Layoff to Liftoff: Surviving Downsizing in the Tech Industry

Kodeco’s guide to surviving tech layoffs offers actionable tips on stress management, job search strategies, and staying productive post-layoff to prepare for your comeback. By Joey deVilla.

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You’re reading this for one of two reasons: you’re in the tech industry and you’ve either been laid off, or you want to be prepared for the possibility.

  • If you’re the former, you have my condolences. As you’ll soon see, losing a job is one of life’s more stressful experiences — but it’s also an opportunity for growth and change for the better.
  • If you’re the latter, congratulations on having a healthy sense of preparedness! I hope that everything in this article remains hypothetical for you.

Take it from a five-time tech layoff survivor: That initial moment when you find out you’ve been laid off doesn’t get any easier. But having gone through and documented the process that many times, I’ve learned how to make the layoff ride a less bumpy one, and now I’m sharing my tips with you.

The advice in this article is based on my own experience and from talking to others in the industry (as a developer advocate, I talk to a lot of techies). If your intention is to return to work and secure a technology job, this is for you. On the other hand, I’ll understand if you’ve decided to walk away from tech and try something new; I hope you find work that fulfills you as much as this person who made the leap.

Photo by <a href="">Jarren Simmons</a> on <a href="">Unsplash</a>

Your Layoff Meeting

The layoff journey starts with a notification that you’ve been laid off. Shortly thereafter comes the layoff meeting, where you’re told more about the end of your time at the company. If you’ve been invited to one, you’ll find the information in this section useful, especially since it’s a distressing, disorienting experience.

What to Expect

I’ve been laid off from a variety of companies over the past 20 years. Even though these companies varied widely in size, management style, and culture, the way they all conducted their layoff meetings was strikingly similar. The culture of layoffs has been around for nearly half a century in the U.S. and the field of human resources adapted by developing a standardized set of procedures and best practices.

Because of this, layoff meetings generally have these qualities:

  • Brevity: Layoff meetings tend to be brief, as they are often unpleasant and have to be held in large numbers. The standard length is fifteen minutes, so if you see that your manager’s calendar has an upcoming day packed with fifteen-minute meetings, prepare!
  • “Always two, there are”: Master Yoda’s quote about the Sith also describes the people conducting the meeting. Expect to see at least two people: a senior member of your group (your manager or someone in your manager’s chain of command) and someone from human resources.
  • Structure: It doesn’t matter how casual the culture at your soon-to-be-former workplace is; when a layoff meeting happens, it will feel cold and corporate. Layoff meetings follow a structure, and the people running them often follow a script. This is meant to mitigate the unpleasantness and any company liability.

How to Conduct Yourself

Do whatever it takes to steel yourself for the meeting, whether it’s deep breathing, counting to ten, reciting your own personal mantra or firing up your “poker face.” After all, You’re about to be in the second most important meeting you’ll ever have at this job.

(In case you were wondering, the most important one was the interview where you landed the job.)

No matter what you’re feeling, you want your termination to be as good a breakup as possible, and the way you behave at this meeting will set the tone for your departure. If you conduct yourself with grace and decorum, you may gain some extra concessions and a willingness on their part to do what they can for you.

On the other hand, if your meeting is full of bitterness, acrimony, and the gnashing of teeth, they won’t be inclined to do you any favors, and a general bad feeling will haunt you throughout the rest of your layoff experience.

Ask These Questions

Speaking from experience, a layoff meeting (whether it’s your first or your fifth) is always a surreal, almost out-of-body experience. It can be hard to know what questions to ask, so I’ve listed the most important ones below. While the people running the meeting will probably provide them, make sure that you get the answers to these questions!

  • When is my last day?
  • What is my severance package?
  • What about my bonuses, ESPP, RSUs, and other non-salary compensation?
  • How long will my insurance coverage last? (This one’s a big deal in the United States.)
  • When do I have to return the company laptop and other gear?
  • What do you want me to do with my current projects and files?
  • Can I get a letter that states I was laid off and not fired?
  • Can I get a letter of recommendation and use you as a reference?

Don’t Sign Anything

The people running the meeting have a lot of advantages over you. They probably had the element of surprise, including more time to prepare than you did. They have decades of human resources and legal precedent to draw from. They even have you surrounded. And it is in their best interest for you to waive any rights you may have while you’re in a distressed mental state.

They may be counting on these advantages to pressure you into signing a separation agreement immediately. They may say that they can withhold any outstanding pay they owe you until you sign the agreement. They might even say that the meeting can’t end until you sign. Don’t believe them, and don’t succumb to their pressure tactics. NEVER sign anything at the layoff meeting.

As with any other contract, they can’t force you to sign the separation agreement, so you should say that you would like to properly review it first, and your review will take a couple of days. (Check your local laws; if you’re in the U.S., over 40, and part of a group layoff, you can take up to 21 days to sign a separation agreement).

After the meeting, review the agreement carefully, taking as much time as you can. If you can, have an attorney who specializes in employment law review it. This might sound expensive, but some attorneys will give you an introductory consultation for free. Failing that, if you’re part of a group layoff and your separation agreements are similar, you and your coworkers can pool your money together and have an attorney review one of your agreements.