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12 Tips for Conducting a Job Search Fire Drill

Updated on January 1, 2014

How to Navigate to a Soft Landing When Faced with a Layoff

Conducting a "Job Search Fire Drill" necessitated by a layoff may seem especially daunting. More and more people are finding themselves sounding the alarm due to the state of the economy. Being laid-off has almost become a right of passage in some industries. Through my own experience and observing friends and colleagues, I discovered some best practices that are especially helpful in navigating to a soft landing in a new position. Let’s walk through a fictional case study drawn from these combined experiences that outlines an emergency escape route if you are faced with your own job search fire drill.


  • 1) Don't Stick Your Head in the Sand
  • 2) Get the Word Out - Sound the Alarm Far and Wide
  • 3) Develop Your Messaging
  • 4) Craft a Personal Branding Statement
  • 5) Remain (Outwardly) Positive and Professional at All Times
  • 6) Move Quickly
  • 7) Mobilize your Broader Network
  • 8) Assess Your Skills and Cast a Wide but Realistic Net
  • 9) Be Visible
  • 10) Graciously Accept and Direct Offers to Help
  • 11) Follow-up. Prioritize but Track Down All Leads
  • 12) Be Thankful and Close the Loop!

1) Don't Stick Your Head in the Sand

Sandy saw the signs. She worked for a Fortune 500 company and business was down. The industry was mature and consolidating. It was clear that the company was tightening its belt and hunkering down to weather the economic storm. Sandy heard in the news that her company may in fact be the target of a takeover by another firm. That's when she took the time to update her resume. Fast forward 2 months. Sandy went home a little later than usual one evening when a surprising meeting invitation appeared with her manager and HR representative early the following morning. Sandy heard through the grapevine about a number of these meetings being scheduled. She tried to contact her manager but he didn't respond -- very unusual. She knew something major would be going down in the morning.

Sandy walked into the meeting with her manager. The HR representative was already seated. He wasted no time. "I'm afraid I have some bad news. Your position has been eliminated". He proceeded to talk Sandy through the details. She would have a short, fixed amount of time to find another opportunity internally. If she failed to secure a new position, her employment would be terminated and she would receive a modest severance package. Sandy was naturally upset by this turn of events and left the office immediately. She stopped at a bakery and indulged in a big, fat decadent cupcake while sitting on a bench outside to reflect on the situation. After about an hour, she knew it was time to pull it together and get to work. She returned home to strategize, mobilize her network, and figure out a path to a new role.

2) Get the Word Out - Sound the Alarm Far and Wide

There was a meeting scheduled the day after the job eliminations were announced to discuss the situation with a broader set of employees. Sandy knew that it was important to hear how the organization was framing the job eliminations and see if there were any tidbits she could glean to help her find a new role in her current company. She listened to the meeting by teleconference in an out-of-the-way corner of the office with two other colleagues. The message was pretty emotional. The executive leading the meeting asked that employees respect the privacy of those that had been impacted. Sandy decided at that moment that she was going to take a very transparent approach to the situation she was in. It was essential to get the word out, not hide behind a deflated ego or be embarrassed that her position was eliminated. The more people she told, the more eyes and ears would be on the lookout for her. She told the two others at the meeting about her situation. She knew one person slightly and the other she hadn't met before. Both offered to help. She asked if she could send them her resume as a reference in case they learned of any suitable opportunities. They told her to send it over and she followed-up that afternoon by email. In the spirit of getting the word out, she also put a link to her online resume in her instant message status bar.

3) Develop Your Messaging

Sandy had never been in a situation like this before and felt self-conscious. She thought that some people would naturally think that she did something wrong to end up in the position she was in. They would assume she'd been a poor performer. That wasn't Sandy's case and that isn't the case for many others impacted by the struggling economy. She felt that it was important to be able to concisely explain what happened and come up with messaging to combat any perceived negative connotations. She crafted a message to stop those impressions in their tracks: "My position was recently eliminated. I have always been rated a strong performer at my company, I just got caught in the wrong place at the wrong time." She felt better and assured that no one would have any lingering doubts about her performance. In time, the words rolled off her tongue with ease.

