Ten Things I Wish I Knew Before I Found Out I Was Losing My Job

Thursday, October 20, 2011

This post is a “reprint” of an article published in the August 2011 edition of the UWSA Staff News. While the Staff News is already available online, given the interest in the article, I am re-posting it in our blog to make it easier for UWSA members (and others) to find and link to.


The University of Waterloo is an institution that prides itself on innovation and risk-taking. With these two values influencing many of our on-campus operations, it is no surprise that “change” is a constant factor in our working environment. Organizational change impacts individuals in many ways, from how they do their job, to whom they do it with/for, or sometimes even if they will continue to have a job. Such change can lead to very challenging times for employees – especially if they are unprepared for a mandatory career change.

Fifteen months ago, I learned my department would be closing and all full-time employees would need to seek new employment. Thus began my own journey through change, as I have personally searched for new employment and assisted over 10 full-time staff with their career transition efforts. Together, we learned a great deal about career transitions and managing change within the University of Waterloo.

In light of the many changes still ahead for Waterloo staff, I recently approached my colleagues and asked for their aid in identifying the Top 10 Things I Wish I Knew Before Finding Out I Was Losing My Job, so that other Waterloo staff could benefit from our collective experience.

Before Finding Out I Was Losing My Job…

1. “I wish I knew how emotional it would be to compete with my colleagues for new job opportunities or to find a new career opportunity before colleagues in the same situation had a chance to do so.”

If you lose your job as a part of departmental restructuring, you could find yourself competing for positions against close friends and respected colleagues. This can take a serious emotional toll – especially if the process takes a long time. Even if you are successful in finding new employment on campus, it can be hard to celebrate knowing your colleagues are still struggling. While your colleagues can be a source of support though these challenging times, it is also important to have a personal support network independent of your colleagues. The Employee Assistance Program (EAP) is an excellent resource for providing and suggesting effective mechanisms of support.

2. “I wish I had considered the important role strong relationships with my co-workers can play in forming an effective professional network.”

Although you can spend eight hours (or more) each day working with colleagues, some people prefer to maintain very strict boundaries between their personal and professional lives. This is a valid choice, but not one without consequence, as a lack of strong personal connections with former colleagues can hinder career transitions. Colleagues can become great friends and mentors outside of work, and represent valuable contributions to a strong professional network. Professional networks are fast becoming the primary method through which people seek new employment. Leaving any place of employment without developing relationships with your colleagues that extend outside the workplace can leave a significant hole in your professional network.

3. “I wish I knew that if you wait for a job posting to appear before pursuing a job… it’s likely already too late.”

Career transition articles, career counsellors, and employment advisors routinely emphasize that most positions are now filled through networking. Applying to job postings in the absence of prior networking leads to significantly lower chances of success in securing the position. When drafting job descriptions, examining resumes or interviewing, employers – consciously or unconsciously – reflect on individuals from their networks when thinking of the “ideal candidate” for the role. This reflection can significantly influence the job description, perceived qualifications required, and selection of candidates to be interviewed. Through effective networking, you can be in contact with potential employers to find out about upcoming opportunities before they are posted – and hopefully be their “ideal candidate” for the role.

4. “I wish I knew what my ultimate career path and goals were.”

To effectively identify potential employers with whom to network, you need to have a good sense of your ultimate career path and goals. After receiving word you are losing your job, it is not uncommon to go into panic mode and begin searching for whatever employment you can. This can make networking less effective, because you have no direction in which to focus your efforts. Additionally, it would be ideal if your future employment moved you along a career path that you will ultimately enjoy. So it is very helpful if you know what you are truly interested in, where you want to live, what your desired lifestyle is, etc. far in advance of needing to pursue new employment.

5. “I wish I knew how important it was to identify and take advantage of professional growth and development opportunities across the entire Waterloo campus.”

It is very easy to become comfortable with your own role and department, to the point where you become isolated from the “pulse” of the campus as a whole. Knowing what initiatives and programs other campus departments are working on can help you ensure that your skill sets and experience match the direction the institution is heading. Developing new skills and gaining experience in their application can take some time, so don’t wait until you are unemployed before taking steps to build new skills, or you will be at a disadvantage in your search for new employment.

