5 Tips for Getting a Better Job

hate jobDo you hate your job? You’re not alone!

Last month, a Research Now poll revealed that nearly half of American working people are considering quitting their jobs this year.

And though quitting may sound like financial suicide in light of today’s dismal job market, many Americans report being so miserable at work they are willing to take that risk.

Suffering from Layoff Survivor Syndrome?

For those of us who were involuntarily separated from our employers during the Great Recession, it’s hard to think that our former colleagues — the “survivors” — should feel anything but gratitude for not getting pink-slipped when we did.

Yet as it turns out, employees who remain in a workplace following layoffs report significant increases in job-related stress. There’s even a name for it: layoff survivor syndrome. Symptoms include feelings of guilt, anger, depression, fear, physical illness, loss of motivation and burnout — problems that often result in low productivity and high absenteeism.

A Shattered Trust

At its root is the loss of trust. Seeing long-time colleagues box up their photos and head out the door for the last time is a sobering experience. Those who “make the cut” inevitably expect to be next, but in the meantime, they realize they now have to do their own work plus that of the employees who were let go. It’s a double-whammy, especially for those who are already in the habit of giving more than any job should require.

Then there are all those other pesky penny-pinching programs that so often accompany lay-offs. Across-the-board pay cuts, elimination of 401(k) matching contributions, health plans that cost more but cover less…the list goes on. When a company whittles away at each and every perk it ever offered, employees take notice. It chips away at their sense of security and thus, their morale.

When you consider these factors, it’s easy to see why so many layoff survivors and other marginalized employees are looking to jump ship. They’ve been working harder and getting less for it, all with little to no confidence that they even have a future with their current employer. And while I believe they do experience many of the symptoms named above, I just don’t buy the guilt thing. Here’s why.

No Sympathy Offered, None Returned

In May 2009 I lost what was, by any measure, a very good job with a major media outlet where I’d worked for nearly a decade. If my former colleagues felt bad about it, they didn’t show it. In fact, the only person who managed one word of condolence was a coworker who met the same fate on the same day. The survivors remained stone cold silent when they heard about my layoff. It was as if I were contagious or something…

I knew it would be hard to find a job in a down economy but I never dreamed the day I got my pink slip that it would prove impossible to find a comparable position in terms of work, pay and benefits. That’s right, impossible!

It took 2-1/2 years to find a suitable new gig, and when the opportunity finally did present itself I felt very fortunate that I would again be able to write for a living. Still, it smarts to be starting over in middle age, earning only slightly more than half my former salary.

That’s why dozens of articles about layoff survivor guilt have failed to convince me of its basis in reality. They’re written by feel-good-headhunter/HR consultant-types who want to tell corporations how challenging yet rewarding it is to “manage through change.” To me it’s nothing more than a platitude that companies use as a rallying cry in the aftermath of layoffs. It lets them act as if they care.

Oh, I’m sure there are plenty of layoff survivors who feel badly for their former coworkers who got the axe, but my sense is that it has more to do with wondering whether they’ll be next than with feeling “guilty” that someone else went first.

You Know It’s True

To those of you who haven’t been pink-slipped while the rest of the economy’s been bleeding jobs, all I can say is this: Don’t get indignant or defensive if someone says, “You’re lucky you still have a job.” Instead of firing off every reason under the sun why you’re not happy where you work, please just admit the truth of the sentiment and allow that your sustained employment certainly does make you fortunate in this day and age.

After all, you still have your 401(k). Even if your company reduced or eliminated its match, at least you haven’t had to tap your retirement funds early just to survive (and then be penalized for doing so). You can still go to the doctor if you get sick — without it taking food out of your mouth — and perhaps you’ve got some life insurance, too. And don’t leave out your stock options and generous vacation plan.

So yes, working-class people who don’t enjoy the same kinds of perks — or even a steady paycheck, for that matter — do perceive you as lucky. And that’s because it’s true!

Top Tips for Landing a Better Gig

That said, I understand that new and unreasonable expectations cause even greater fear among layoff survivors. What if you simply can’t do all the extra work? Will you be the next to go? I know firsthand the pain and uncertainty that comes with being stripped of one’s livelihood, of being a 40-something industry veteran replaced by a 20-something newbie. And you’re right — it is terrifying.

But trust me, anyone who’s ever advised you that it’s harder to get a job when you don’t already have one is absolutely right! That means if you haven’t lined up another gig, don’t jump ship just yet! Instead, follow my top 5 tips for preparing for your great escape.

Tip #1: Pretend You Already Have a Better Job

Let’s say you see the writing on the wall. You know you will never, ever be happy in your current job. You have a million reasons why you want to quit and can’t think of any justification for staying besides pay and benefits. It covers the mortgage and lets you eat but it’s not fulfilling in any other way. What should you do?

First of all, congratulations on having enough self-awareness to recognize your problem — that means you’re well on the way to taking control of your own destiny!

Start by acting like your old job is a brand new one. Dress better. If anyone wants to know what’s up with that, tell them you’re going to a funeral. Trust me — they won’t ask again.

Put on your game face each and every day and do your job with a smile. Believe it or not, a little self-induced attitude adjustment will help you feel better and demonstrate your ability to embrace change. That’s a good thing to prove to yourself while you’re preparing to make a break — on your own terms, of course!