4) Craft a Personal Branding Statement

Sandy knew that she needed to come up with a powerful statement to grab people's attention and convey the skills she possessed. She found it helpful to talk to colleagues and get their perspectives on her key strengths and value proposition. Sandy's educational background was in the sciences but she transitioned into a customer-facing technical service role a few years back. She recognized that she had developed some fantastic transferable skills during this time, specifically involving program, project, and relationship management. She expected that these skills would make her more marketable to a wide range of employers. She crafted the following statement to sum-up her background and experiences: "I am a highly analytical scientist with exceptional program and relationship management skills". The language works well in email or face-to-face conversations and she felt her confidence grow just saying that.

  • Seek out input from those that have worked with you and leverage these conversations to step outside yourself and find out how others perceive you. Use these insights to craft an impactful branding statement.

5) Remain (Outwardly) Positive and Professional at All Times

When the notification meeting appeared on Sandy's calendar, she talked things over with her boyfriend. "It's a business decision", he coached. "Keep telling yourself that. Whatever they say, don't take it personally. Don't show anger." Sandy is a rather emotional person and has a hard time stifling her natural reactions. This pep talk really helped. Of course, the first thing she did when she was notified was burst into tears (apparently she wasn't the only one that did that day...). The next thing she did was calmly ask for the rationale behind the decision. Why was my position chosen? She'd earned strong performance ratings throughout her tenure at the company. Sandy was reassured that this was indeed simply a business decision and nothing to do with her personally. She asked what her options were. Both her manager and the HR representative told her they were there to help her and that she should consider it her full time job to find a new job starting immediately. Sandy responded by pulling out a copy of her resume and asked that they keep an eye out for opportunities that might be suitable. They seemed impressed by how well she was taking the news and by how prepared she was.

At one point in her job search process, there was a major miscommunication between one of the recruiters she was working with and the hiring manager. The recruiter thought the hiring manager wanted to move forward with an offer and she communicated that to Sandy. The hiring manager really just wanted to move forward with more interviews. The result was an emotional roller coaster that lasted about a week. Was Sandy happy about the situation? No. Did she let it show? No. Even though that job opportunity ultimately didn't work out, the interviewers and hiring manager commended Sandy on keeping a flawlessly positive attitude throughout the interview process.

  • Make sure you check any bad feelings about the situation at the door before meeting with anyone about your job search. You want to convey that you'll be a joy to work with not that you're grumpy and bitter about the hand you've been dealt.
  • Keeping your cool professionally is key but it's also important to have a channel available to vent your emotions and frustrations. It's ok to let those raw reactions surface with family and close friends.

6) Move Quickly

The essence of a fire drill is the speed with which you evacuate the burning building. Sandy was fortunate that she had just retooled her resume a couple months before and was able to give it just a quick review before moving forward with applications.

The day Sandy was notified, she set up a spreadsheet as a command center for her job search. She created a tab to capture information on those she had contacted including name, date, mechanism of contact (eg: email, instant message, in person, by phone, etc.), and notes. She also created a tab where she could brainstorm about individuals that she knew who might be able to help her during this challenging time. Sandy checked the internal job board at work. She found one position of interest and wrote a cover letter and sent off her resume. She set up a tab in her spreadsheet to tracks positions of interest, note which ones she'd applied to and her status with respect to each. She contacted about 20 people by email and instant message on Day 1. It felt good to be quick out of the gate.

Transitioning her current work responsibilities was another priority. Sandy set up a meeting with her manager on Day 2. She told him the exact projects she was working on and asked who she should refer inquiries to. This allowed her to redirect incoming emails and calls. There was no hesitation in handing off her work stream. Sandy normally would have had a hard time abandoning responsibility in this manner but this time she had no choice. When you're running a fire drill, you need to drop everything and focus on the emergency. The only way she would survive was by handing things off immediately so there would be no unnecessary distractions. She shared her unexpected news with about 30 different people on Day 2. Most of those people were folks Sandy worked with directly and needed to notify to renegotiate or hand off work commitments. Sandy also made an effort to reach out to those that she knew who had also been impacted by the job eliminations. While it's easy to feel selfish during times like these, she wanted to help her coworkers if she could. A little good karma never hurts.

