By Caroline M.L. Potter
These days, if you find yourself being shepherded into a conference room with your coworkers, you might expect a pink slip -- not an impromptu pizza party. You may feel blindsided (not to mention angry, a little sick and panicked), but you must fight through the momentary confusion to get your bearings and take action immediately.
"During a layoff meeting, adrenaline is racing through your body," says Liz Ryan, a thought leader on the changing workplace. "People lose their minds. So, first, take five minutes to gather your thoughts. Sit down. Ask for a cup of coffee."
Then, follow these five steps to make sure you're leaving the building with your dignity -- and everything you need to land on your feet.
Don't Leave Without Your Contacts
If you don't have a backup of your contacts at home, the very first thing to do is to get your contacts, says Ryan. "If you're in the conference room and being seen out the door, you obviously can't," she says. "But if they let you go back to your desk and sit down -- and most companies will let you do that today -- save your contacts. If there's someone hovering, just say, 'Look, I'm just downloading my Outlook contacts.'"
Your contacts are paramount to jump-starting your new job search. "You want to write to each of your contacts and let them know that you've been laid off and give them a paragraph about what you're looking for," Ryan says. Your network will immediately start looking for work for you -- while you're distracted dealing with other tasks.
Don't Leave Without a Layoff Letter
"Get something in writing about this termination before you leave the premises," says Ryan, a former human resources executive. Unemployment is not retroactive, so you should go to your local unemployment office within 48 hours, and having such a letter will help.
"If you walk in with something in writing from your former employer saying that you were laid off and you worked there from this date to that date, it will speed up the processing of your check," she says. And because most unemployment checks aren't as much as regular wages, it's important to bring in as much money as possible as quickly as possible.
Don't Leave Without Your Last Paycheck
"It's imperative that you get your last paycheck," Ryan says. "That is a legal requirement, and people can go through hell chasing it down if they leave without it. If you ask for it, they must give it to you. If they can't hand you a live check, ask for a written statement."
Also, make sure you're paid for any time off you're entitled to, such as accrued vacation or sick days. "If you're getting severance and an HR person tells you it will be three weeks or three months, get that in writing, too," Ryan says. Be sure to ask about any bonuses or pay increases that may not have gone through. "There is no harm in asking," she adds.
Don't Leave Without Your COBRA Information
Make sure you get your COBRA information from HR before you leave, Ryan says. "You should receive a written document that indicates that your insurance will end on a certain date," she says. You don't have to panic about pricy COBRA payments immediately as you have 45 days to retroactively enroll, but you'll need the registration materials and you must know your termination date. "COBRA is expensive, but if you don't have another place to turn, do it until you find your next job," Ryan says.
Don't Leave Without a Recommendation
"This is situational and depends on whom you know, but if you're in the conference room and your boss is saying, 'Oh my gosh, I'm so sorry. This layoff is because our new product line isn't selling the way we thought it would,' then you should immediately ask, 'Can I use you as a reference?'" Ryan says.
Your boss will likely agree -- so Ryan suggests taking it a step further by asking, "Will you write me a letter of recommendation right now?" Ask your supervisor to detail your strong performance in your position and mention that your departure is because of the company's financial position." She also suggests asking for an endorsement on LinkedIn and accepting whatever additional help you're offered.
"I'm a big advocate for employees, so when I've had to lay someone off, I've written that person a new resume," Ryan says. "You should tap into whatever the company has available. If you leave with all of these things, you have to give yourself a huge pat on the back."