What Happens When Your Position Is Eliminated?

Jonathan Graham describes how he's tried to heal and offers some advice to others in the same situation -- or who fear they might be.

March 4, 2021
 
 
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It’s as awful as you think.

That morning, about a year ago, I arrived in the office a few minutes after 8 a.m., checked my email, then opened our project management tool to see the progress my team was making on some looming deadlines. I prepared myself for the team meeting our vice president had set for 9 a.m.

In retrospect, I was mostly just steeling myself for a session on planning for the future, for which no agenda had been shared. Several of my direct reports had asked what this meeting was about after the invitation popped up on their calendars. I told them the truth: I didn’t really know.

As you probably have guessed, I never made it to that meeting.

At about 8:30 a.m., the vice president came into my office, followed by the human resources director, and they closed the door. The vice president told me there was no longer room in the budget for my position. She told me that letting me go had nothing to do with my performance. She offered to write a letter of reference and told me I was eligible to apply for other positions in the future. The human resources director handed me a large envelope of paperwork and told me I had the choice of cleaning out my office that day or making an appointment to do so later. After they left my office, they delivered the same speech to two of my colleagues. I packed up that afternoon. Several former coworkers offered to help me load my car, though I didn’t have much to carry. They stood around uncomfortably, then offered firm handshakes or half hugs. No one knew what to say, but we all knew what the others were thinking.

Would you believe that losing my job both caught me off guard but was also totally predictable?

The institution where I had been working had a large structural deficit and declining enrollment. For years, institutional leaders had talked about “high discount rates” and “short runways.” Colleagues shared news stories about colleges that were closing. Others forwarded emails from their own more prestigious alma maters, which were eliminating programs and laying off employees by the dozen. Still, I had never received a negative performance review, and my work had been praised by colleagues, presidents and trustees. In meetings, I communicated my willingness to embrace change. Somehow, I had convinced myself I would be one of the lucky ones.

No such luck.

As a communications person, I knew an all-campus email about our department’s future would be released that morning, and that my bad news would soon become very public in our small community. I called my wife at the school where she teaches so that she could hear the news from me. Two of her colleagues are married to people who would receive the message. I also remembered that she was leading a field trip to my former campus later that day, and I wanted to give her the opportunity to mentally prepare.

Shortly after the message went out, my email account was terminated. If colleagues from other departments sent those obligatory thanks-and-I’m-sorry messages, I never received them. The reality of my abrupt separation began to sink in.

When I told my teenage son I had been fired, he asked, almost immediately: 1) Could we still afford to live in our house? and 2) Could he still go to college? He’s direct in that way, so we got those issues addressed quickly. My daughter, a younger teenager, wanted to hear all the details, including how various of my colleagues felt about the situation -- particularly, who was sad or angry on my behalf. Later she asked what I would do with my collection of free T-shirts from the place where I no longer worked. I suggested Goodwill; she eyed the firepit.

In every way, it was an awful day.

All of us who work in higher education are heavily invested in hope for the future. We project it onto our students. We try to conjure it for our institutions, and for ourselves. When I lost my job, my kids lost access to the tuition remission benefits our family had been counting on. Our family suddenly felt much less comfortable on a campus that had been a big part of our lives for more than a decade. Suddenly, the small town we had moved to for my job felt much less a place of hospitality and possibility than it had the day before.

Moving On

As I began searching for a new position, I began to better understand all that I had lost. A 2018 study published by the Urban Institute and ProPublica reveals that more than half of Americans over age 50 will experience job loss, and only 10 percent of those will ever again have a job that pays as much as the one they lost. Wherever my career takes me, I will always have a job-to-job transition on my CV that will be uncomfortable to explain. My job loss is likely to shadow the rest of my career.

In other ways, I have been quite lucky. I lost my job on Jan. 23, 2020, but thanks in part to fortuitous timing and a personal connection, another institution offered me a new position only 34 business days later. That happened the same week the pandemic began to close the country down. As often happens in such cases, my new position is lower status and lower pay than my previous one. It is also lower stress and has given me the opportunity to refresh some hands-on and technical skills that had gone a little stale while I was focused on supervising the work of others. My new boss and colleagues have been remarkably welcoming and nonjudgmental about my situation.

I also received severance from my previous institution. That made things significantly easier for me and my family than for, say, the millions of Americans who lost jobs due to pandemic-related shutdowns.

My previous employer is not unique in its struggles. A 2020 analysis of 2,662 colleges and universities by the Hechinger Report identified more than 500 that were showing “warning signs” of significant financial stress. Looking back, I was in a vulnerable position. Terminating a department head both helped the institution meet its budget reduction goals and sent a message that the institution was open to “course correction.”

Yet after I lost my job, I obsessed over every conversation I had with leadership, every point of slight disagreement, any small misstep I made, and I wondered where I went wrong. A year later, I am beginning to accept that I will never fully understand why this happened to me.

The truth is, there is not “room in the budget” for all of us.

So I move on. I heal as best I can. And as for advice to those whose positions have been eliminated (or worry that they may be in the future), here’s what I can offer:

  • Take time to mourn. Job loss is a trauma, and you need to deal with it as such. Acknowledge your grief and talk with others about how you’re feeling, even as you work toward the next steps in your career.
  • Connect with your network. When I lost my job, one of the most valuable assets I had was a group of trusted people who could vouch for me, provide a reality check and commiserate. It was particularly helpful that several of those people did not work at my previous institution. Outside perspective helps.
  • Seek legal advice before you sign a severance agreement. Having a professional help you understand the paperwork, and suggest possible changes, will reduce your worry and protect your rights. And remember: these agreements, like all contracts, are subject to negotiation.
  • Take stock of your professional self. Carefully consider what you find most meaningful and joyful about work -- and what you don’t. This is particularly important if you are leaving an unhappy work environment. Do yourself a favor and, as much as possible, seek more joy and more meaning in your work.

Bio

Jonathan Graham is a husband, a dad, a playwright and director of marketing and communications at Bethany Theological Seminary.

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