  • Have your resume ready! Make sure to update it at least once a year. If your resume isn't up to date, don't panic. Make that your immediate priority. Have someone that you trust give you feedback and take their suggestions to heart. It's hard to maintain proper perspective when going through a stressful situation like losing your job.

7) Mobilize your Broader Network

Sandy knew she had to engage her network in her search. She got in touch with a few close friends by phone to seek their advice. She also brainstormed a list of people to whom she could reach out for help. She asked herself these questions:

  • Who am I currently working with?
  • Who have I worked with in the past?
  • Who do I know socially?
  • Who do I know from my volunteer activities?
  • Who else has been affected by the job eliminations?

She ended up with an extensive list and a place to focus her energy and emotion. Over the course of Sandy's job search fire drill, she communicated with over 400 people. Many she knew well, many were casual acquaintances, many she met through referrals from others in her network.

Sandy found that one-to-one communication was particularly effective. For each email message that she sent out, she had some standard text that she used to describe the situation but she always personalized the greeting and added a line or two to customize the message (eg: "I really enjoyed working with you on XYZ project or in ABC context and hope we have a chance to work together again in the future"). In First Aid and CPR training they teach that if you are in an emergency situation and there is a crowd of bystanders present, always ask one specific person for help. If you do this, it is much more likely that you will get a response than if you put out a general call for help (eg: a mass email with all contacts bcc'ed).

  • Never discount a connection. You never know who might have information that can help reveal a new job opportunity or help you navigate to a soft landing.

8) Assess Your Skills and Cast a Wide but Realistic Net

Sandy learned quickly that those wanting to help needed more information in order to do so. They inevitably asked what sort of position she was looking for. She didn't want to say, "I'm not picky, just find me a job! any job!" but she didn't want to close off certain opportunities by being too focused. Here's how she walked that fine line:

I'm fortunate in that I have a wide range of transferable skills that I can draw on in my next role. There are two things that I particularly enjoy 1) managing projects, programs, and relationships and 2) quantitative analysis. I can excel and add value in any position that falls along this continuum.

Roles that would be a particular fit broadly include:

  • Project Management
  • Account Management
  • Program Management
  • Analyst Positions

I've seen examples of each in a range of functional areas.

Please let me know if you hear of any openings that fit this profile.

Sandy ultimately applied for positions in Research, Human Resources, Engineering, Finance, Training and Development, Analytics, and Operations. What do these functional areas and positions have in common? They all leverage Sandy's broad skill set. She fine-tuned her resume to highlight the experiences most important for the particular role and sold her value proposition in the cover letter that she customized for each application. By framing her experience in terms of transferable skills, she was able to access a wide range of opportunities and get the attention of decision makers.

9) Be Visible

The day Sandy was notified that her position was eliminated, she was scheduled to attend a networking Happy Hour sponsored by her university's local alumni group. Interacting with people was really the last thing she wanted to do. Sandy forced herself to go for two reasons. 1) She would be able to practice talking about the situation in a relatively safe environment. 2) She could possibly make some valuable connections that would help her in her search. She was ultimately pleased that she attended and met some fantastic people who were energized to help her. During the event, the participants went around the room and introduced themselves. Sandy was able to talk about the job elimination without getting emotional.

Sandy went into the office on Day 3. It felt strange to be back but also provided a good opportunity to connect in person with those on her immediate team and others in the organization who hadn't learned the news yet. She connected with about 50 people in person, by email, and instant message on Day 3. She had pre-existing plans to meet someone new for lunch. Again, she didn't feel particularly up to meeting new people and Sandy was so busy quarterbacking her job search that she considered canceling but then ultimately reconsidered. She and her lunch date really hit it off fabulously and she even told Sandy about a potential job opportunity in her group. Never discount a possible source of job leads. They can come from anywhere! Sandy also met with a local entrepreneur starting-up a company in the realm of Sandy's subject matter expertise. He had such drive and energy, Sandy couldn't help but be energized too.

