At the close of the movie The Martian, the Matt Damon character, who is addressing a class of would-be astronauts about his experience of being abandoned on Mars, tells his audience that they have to understand that at some moment in their experience of space travel, “everything is going to go south.” He might just as well have been talking about a career in university administration.
It would have made a less exciting movie, but the reality would have been similar: at some point in your career, things are probably going to go very wrong. It could be an incompatible boss, a shift in institutional priorities, a failed grant or donor opportunity, an unforgivable human error on your part, or any one of dozens of potential catastrophes. Unlike our Martian traveler, you won’t run out of oxygen, but you will lose your job. And unlike in the movie, and despite the fact that this happens to almost everyone, you won’t be deemed a hero after you survive the collapse of your employment. More likely, you will be a pariah, because, as we know, unemployment is widely thought to be both self-inflicted and contagious.
I’m writing here about my own experience participating in and rebounding from a federal reduction in force -- or in other words, an involuntary layoff -- and some of the lessons I learned that might be helpful to others.
My first academic appointment was at Brooklyn College of the City University of New York as an adjunct lecturer, where I worked my way up to tenure and a full professorship. I eventually got involved in campus administration, which in my case meant service as chair of the faculty council core curriculum committee -- a body responsible for managing the college’s nationally recognized course sequence that was required for all of the college’s 14,000 undergraduates.
That was in the early 1990s, when the National Endowment for the Humanities was actively engaged in supporting core curricula nationwide. My role in the Brooklyn core got me involved in NEH programs, and I soon was encouraged to apply for, and was offered, a job as a program officer at NEH. I started in January 1993, the beginning of the Clinton administration, as a nonpolitical civil-service appointee. My university allowed me to take an unpaid two-year leave of absence from my faculty position.
Things went well until several years later when -- after I had finished my unpaid leave of absence from Brooklyn College, resigned my tenured faculty slot, sold my Upper West Side co-op apartment in New York City, and moved to Washington -- Newt Gingrich successfully took out his Contract on America (aka the Contract for America), vowing to cut the budgets of federal cultural agencies. Ultimately, I, along with about 40 percent of the staff at NEH, all of the agency’s employees with less than six years’ seniority, lost my federal job.
Don’t cry for me, Argentina. My last day of federal employment was Dec. 3, 1995. My first consulting job started Dec. 4, the day after. Within two months, the consulting company I had opened with three of my former NEH colleagues was turning away business.
The reason that I was able to make such a setback work so well for me was in part because budget-generated federal staff layoffs -- called reductions in force, or RIFs -- follow a lengthy process that is rigidly defined by federal labor laws. But, more important, it was because I deliberately took strategic advantage of the time the RIF process made available to me.
The proposed budget cuts for the forthcoming federal fiscal year were made in the spring but didn’t actually occur until that October. In the interim, my first action was to send an email around to all of my fellow potential RIFees suggesting we get together for a weekly brown-bag lunch to discuss our situation and possible responses to our pending unemployment. The agency wasn’t unsympathetic to our plight, and in relatively short order, they offered us a room for the lunches. I then sent emails to all of my grantees and contacts letting them know the situation at NEH in general and for me in particular. Federal rules precluded my asking them directly for jobs, but it wasn’t illegal for me to let them know I was about to lose mine. I figured that any of them who couldn’t read between the lines in that sort of message weren’t the sort of people I’d want to work for anyway.
Then, in the late summer, three of my fellow RIFees, who worked in a different office at NEH, came to me with the idea of opening a post-federal-employment consulting company. We worked through the fall on developing a business plan and designing a website and other promotional materials, and once the RIFs were confirmed in midautumn, we sent a second round of emails that now said, “Hi, we’re leaving NEH because of the RIF, but after we leave you can reach us at the new consulting company address.” Again, we didn’t directly solicit business with this, which would have been a violation of federal rules; we just picked a name for our consultancy that made what we were doing clear: National Grants and Fellowships Consultants.
The business plan worked. The consultancy generated sufficient money to get us by until we could all find other jobs. And in the process, I had learned important lessons that I think are relevant to anyone who has experienced losing a job. Here’s what I recommend to others.
- Establish and take advantage of whatever networks you can build in your current job. You never know when they will be essential resources for your next career steps.
- Take the initiative and be willing to be a bit brazen in your career moves. When I convened the RIF group at NEH, I had no idea that the administration would respond positively to my initiative. Of course, at that point, they were going to be required to fire me anyway, so I didn’t have all that much to lose, but they could have made my life difficult during my last months of federal employment. I took the small risk; they ended up supporting me and, indeed, liking what I’d done since it improved morale among the RIFettes; and when they had to bring people back on board to fill the gaps that resulted from the RIF, I ended being among the rehires.
- Don’t burn bridges. Angry as I was at the Gingrich Congress, and disappointed as I was at NEH’s leadership for not fighting more effectively against the cuts, I didn’t poison the waters. And that gave me not only a good client network for the consultancy but also a welcome back to NEH, which offered me another job when the budget issues were finally resolved.
- Have a business plan. The plan is particularly important when you are setting up a program with colleagues. Pick your partners well, and then establish a formal structure for who does what and how the money will flow through your new organization. It was bad enough that we lost our federal jobs. We didn’t want to compound the pain of a forced job loss by setting up conflicts within our post-RIF collaborative.
- Know and follow the rules. There are strict federal laws governing how we could work with the networks we had built as federal program officers. The business plan of our consultancy was structured to comply with them. We certainly didn’t want to compound the pain of a forced job loss by setting ourselves up for a federal indictment. And there are strict local rules regarding whether and how consultancies must be registered and how the income from this sort of work has to be reported. See above regarding the benefits of compliance versus the threat of penalties or indictments.
- Anticipate, and take advantage of, unexpected career benefits. The experience I gained in establishing the consultancy two decades ago was critical in allowing me to be effective in setting up the post-retirement consultancy I’m running now. The jobs that I held in the immediate post-RIF years, as a consultant at NEH and then as an administrator and fund-raiser with the University of Maryland and Hood College, gave me a great deal of experience that significantly enriched my eventual return to full-time federal service with first NEH and then the U.S. Department of Education. And the emotional strength I gained from being forced out and then landing on my feet gave me a level of confidence and sense of assurance that has stood me in good stead throughout my career.
Looking back, I think I lucked out, and frankly, I wouldn’t go back and trade my trajectory for a more stable one. It looked like adversity at the time. It turned out to be opportunity.