Whether you’re in tech or somewhere fuzzier, downturns happen. The U.S. tech industry shed nearly 100,000 positions in 2022, a whopping 649 percent increase over the previous year. And in 2023, the hits are still coming. Alumni recruiters who lived through the dot-com collapse of 2001–05 (when the tech sector laid off a full quarter of its workers) and the global recession of 2007–09 know this scene well. “I got to New York, and three months later 9/11 hit, and all of a sudden half my [Goldman Sachs] analyst class was laid off,” recalls Ryan Renteria, ’01, CEO Coach at Stretch Five. They’ve got advice on positioning yourself during times of instability and what to do if the axe falls, based on their own experiences and the work they do today.
Before: Be indispensable—but not incessant.
Those best poised to survive a layoff are people who get things done and do them well. Look for opportunities to volunteer for projects with an organization-wide impact. “Say there is a monthly meeting where your team needs to report results. Volunteer to lead the collection of the results and prepare the presenter,” says Emily Caruthers, ’02, MA ’04, who leads executive recruiting for Amazon’s entertainment and advertising businesses. “Take one month to learn how to do it, then the next month, do it as autonomously as possible and with as few errors as possible. The next month, improve on how it was done.”
‘The people who overwork . . . are no longer the ones that are held up as the example employees.’
Becoming someone the company can’t imagine losing may seem like a tall order. “You want to be a generalist, but at the same time, you do want to be known for something,” says Stephanie Tan, ’94, MS ’94, who runs Tan Talent Group, a boutique talent advisory and search firm that partners with early-stage founders to build their initial teams. So keep in mind that the thing you are known for doesn’t have to be technical. Renteria recommends reflecting on your specific position and considering whether your interpersonal or critical thinking skills might be your individual differentiator.
And for the record, indispensable doesn’t mean working 24/7. Caruthers says she sees leaders becoming more inclusive, praising working parents who are the picture of efficiency or Gen Zers who have full lives outside of work. “I do think there is a shift happening where the people who overwork to get things done are no longer the ones that are held up as the example employees in every organization.”
Before: Always be ready.
Make it an annual tradition to freshen up your résumé and LinkedIn page. Renteria, ’01, remembers internalizing advice from his older Stanford fraternity brothers to make résumés perfect. “This stuff is way more important than you realize. You’ve got to become a master of it,” he says. Cover letters should shine too. “They still get read, absolutely,” says Renteria. “It’s a huge opportunity to differentiate yourself.”
Study what is happening in the economy and how it affects your company. “My advice would be not to get too distracted about all the noise, but definitely understand what the macro factors are that are impacting your specific industry,” Tan says. That could mean following industry newsletters, tuning in to earnings calls, or reading competitor company news.
‘You need to take a few days to get over the identity shock of being a high-performing, type A Stanford alum who’s always kicked ass and is then let go.’
On the other hand, Renteria points out, too much focus on industry happenings can increase anxiety. He suggests concentrating on areas where you have more control, like knowing what kinds of jobs are appropriate for your skills. “Make sure that you always know your market value and you’re constantly keeping up with your contacts and your relationships.”
Before: Aim yourself in the right direction.
Maybe you went to work for Company X because it was what everyone said you should do, but it wasn’t where you really wanted to be. Before a layoff is the best time to consider new paths. “By doing this advanced thinking, if and when it does happen to you, you’re not scrambling afterwards,” says Tan. “You actually have a little bit of a game plan and feel a little more in control of the situation, which, for the most part, is completely out of your control.”
After: Take time to grieve.
Caruthers, Renteria, and Tan all recommend taking time to process a layoff before launching into a job search. Even just a few days can give you the reboot you need to go into the search with confidence—and that will serve you better in the job market. “You need to take a few days to get over the identity shock of being a high-performing, type A Stanford alum who’s always, for lack of a better word, kicked ass and is then let go,” Renteria says.
Caruthers says a layoff can represent a moment to be intentional about your next move, whether it’s a leap to a different industry or taking time to gain new skills. “Figure out if there’s anything that you can be grateful for, or any way that you can see a silver lining in the situation.”
After: Use your network.
Be up-front, transparent, and positive in letting others know about your layoff and job search. “I think individual emails are the best way to go,” says Caruthers. “Something short and sweet, like ‘I have spent the last few years at Company X. I’ve accomplished 1, 2, 3, and I’m now looking for my next opportunity.’”
Then take advantage of Zoom meetings and jump on as many informational interviews as you can. The goal shouldn’t be to explicitly request a job, but to ask good questions and to glean information on each person’s company and industry. Tan recommends being courteous and responsive to everyone you contact. Even if what they are offering right now isn’t for you, the next opportunity might be.
Christine Foster is a writer in Connecticut. Email her firstname.lastname@example.org.