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June 5, 2008

Surviving a Layoff

You worked late and did everything right. But your company pink-slipped you anyway. Now what? Three women prove there is life after losing your job.

former investmant banker melissa afromowitz

Photo Credit: Lisa Wiseman

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Here's a stark news flash: The pink slip is back, big time. Call it the latest grim reminder of these hard times, alongside $4-a-gallon gas prices and higher prices on everything from Cheerios to chicken wings. In March, the ranks of the nation's unemployed swelled 434,000 to 7.8 million, largely due to layoffs. Wall Street has already shed 34,000 jobs since last summer; Dell will axe 8800 by year's end. What those numbers don't reveal are the many women who've discovered an upside to being downsized. Their take? Don't panic. It is quite possible to thrive post–pink slip.

Melissa Afromowitz, 27, former Wall Street investment banker

Melissa Afromowitz tensed up when her boss popped her an e-mail shortly after she arrived at work at 6:30 one crisp morning in early March. "Are you around?" he wrote. "Do you have time to chat?" He summoned her to another floor, where she found him alone, in a vacant office, no computer on the desk, no pictures tacked to the walls. He told her she was a solid employee, a hard worker, but that the market had soured and the firm had to cut costs. She tried to hold in the tears, clenching her teeth so she wouldn't cry. "I didn't want to seem weak in front of him," she admits. Afromowitz could tell he was uncomfortable, looking away as she struggled to retain her composure. He dispatched her next door, where a human-resources representative waited in a similarly vacant room, save for a box of tissues and a folder on the desk. Afromowitz couldn't maintain her steely reserve any longer and broke down in sobs.

But the visceral reaction — equal parts fear, shame, and shock — had nothing to do with her work. "The truth is, I hated my job," admits Afromowitz, a former salesperson on the high-grade credit desk at Lehman Brothers, the storied Wall Street investment bank. The pace was grueling. Every morning she'd wake up at 5:30 for the predawn hustle to the office. By 7:30 a.m., the trading floor was already in the throes of its testosterone-fueled frenzy, which didn't wind down till late evening. Blunt and surprisingly forceful for her 5-foot-2 frame, "Afro" — as her colleagues dubbed her — held her own amidst the cursing, tirades, and occasional thrown phone. She was well-compensated — $85,000 base pay plus a bonus that could match that. But she rarely saw her boyfriend and took only one real vacation — a week in Barcelona — during most of her tenure. The high-octane environment proved so stressful that she developed stomach problems that sent her racing to the bathroom throughout the day.

The HR rep explained her severance package — a healthy six months of pay and benefits. Afromowitz was also invited to attend résumé workshops, courtesy of Lehman. "I didn't want to do it, but I said to myself, 'Just go, you've got nothing in place. You're not in mourning,'" she recalls. When it was over, she hurried to the elevator, embarrassed and afraid that she'd run into a colleague en route to a similar fate. Within an hour, Afromowitz was at her desk debating what to leave behind. She grabbed the six pairs of heels under her desk — "I'm one of those women who wears sneakers to work" — and left everything else. It was barely noon, and for the first time in as long as she could remember, she didn't have anywhere to be.

When Afromowitz got home, she struggled to compose an e-mail to family and friends. She knew she was a victim of mass layoffs, but it was still humiliating. After she hit send, her in-box fluttered with supportive e-mails. Then it dawned on her: "My goal isn't to find a job — it's finding out what's going to make me happy," she says. Relinquishing the frenetic pace of her old job hasn't been easy. She still scans the Wall Street Journal over breakfast. During a recent vacation to Florida, she frittered away the first two days worrying. But given the generous terms of her severance, Afromowitz is taking her time figuring out her next step. That's a luxury she'd never allowed herself before. She expects that she'll make far less money in her new profession, whatever it may be. But it's a welcome trade-off now that she's indulging her pipe dreams. In March she enrolled in a voice-over acting class. "I always wanted to be in a cartoon," she giggles.

PINK-SLIP red flags

Certain employees may be more at risk than others, says Emily Westerman, a New York City career expert. And there are usually glaring signs that a downsizing is imminent.

Your job is dependent on travel. Travel budgets are often the first line items squeezed during lean times.

You're only capable of performing one function. Cash-strapped employers need versatility from their hires. One-trick ponies may find it difficult to compete against those with more diverse skill sets.

Your boss or direct report has been laid off. This is a sign that your division may be perceived as expendable.

You aren't assigned any new projects. A possible indicator of an employer trying to ease you off your workload.

Your pay has been frozen. To be sure, this could be a company-wide, cash-saving policy. Or it's a sign that your employer is no longer invested in your growth.

You're asked to cc your boss on everything. Ouch. This is either an HR-mandated measure or an attempt to clue in your boss to your workload. Both are signs that management may be preparing for your departure.

You're part of the old regime. New management typically replaces veterans with its own people. Don't take it personally.

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