Career Nav #48: Handling a String of Layoffs
Liz Harney, Email Automation Specialist at Women Who Code interviews Emily Egan, Lead UX Designer at LCvista and Director for Women Who Code Cincinnati. Emily shares her experience with layoffs, the importance of being prepared for possible layoffs, and avoiding burnout when looking for a new job.
Can you tell us how you first got interested in technology and design?
Do you still do graphic design work for fun, or is it just for work now?
Yeah. As a UX designer, it's more about making wireframes and mockups and not so much fun graphic design. I don't do that as much, but I still paint and things like that. I also love photography.
You are a founding director at Women Who Code Cincinnati. Can you talk a little bit about that process?
It took a little bit of time to get the ball rolling. This was before the pandemic, and I wasn't the only one. Two other senior developers and I decided we wanted a space for women in technology, and there wasn't anything around here in Cincinnati. We contacted Women Who Code for 3-6 months. We met with other organizations in Cincinnati to get funding and space to host these local events.
What kind of effect has that had on your career thus far?
I try to go for companies that value volunteer work, outside mentorship, diversity, and inclusion. It always comes up in interviews. Everybody wants to know what I do as a director and what leadership skills I learn. It has also helped my presentation skills. Now I love doing presentations in my company. Also, we do a lot of local networking, so there are more job opportunities and the ability to gain a more extensive network.
Can you tell me a little bit about your career progression?
I have always done design and development work. It was only recently that I pivoted to only doing UX design. My first job was at an agency where I was doing both designing mockups and talking to clients and doing all of the development for web apps and websites. I worked for my first startup, where I stayed for quite some time. After that, I eventually went to a larger company where I was a UX engineer. I got to do both the user research, the design, and the engineering side. While I loved to code, I decided I could get paid a similar wage to do the same job. With developing and designing web apps, we're really solving the same problem, and I'd like to say that there's no such thing as a UX emergency, and I love not being on PagerDuty. I like both, but this fits my passion currently.
Can you tell us about some of your challenges or setbacks?
I faced many of the common setbacks that women go through, being underpaid and underdeveloped and missing promotions. My male colleague once made $30,000-$40,000 more than I was making, even though we had the same title and years of experience. I've also been passed up on promotions. I've had some of the not-so-common things women face, such as sexual harassment and public humiliation. In one interview, I was asked, "You know, you would be the only woman here. Are you fine working with men?" I was quite shocked by that. What do you mean, am I comfortable working with men? I still think about that question to this day. Like, should I be concerned? Like, what kind of question is that? The worst thing that has happened to me was at an in-person company meeting of about 50-60 people. I recently got disillusioned, so I finally changed my last name to Egan. Even though the dissolution happened years ago, the CEO came over and noticed my name tag changed. He asked me, "What's the matter? Can't you keep a husband?" He thought that was the funniest joke ever. I was in shock. You could feel everybody slinking down in their chairs. Everybody wanted to disappear. Unfortunately, they did not have an HR department, so I could not report that.
You have, unfortunately, experienced a few layoffs throughout your career. Could you tell me a little about that and maybe describe the feeling of being laid off?
I would say each time I was laid off. It felt different. The first time I was laid off, the company was being let go. We had months of notice. We were allowed to leave, go on interviews, and still be paid a full wage. I ended up finding a job before everybody was let go. Even though it was unfortunate, and I liked the people I worked with, it didn't feel personal. The second time I was laid off, I was devastated. I was in the first round of layoffs, so I wasn't alone in the room, but it did feel more personal. America puts a big emphasis on individualism. We tend to tether our identities to our careers. They want our worth to be defined by our productivity, so if we lose our job, we lose our value. If we're not being productive, we're considered lazy and feel embarrassed and ashamed. It's bad enough that you have to worry about paying your bills, but it affects your self-esteem and self-worth. As an independent woman and a single mother, I struggled with that. My mother is an independent woman, and she was a single mother. She's taught me, "Don't depend on anybody. Make sure you have a career and can provide your own way." It took some time for me to get over that mindset that I was more than just how much money I made and more than my career.
Are there any silver linings to being laid off?
Yeah, it's weird. I've seen those articles that try to spin being laid off in a positive light, like, "You have to look at it as a great opportunity." I find it hard to digest a bit because. Some people are uncomfortable with bad feelings, so they want to try to minimize them. My feeling is to get past it and move forward, you have to face reality, and the truth is that your experience is traumatic. Losing your job is on the same tier as getting a divorce or a death in the family. It's one of the top most significant events that you could go through in your life. While it is traumatic, it's also temporary, and all bad things are temporary. My silver lining is that every time I've been laid off or moved on from a job, I've always made more money and had better work cultures and benefits. Even though it is traumatic, it has also worked in my favor, or at least so far, knock on wood.
