COVID job loss: A survivor and an expert's advice to deal with firing

Updated: Jul 05, 2020, 08:22 IST | Nasrin Modak Siddiqi | Mumbai

What's it like to lose a job when it's tough to find another, and what mental and professional tricks can see you through to the other side? A survivor and an expert tell it like it is

Rohit Pitale and Greeshma Thampi
Rohit Pitale and Greeshma Thampi

'Nine years with a firm has you believe you are an asset'

The survivor /// Rohit Pitale, interior designer and artist

The corporate world is a funny place. It can make you feel strong and weak, often on the same day. On June 10, well into the pandemic, while the government was contemplating Mission Begin Again, still unsure of how broken the economy is, I got a mail from the HR department that the pandemic has cost me my job as senior manager of store design at a major department store chain. The mail had the usual scripted gyaan of these being difficult times and that the company needed to take some difficult decisions.

Did I see it coming? Yes and no.

When you work for a leading retail company for nine years, you want to believe that you are an asset and they wouldn't let you go. But then who, in the corporate world was ever indispensable?

In hindsight, recession and job loss have been part of my growth as an individual and professional. It has taught me to believe in who I am. After starting my career in 2002 as an interior designer, fresh out of college, working with architectural firms, in 2006, I joined a firm that pioneered organised retail in India. It felt like I was at the peak of my career. The corporate world, with its systems and processes, can make you believe so. However, at the end of 2007, the firm changed hands and I was beginning to like the aggressive approach of the new management. Until in August 2008, I witnessed them lay off 30 senior employees with the same aggression. Every day, I lived in fear of how this recession would hit us. Two months later, I switched jobs to be part of a retail firm's ambitious Dreams Malls project. In six months, it wound up and I was without a job. Each day of those six months, I felt like a burden on my family. I used to lock myself in a room, have one meal a day to save and interact very little with the outside world. It was the most difficult phase.

One day, on a call with a former senior colleague Navin Mistry, my approach to handling difficult situations changed. He reminded me of my strengths and how important I had been for his team. His words resonated with me. Those 20 minutes changed everything for me—personally and professionally. I realised I had made a big mistake by refusing to look for opportunities. When I started looking for jobs, I found one in 15 days with a major retail company, albeit at a lower package. While the world was grappling with recession, this company was making its position strong in the market, by adopting a different approach. In August 2011, I joined my last company and had been with them until the letter arrived during the lockdown, followed by a call from the management.

There are others I know who have lost their job to the pandemic. For me, it's an even more difficult time with my wife stuck at her parent's home in Malaysia.

However, I can say with confidence that I am handling the situation better by staying positive, moving quickly and making a note of my capabilities, all of which I didn't do the last time.

For India, the current economic downfall is worse than the recession of 2008. I know that interior design isn't viewed as an essential skill right now. Building or redecorating is the last thing on people's minds. And so, I have to think outside the box to prepare for survival. My experience and interactions with talented people has led me to head short term marketing projects for two milk brands. I am also associated with a digital marketing agency with a global clientele. In the last 20 days after finishing my longest journey with a company, my life seems more exciting and interesting. I am garnering new experiences every day from unknown and different industries. I am open to possibilities.

'Work on skills that make you employable and recession-proof'

The career coach /// Greeshma Thampi, chief image consultant and director, Avancé Image Management

When you hear the news of discontinuation of service, you experience a lot of emotions—uncertainty, not having a regular pay, anger, frustration, shame. First up, know that these emotions are normal. Accept and acknowledge them and give yourself time to let things sink in, but don't endlessly dwell on it.

Inform close friends and family This may be tough, but let people who care about you, know about your circumstance. Chances are they will go out of their way to help you by finding details of head-hunters or sharing your profile with who they think can help. The emotional support is always an added advantage.

Handle the financial situation Figure out the economic liabilities and look at how you can fix them. If you have loans,speak to the bank for a moratorium. List down your monthly expenses and cut down on extras. Create a budget, work on it and stick to it. Remember, money saved is money earned.