Also, treating your old job like a new job will be noticed, and it will help ameliorate any hard feelings that may be festering between you and your colleagues and/or managers. Remember, it takes a strong person to say, “I’m sorry,” though it costs nothing and goes a long way in mending fences. No matter how challenging your working relationships may be, aim to leave on a high note. It’s just better that way.

Tip #2: Pay Attention!

The big trend among job interviewers is to ask behavioral questions that gauge how you respond in certain situations. They ask things like, “Tell me about a time when you faced a particularly unpleasant scenario. How did you rectify the problem? With benefit of hindsight, what could you have done differently?”

Of course, it’s easiest to prepare for these kinds of questions if you’re seeking a job in your current field. Assuming that’s your goal, use this winding-down period to pay close attention to your working style. You may be so experienced that you’re on “automatic” at work, but now is the time to take note of how you actually operate.

You must be ready to answer these kinds of behavioral questions with confidence; the best way to do that is to be extremely mindful of your actions while you’re still on the front lines. Believe me, these questions become much harder to answer as months or even years of unemployment tick by.

Tip #3: Document, Document, Document!

Cull your email and other electronic records for information that demonstrates your accomplishments and contributions. Also, document any special processes or procedures you may have developed. Be sure you can support any claims you make on your résumé with cold hard facts! This is especially important if you’re trying to work out a better deal for yourself right where you are.

If you’ve written for your company’s web site, keep a list of those links plus the actual document files. Take screen shots, too. Such items can round out a portfolio nicely, but you don’t want to be disappointed if your online content is moved or taken down. Keeping electronic files will help you recreate samples if you need to. Obviously, you can’t steal and reveal corporate secrets, but you certainly do have a right to keep a record of your “unclassified” work!

Copy any data you deem worth keeping to a portable storage device regularly and often, because if you’re notified of your layoff at 9:00 A.M., you can expect your email and other network access to be cut off shortly thereafter. That’s just the way it’s done.

Tip #4: Create Targeted Résumés

I use the plural here because a single version of your résumé is never enough. You’re going to need electronic documents that you can tailor to each opportunity. By the conclusion of my most recent job search, I’d amassed more than 50 versions of my résumé!

If you’re unwilling or unable to put together a targeted résumé format that will be easy to modify on the fly, pay for the service. It’s much easier to absorb the expense while you’re working. Besides, you don’t want to have to rush in the event you hear of a golden opportunity.

The simplest tweak is to update your objective to name the specific job and company to which you’re applying, but you also need to arrange and word your qualifications and relevant experience in a way that speaks directly to the requirements listed in a given job description.

For example, because my most recent job search proved so difficult, I applied for nearly every kind of work I have ever done, save food service. Thus, when I put my name in the hat for editorial work, I listed my editorial accomplishments first, but when I competed for marketing positions, it was my lead-generation and copywriting experience that occupied the top spots. You get the idea.

Plus, because I submitted résumés both online and through snail mail, I had résumés in two different formats. One was an eye-appealing, easy-to-read Microsoft Word document and the other was plain text. I found this necessary because many of the online job widgets hosed up my Word formatting beyond recognition! My solution was to upload plain text files to job boards and then to distribute the more attractive Word documents during interviews.

The takeaway: If you still think of your résumé as a single, one-size-fits-all document, you’re taking the wrong approach to your job search. Period.

Tip #5: Sterilize Your Social Media Pages

This may sound like a no-brainer, but you’d be surprised at how many employers are finding reasons on social media sites to not hire certain candidates or to fire loose-lipped employees. If you’re in the job market or plan to be soon, don’t post anything you wouldn’t want your grandma to see. That means don’t upload pictures that portray you as trashed or doing anything stupid or illegal. Do not use profanity. Google yourself and scrutinize every aspect of your online profiles with a “Will this help me or hurt me?” filter. Keep your politics and religion offline, too — at least for now!

The important thing to remember is that the internet has made our world a much smaller place. Be extremely careful with your online image or it could come back to haunt you.

What Not to Do

There they are, my top 5 tips for finding a better job. And although I didn’t specifically list any job seeking Don’ts, I’d be remiss not to mention the biggest taboo of them all: Don’t conduct your job search on a work computer!

That means don’t draft, send or respond to any documents related to outside opportunities. Do not browse job boards from your work computer, even during lunch or after hours. Do not let on to your manager or colleagues that you are in the hunt, either.

Remember, for now you’re the only one who needs to know you’re a short timer; the closer you follow these no-nonsense tips, the better your chances will be of landing a more desirable position sooner rather than later. Here’s wishing you the best of luck in the quest for a job that doesn’t suck!

Image Credits:
Graffiti: http://www.flickr.com/photos/mikecolvin82/
Shattered rock: http://www.flickr.com/photos/janetgalore/
Four-leaf Clover: http://www.flickr.com/photos/kevinomara/
Target: http://www.flickr.com/photos/akire_yrko/

Janice Conard is a U.S. Air Force veteran who studied writing, art and politics at Virginia Commonwealth University, where she earned her Bachelor of General Studies degree. She’s been writing for the web since 1999, having covered business and technology topics for TechRepublic, ZDNet and BNET (now CBS MoneyWatch). These days Janice writes about personal and business finance for online check printer CheckAdvantage. Visit the site to browse a huge selection of personal checks as well as matching address labels and more.


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