Journalism is a volatile industry, facing relentless pressure from Wall Street for notoriously high profits,
zigzagging newsprint costs and intense competition for ad dollars and audience share. Add in a career filled
with insecure managerial egos and quixotically subjective notions of talent and you may find your worklife
punctuated, perhaps a few times, by the ugly fact of getting fired.
The most hardworking, talented and experienced are not immune, and without a union to protect you, (which few
U.S. media employers still offer), your job can disappear overnight.
In states like New York, an "at will" state, workers have almost no legal protections at all - you can be fired
any time for no reason.
With that cheerful possibility, how can you prepare?
As every financial planner will remind you, do whatever you can (save, teach, freelance, waitress a night a
week), to accumulate three to six months' living expenses in the bank. You may get fired before you've qualified
for unemployment payments and your job search may go on after those payments run out. Your costs may also be
higher than the New York State maximum of the (taxable) $1620/month you'll receive.
Reduce or Kill Debt
Carrying enormous revolving balances of credit card debt, certainly at any rate over 9 percent (American
Express Blue's fixed APR), leaves you vulnerable to a disaster if you lose your job - and have no emergency
fund or financial backup. You will be allowed to retain your health plan for 18 months under COBRA (a federal
law). You'll also, by law, pay 100 percent more for the same coverage.
When you have a steady income, reduce your debt consistently and quickly (and don't keep adding to it every
month.) Once your debt is zero, keep one credit card and search the lowest possible interest rate (bankrate.com,
Pulaski Bank, fixed at 6 percent), which, if your FICO score is excellent (myfico.com), may be achievable.
Many staffers continue to freelance while working fulltime. (Check with your boss, of course!) For some, it
provides additional income or intellectual stimulation they can't get at work. For others, it also offers a
safety net of people beyond your company who appreciate you and your skills, offering emotional and financial
backup if you lose your job.
In addition to the emotional stress and dislocation of job loss, you immediately lose access to friendly, helpful
colleagues. Keeping a network, however small, of freelance buyers for your work reminds you that the larger world
finds you useful, not just your current boss.
Keep Your Network Strong
In New York, anyway, people with jobs are usually so busy doing them they have little time or energy for
schmoozing and socializing. Try to keep up with your outside contacts with regular calls, emails or a coffee.
Send them clips of a story, or a copy of a book, they might find useful or enjoy reading. Don't just grab for
help when you need it, but consistently offer yours as well. People are more likely to help you if you've been
generous to them or people they know.
Is Your Resume Fresh?
Make sure your resume is ready to go at, literally, a moment's notice. Have a trusted friend and/or colleague in
your field read it over carefully and offer any insight or suggestions. Knowing your skills, they can help you
sell yourself more effectively.
Ten Great Clips
Where are your ten best clips? Can you lay your hands on them easily and quickly? Do you have a website with your
work easily accessible - and up to date? Review those stories so you can talk about the skills that helped you
produce them in job interviews.
Awards and Fellowships
Even when you're in a fulltime job and working hard at it, try to enter your work for awards and apply for
fellowships. The former can help you distinguish your work from your competitors and the latter can also introduce
you to peers from publications across the country, even internationally. If you decide now's the time to try Paris
or Pittsburgh, a former fellow may help with that search.
Say Goodbye and Thankyou
No one wants to even imagine the day they're terminated. When it comes, even if you feared it might happen,
you're shell-shocked and upset. Most of us walk right out the door, carrying our box of stuff, furious, humiliated
and eager to get home. While some companies will march you out the door within minutes, others may allow you a few
hours, or longer, to leave with more dignity.
If you can maintain your composure (no tears or bitterness), make a point of seeking out the colleagues you want
to say goodbye to, and especially those you've worked best with. Give people your home phone number and email
address so that if they hear of anything, they can contact you. (Keep a supply of your own personal business card
for this purpose, for job-searching and for freelancing.)
Write a Book (or Several)
Having written a non-fiction book is no guarantee you'll never be fired. But having that extra arrow in your quiver
shows the larger world you're capable of more than whatever your latest job description suggests. You've found, and
pleased, an agent, editor and publishing house, and perhaps gotten some terrific reviews. You've shown your stamina
and drive, and your next boss will appreciate that. If you wrote a book while working a fulltime job, you've also,
one hopes, stashed that additional income in your 401(k) and your emergency fund!
If you can find the time or energy, in addition to juggling a fulltime job, family and a commute, teaching is a
useful way to keep additional revenue coming in. If you lose your fulltime job, you still have a place to go and
be useful, a few friendly faces, some checks to count on and the affiliation of that other institution.
Everyone gets them - from bosses, colleagues, sources, people we've covered. Attaboys are notes and emails praising
your work and your character. Make sure you keep a folder of attaboys and make sure, if you're fired, to email it
to yourself; better yet, keep copies at home as they arrive. They're a powerful and positive reminder that your
work has had an impact. When you're feeling isolated and crummy, which firing can certainly do to anyone, re-read
Unless you're being fired for cause, it's quite possible you can salvage references from your colleagues. It might
be a peer who worked for the same boss (and knows you, your work, and can objectively describe your firm's
environment), an editor you worked with on another project or even an appreciative intern you mentored.
Call an attorney if you think you've really been shafted. A skilled labor attorney has seen it all before, knows
what's worth taking on and what isn't. Ask around and don't hesitate. S/he may advise you to ask for severance and
help you handle those negotiations. If you feel the axe heading toward you, call them sooner rather than later so
they can advise you before it happens.
Be Kind To Yourself
You're feeling shocked, perhaps scared and angry. You miss your friendly colleagues and whatever hopes you held
for that job and that workplace. Don't grab the chocolate box or the gin bottle, but spend time with close,
supportive friends - who won't ask you to join them at costly restaurants! Exercise regularly. Take bubble baths.
Buy yourself flowers. Stock up on all the free books, CDs and videos from your local library you now have a little
time to enjoy.
Tell Your Doctor
A recent study found that job loss for those over the age of 50 can take a significant toll on one's health. If
you're heading to the doctor for a physical, tell them you've lost your job so they'll know if this is creating
or exacerbating any health issues.
It's Not Personal
Being fired stinks. But a headhunter who placed me in a job I was fired from, when I called her to apologize, said
calmly: "Don't worry about it. I expect it. In this business, I worry if someone hasn't ever been fired."
Yes, you have to do some self-examination about what went wrong, and why, and how you'll do things differently, if
possible, at your next job.
But getting the axe happens to many professionals, perhaps even the people you're now applying to for new positions. Decide what you're going to say about being fired and why it happened, and focus on explaining your terrific, ongoing skills. Don't ever badmouth even the most evil of bosses (even internationally, it remains a very small and gossipy industry).