  • Don't succumb to the urge to turn inward and isolate yourself from others--this may seem strongly appealing but it won't advance your cause.

After laying some of this initial groundwork, Sandy decided to enhance her web presence. She created a Google Site for herself (essentially an interactive resume) which included samples of her work and a link to contact her. She shared information about her situation and job search in status updates to her extended networks on Linkedin, Facebook, Google+, and Twitter. She put a link to her Site in each status update.

10) Graciously Accept and Direct Offers to Help

Many people that Sandy contacted during the course of her job search volunteered that they'd be happy to serve as a reference for her or vouch for the quality of her work. Whenever someone said this, she responded to ask if they'd be willing to write a few lines on her behalf as an endorsement on Linkedin. She'd given and asked for recommendations on Linkedin before. She found that her requests for endorsement were often ignored in the past but the sense of urgency associated with a pending layoff really seemed to spur people to action. Sandy doubled the number of endorsements linked to her profile during her job search. Those recommendations will stay with her for the rest of her career.

  • Don't be shy about accepting an offer to help and do all you can to direct that offer into discrete action that someone can take.

11) Follow-up. Prioritize but Track Down All Leads

Sandy knew that it was incredibly important to have a strong system to organize her job search work-flow. Sandy used the "Getting Things Done" method developed by David Allen to keep track of projects, action items, and things she was waiting for. She set up a "project" for each job lead that she was pursuing. She could review these at a glance at the end of each week. Cataloging "next actions" allowed Sandy to keep track of items that she'd promised people or jobs she wanted to apply for. "Waiting" items assured that she could follow-up with people that promised to get back to her after a certain period of time. She also created a "Some Day" category for resources and job leads that she wanted to look into but that weren't as high priority. She reviewed this category once a week. She also set up reminders on her calendar for follow-up items that were time sensitive. By following-up regularly and as promised, she showcased her organizational and project management skills. It also showed her commitment to finding a new job opportunity quickly.

Some of the jobs that Sandy considered were formally posted. Others she identified through networking channels. With some positions, it was uncertain if there was approval to bring in a new hire. Sandy certainly focused her energy on those positions that seemed most likely to come through but she never turned down a conversation about a potential job opportunity or referral to meet someone. You never know. It's important to push each job forward. Sandy often pictured each job as a ball she was pushing across a field. Even if one ball was significantly in the lead, she took time to give the others a shove periodically, especially since a few of those early leaders ultimately fell off the cliff. Having back-up options moving forward helps to keep morale high during a very stressful time.

12) Be Thankful and Close the Loop!

Sandy communicated with more than 400 people as she conducted her job search fire drill. She sent a personalized thank you email after each informational meeting and formal interview. She arranged over 100 one-on-one meetings during the course of her job search. She ultimately pursued more than 30 discrete job opportunities (some more fleeting than others!). Within two months, she had secured a new position. After carefully weighing her options and accepting a new position, she spent nearly two days communicating with her network to let them know the resolution to her job search fire drill. Sandy kept track of everyone that she'd talked to in one form or another in her trusty spreadsheet. She also reviewed her email records to make sure she didn't forget to thank anyone. Sandy decided to send chocolates and a handwritten card to the handful of folks that really went above and beyond to help her in her search. For example, one person dropped everything to sit with Sandy for an hour and a half on short notice to give her a crash course on a company that she would be interviewing with but wasn't that familiar with from her previous work. Sandy personally felt it was important to show her sincere gratitude to everyone that had helped her in her search! She would not have been successful without their generous help and support.

Final Thoughts

I realize that not all situations may be as ideal as the case study I described and may not resolve themselves as neatly. It may take longer than you would prefer to land a new role. Just rest assured that you can pull off a job search fire drill. You may even land in a better place that you were in before being laid-off. Make this your mantra (Sandy did):

From challenge comes opportunity!


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