So you’ve been laid off. Why?

February 2, 2021 9:45 PM ET work, management

It’s almost always the same sinking feeling when you step into a meeting and see someone from HR there. You sit through the carefully crafted speech in somewhat of a daze, trying perhaps to jot down the important procedural information you’ll need. If you have a family, no doubt there’s a flash of panic as you try to imagine both the impact and the course of the necessary rebound. You’ve been laid off, and it was probably a surprise.

Layoffs are, strictly speaking, a business decision to reduce expenses. They have lots of causes and repercussions, but one thing they (generally) intentionally shun is consideration of the human impact. That human being impacted, now, is you.

What they don’t ever strive to really address is how you will walk out of that room feeling. From that moment until your relationship is severed, many actions occur which, from the perspective of the employer, are just mechanics to “get through it” as painlessly and safely as possible, and move on.

Moving on is easy for the other side of the desk; layoffs are planned, coordinated, scheduled, and choreographed so that they go off with the least amount of friction. Moving on for you, though, is a flying dream. You—the laid-off—are left wondering why you were included in that number. “Was I laid off, or was I fired? Is there a difference?” Of course there is a difference, and usually that’s part of the carefully crafted speech. Firing is generally a result of you not holding up your side of some implicit or explicit contract or expectations; laying off is “just business.”

But. Coming from someone who has sat on both sides of that meeting, the reality is that it’s not “just business” at all. Because you also kind of were fired.

I realize that from a legal and fiscal perspective, these are different things. But the fact is that your (now former) employer deems you unnecessary. You won’t be part of the next company meeting where they rally their troops, talking about how now is the time to band together, be stronger together, be more nimble, be more efficient – they have retained the most talented to truly drive the company to new (insert thing here: heights, profit, direction, success, etc). You are, in effect, unwanted. In this lens, the difference between being laid off and being fired is trivial.

However, in reality, there are plenty of reasons why you were included in that number. Perhaps you were just a budget line item, easily replaced by an organizational change; perhaps you were too old, too {insert demographic here} (this does happen, despite all the laws set up to prevent it); perhaps you were too expensive, after working there for decades and getting all those little (or big) raises or promotions along the way; perhaps, even, you were expendable because you were young, or highly skilled, and you were chosen because they—whomever does the choosing—knew you would bounce back quickly. In all of these calculations, you met the criteria for being not necessary, and so... you’re gone. Kicked out. Rejected. Expelled. Canned. Sacked. (This stings all the more if you were completely blindsided, because your new “other” status leaves you feeling betrayed.)

If you’ve never experienced it (good for you), it’s quite a blow. I mean, it’s a terrible feeling on the delivering side as well, but nothing like the receiving side. And if you’re in an industry that creates imposter syndrome like heat from sunlight, then it’s even worse: this reinforces your internal critic, telling you that this is proof that you’re not good enough, that you’ve been found out, that you never really were “one of them.” What‘s most pernicious about this is that now your job is to pick yourself up, pretend as best you can that you don’t feel the way you do, and somehow have all the confidence in the world to go knock on door after door as if nothing has happened. As if you’re as skilled (if not more skilled) than the day before. But the human impact here is that this wounding, which truly is unintentional, takes time to overcome.

My best advice—if I can offer any advice at all—is to just accept it. It’s happened, and it won’t be undone. Maybe read this, determine what you did well in your time there and what you didn’t, and choose to consider that you were included in the number because they knew you’d bounce back quickly. Keep your friends, update your resume, and don’t look back. Figure out what you want, and go for it. That job didn’t define you then, and it shouldn’t now; or: that job shouldn’t have defined you then, and it doesn’t now. It’s part of your history and that part is yours: at one point, you inarguably were good enough.

Now, you’re good enough for something new. Good luck!