as they are hiring.

Use it to do all the things. You know? Explore your city, your province. Your mind. Your family. Your friends. I know—I’m giving you a platitude here that smacks of New Age positivity, “when life gives you lemons, make lemonade” and all that. Sorry. It’s cliché, but it’s true, it’s the right thing to do. It’s a cyclical thing. You will work again, and if you stay in the industry, and this province, you will work again like an exploited workhorse or pre-adolescent child during the Industrial Revolution. And you will bitch about how you have no time to do anything.

You have time now. Use it. Do all the things. Learn stuff. Meet people. Think. Think about your life, your profession, your priorities, your values.

Melissa’s learning Spanish, because she’s going to backpack through Central America. And, on a cold September weeknight in Calgary, she’s dancing in a giant sandbox. What are you doing?

Marzena Czarnecka is a Calgary-based writer. Portfolio: / Blog / Tweet Tweet @NothingBTBook / @paddleink.



To figure out who you need to be: The Crossroads Between Should and Must, by Elle Luna

To get perspective: Tiny Beautiful Things: Advice on Love and Life rrom Dear Sugar, by Cheryl Strayed

To blow your mind: anything on, curated by Maria Popova

To remember we were here before: back issues of The Economist

To get all Zen: Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert Pirsig (still da’ best)

To escape: re-read all the Harry Potter books. What? You didn’t have time to when they came out, because, work? Awesome. You now have time. Use it.