Look inward When thoughts of, 'I am not good enough' or 'why me?' come to mind, instead of blaming yourself, refocus your energies on drawing an analysis of why it happened. Obviously, right now, the economic condition is not conducive to retaining professionals with higher paychecks, but it is also a time when you can look inward, focus on personal traits and acquire new skills for future work. This setback can be utilised in a more productive and efficient way. When you look back at it in the long run, you'll realise it wasn't the end of the world, but a roadblock.

Create a development plan Be flexible. You may have charted a certain career roadmap. However, look at what's relevant to the market currently. A lot of roles are becoming redundant, hence do not be too rigid. Work on skills that can make you more employable and recession-proof. Focus on growth industries that are continuing to hire. Within those industries look at firms that have robust financials or obvious growth plans. For instance, in startups, education technology players continue to hire and show growth. While searching for jobs, read the job description to know which skills you need to add to your resume.

Invest in learning Take up online or classroom courses and get relevant certifications. In fact, utilise this time to look at what you are truly passionate about and hone it. NASSCOM offers free online courses in AI; TCS offers a digital certification programme called Career Edge – Knockdown the Lockdown for free. The course aims at fine-tuning the communication, presentation and behavioural skills of students to create an impact in interviews and the workplace. Harvard University has over 60 free online courses. Google Digital Unlocked platform does too. In many cases enrollment is free, but you may have to pay to get a certificate verifying that you have completed the course. Having said that, even if the course is paid and if it is relevant to your job, do invest.

Reach out Join a group or reach out to an expert to help you manage your emotions and gain clarity on the future. Reach out to mentors, career counsellors, therapists, ex-professors, anyone who could guide you during these testing times. In the words of LinkedIn Chairman Reid Hoffman: No matter how brilliant your mind or strategy, if you're playing a solo game, you'll always lose out to a team.

Play the interview You will be asked about the career break. Give a pragmatic answer and practice it well. Do not lie about your break, even if it leads to a harsher salary negotiation. Focus on the future and don't crib about the past. Never bad mouth a former employer; it reflects poorly on you.

Utilise your time to help others Mentor students, take up part-time teaching assignments at a college, or volunteer. This can also become an interesting subject of conversation during the next job interview.

Update social media, not just LinkedIn Google yourself and see what comes up. Update your LinkedIn profile, highlighting achievements. Clean up your Facebook, Instagram and Twitter handles to avoid controversial posts.Create a blog and post relevant articles. This helps position you as an expert in your domain. Create job alerts on various platforms to help you apply as soon as an opportunity opens.

Attend industry networking events/webinars This allows you to stay abreast of the latest developments in the industry and gives you required visibility. Network with relevant contacts who you could foster a relationship with and reach out to for new opportunities. Write to your ex-colleagues, batchmates from college, professors, etc. Follow up immediately after you meet someone or learn of an opportunity. Return calls right away; send a thank you email the same day you have had an interview; send the resume as soon as you learn of an opportunity.

Be prepared and realistic on salary Research about industry standards on websites like www.salary.com or www.glassdoor.com and be mentally prepared that the company would have a better position to negotiate and offer a slightly lower salary than what is prevailing in the market. Have a no-regret number in mind, i.e. a number below which you are not willing to join. If they are offering something below that, do not be afraid to refuse the job. This will send a message that you are aware of the value you bring to the table.

Step out of your comfort zone Tough times are all about survival, not choice. To survive and find your next job in a difficult market, be prepared to step out of your comfort zone. Apart from switching industries, look at switching geographies too. Don't hesitate to try the gig economy by looking for short-term contracts or freelance work in the interim.

Free learning apps

Udemy
Lynda
Coursera
Alison
Code Academy
EdX

Online resources for gig economy

www.freelancer.in
www.hellointern.com
www.letsintern.com
www.upwork.com
www.internshala.com

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