What are some things people don't know about being laid off?
When you're about to get laid off, they bring you into that little room, or now it's more like a Zoom meeting with HR. They have one objective, to get you to sign that separation agreement. The deal is you sign the paperwork and then you get the severance money. It's very traumatic, and they want out of that room. They want off that meeting. They end up signing and not understanding what they're signing. The paperwork is full of legal jargon, to make it confusing. They put it there to confuse you. The most important thing to understand before you sign it is that you're signing away your ability to take legal action against the company. In most instances, you agree not to speak ill of the company or speak ill of anyone within the company. That's what that non-disparagement clause is for at the bottom.
The next thing would be company stock. Typically, you are given company stock in a startup, but that stock has to vest for four years. If you are let go before that timeframe, you lose stock options. They go back to the company. If you manage to stay there for four years, you have a chance to buy that stock. Most people, myself included, don't have thousands of dollars to purchase that stock. It returns to the company and is distributed to other new hires. That's why I find it wise not to take less base salary and more stock options because most startups fail, and you won't get to see those come to fruition. The next thing is COBRA insurance. You have the opportunity to purchase COBRA insurance. It is essentially their insurance, but your employer no longer subsidizes it. You have to pay the total price. You don't have to take it, but most people do. It can be costly.
If someone's being laid off, what's your suggestion for the first thing they should do?
My advice is to assume that you already have your resume perfected. You have your portfolio if you're a designer or your GitHub up to date if you're a developer. The first thing you want to do is not immediately sign their paperwork that day because you will be emotionally compromised. Take it home, look it over. If you're more privileged and can afford a lawyer, have a lawyer look it over. You can negotiate your severance package. You can get more money or better benefits. Sometimes companies like actually to provide insurance for a period of time. You can get that extended. If you don't have the money for a lawyer, you can still negotiate with HR to get more benefits. You want to ensure you have a number in mind because they will like it. Typically, the standard offer is one week of severance per year served. Ensure you are applying for unemployment immediately because it can take time for your state to process that. Take some time off. If you're privileged and you can take months off, go ahead and do that. That will keep burnout at bay. Applying for jobs is extremely difficult and time-consuming. It does affect your mental state, and people will see that in interviews, impacting how well you interview. Try to process that grief as much as you can. Decide whether or not you can afford the COBRA insurance or if you can forego it for the time being. Speak to your colleagues and people in your network. See if you can get a referral and get your foot in the door for another opportunity. Most people get jobs from referrals.
What are some of the shady practices that you've seen companies employ when laying off workers?
The second time I was laid off, I was laid off with another person in the room who was my friend, and I got less money than he did even though he was hired years after I was. They think that we don't share this information. At the time, I was emotionally compromised. I didn't know you could even negotiate. I ended up not asking for what I deserved. I think any company that requires that you only get the severance money if you sign legal paperwork, signing away your right to talk about any cruel layoff or offboarding practices, is shady.
I feel like it's manipulative. People deserve better than that, to feel like they're forced to sign this paperwork. Lately, I find that people lay off people without notice, without a face-to-face meeting, or even an email. Sometimes their badges won't work, and they'll show up to work, and they can't log into their computer or log into Slack, and that's how they find out. I find that pretty dehumanizing, personally. I feel like we should do better.
How can people protect themselves from being laid off or before they're laid off, I should say?
You can do nothing to prevent yourself from getting laid off. If you were laid off, it's nothing that you did personally. The only thing you can do is do your job well. Try to build relationships and do what you can to make yourself happy. There are things that you can do to make yourself more prepared for a pending layoff. Always make sure your resume and portfolio are updated, even if you're comfortable, because you could be blindsided at any time. If you're currently employed and have to do things like case studies, if you're a designer, ensure you have those case studies and write them now while they're fresh. Write down your successes if you're a developer working on a significant project. In interviews, you will have to talk about those successes. Keep networking semi-regularly so you know which companies are hiring and which are not. Keep track of what's going on in your current company. Are there hiring freezes? Are they having any financial issues? Are they doing any restructuring? Are people leaving? Keep track of that.
Are there any resources you can share?
What advice would you give someone facing challenges right now?
You're not alone. Even though you're unique in your own experience with being laid off, there are thousands and thousands of other people going through what you're going through. They have grief groups. I'm sure there are groups for other people being laid off where you can connect to somebody else to vent and share. Share your feelings with your friends and colleagues as well. It's not good to keep that inside. If you're being burnt out by constantly applying for jobs and going on interview after interview, make sure you're not doing too much in a day. The last time I was looking for a job, I had to space out what I was doing.