6. “I wish I knew my options for lateral career progression in addition to vertical ones.”

When many people think of career paths, they consider moving up a management chain, with increasing levels of pay and responsibility. Such “vertical career paths” are often relatively easy to see within one’s organizational unit (i.e., you would move into your supervisor’s role, then their supervisor’s role etc.). Lateral career changes (i.e., moving into positions of equal or slightly lower USG level) provide you with another perspective on the university’s operations and can greatly enhance your skill sets, improve your oncampus marketability, and ultimately make you more competitive if you choose to move into a position of higher pay and responsibility (i.e., a vertical career path) in the future.

7. “I wish I had directed my volunteer energies more strategically.”

This is two important points rolled into one! First, volunteering is an effective way to build skills, gain experience and form networks across campus that might otherwise be unavailable to you in your current role. However, there are a lot of volunteer opportunities on campus and it helps to be strategic in where you put your time and energy. While you can derive immense satisfaction from all the volunteer opportunities, it is best to focus your efforts on experiences that are more directly aligned with your career aspirations. This is yet another reason to have your career plan in place as early as possible.

8. “I wish I knew how much performance can be affected when people are told they’re eventually losing their jobs, but are still expected to do those jobs for any length of time.”

Having a great deal of notice can give individuals the time to search for new work, take training to upgrade their skills and expand their professional networks – while still being gainfully employed. On the other hand, the networking, researching and branding efforts required for an effective job search can be equivalent to a full-time job – and working two “full-time jobs” can gradually wear someone down. As colleagues leave for new jobs or return to school, shifts in workload and job duties occur as new people need training to fill the vacated roles or the roles are simply left vacant. This can add to additional job duties, stress and responsibilities for the remaining staff still seeking employment. While there are benefits to knowing about an upcoming career change, having support in place to manage stress and avoid burnout are extremely important.

9. “I wish I knew that employment policies are solely concerned wi th ensuring that appropriate procedures are followed and that employees are compensated when loss of employment is anticipated. The actual search for new employment is all up to the individual.”

While departments can sometimes find new positions for impacted staff during an organizational change, this is not always possible, and there is no obligation to do so. While regular staff maintain internal status for a period of time after termination, there is no special consideration provided when they apply for other positions on campus. “Terminated” staff must compete for positions along with all other internal candidates applying for the same position. In addition, identifying job opportunities, networking and successfully interviewing for positions is all up to the terminated staff member. This does not mean that there is no support for terminated staff. University of Waterloo Policy 18 clearly states entitlements for notice, pay in lieu of notice and severance pay to support staff after notice of termination is given. This financial support is invaluable for employees as they search for new employment. In addition, the University of Waterloo has a great deal of support available for staff undergoing career changes. The Staff Career Advisor through the Centre for Career Action, Human Resources, Organizational and Human Development and Counselling Services are just a few of the services available. All you need to do is ask them for help!

10. “I wish I had planned for contingencies.”

While the future is always uncertain, it is still useful to make plans for negative situations. It is important to make efforts to have savings to cover your expenses during an unplanned job search and to keep a close eye on trends within your organization to predict when you might want to consider switching careers.

Of course, these are just a few reflections and there is likely a great deal more knowledge and experience amongst UWSA members that can be shared! I encourage everyone to begin their own networking efforts by joining the University of Waterloo Staff Association (UWSA) group in LinkedIn. We will start a conversation surrounding this article and encourage members to share their experiences, ask questions and take the first steps to begin their own strategies for career development! We will also share additional details and insights that we were unable to fit into this article! Hope you can join the conversation!

Acknowledgements: A special thanks to all those contributing to the dra&ing of this article. Your wi%ingness to share your thoughts and experiences with your fellow staff members during very difficult times is very much appreciated.

Jeremy Steffler
Associate Director, PDEng
Director, UWSA

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