October 11, 2015

Coping with Unemployment

In the September 7, 2009, issue of the New York Times, reporter Michael Lud wrote an article entitled “Out of Work and Too Down to Search On,” which essentially made the point that the economic environment is so bad that many people stop looking for work.

Unemployment is psychologically devastating. I know: I was unemployed for several months in early 1979, when I left my law firm and was trying to secure another legal position. I was asked to look for another job because I was told I would not be made a partner. My stay on the unemployment rolls was brief, but terrifying. As a result, I empathize with anyone who has lost his or her job.

However, the news media do a disservice to those who are unemployed by giving the impression that their future is totally out of their control, and that giving up is a reasonable response to the situation. I have watched many people lose their jobs. In fact, my first law client was an African-American with a sixth grade education, whose employer had wrongfully terminated him. He was 43 years old, married with 11 children, and lived in a desperately poor part of Chicago. Four years elapsed between his termination and his court-ordered reinstatement, but he found ways to cope with his situation and earn a living to support his family.

Those who transcend despair do so because they find small ways of taking control of their destiny. In his best seller The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People , Steven Covey tells the story of Victor Frankl, a concentration camp victim, who found ways to assert control in an environment in which he appeared to be absolutely powerless. Covey’s conclusion is that “it’s not what happens to you; it’s what you do with what happens to you.”

How do people who successfully cope with unemployment? First, they find or create income-earning opportunities, even if they are small or part-time. I have watched people become dog walkers, funeral home greeters, taxicab drivers, tutors, market research survey takers (a job I did when unemployed after college), personal trainers, traffic crossing guards, temporary construction workers, house sitters, baby-sitters, and musical performers, in addition to those who secure minimum wage work as waiters or retail clerks.

Second, they learn new skills. Many people have learned from friends how to sell on eBay and Amazon.com. Many people will teach others how to sell items online, and those who learn can earn income and new and marketable skills.

Third, by working in temporary assignments, they audition for potential new employers. Our long-term part-time baby sitter, who got a little incremental income from us every year, started with a temporary baby-sitting service and worked twice for us in 1993. After that, we hired her directly, and she secured a small, but steady, income stream.

What many stories about unemployment miss is that people have the ability to get employers to create jobs for them. Those who do temporary work for an employer and develop and demonstrate skills the employer desperately needs are much more likely to get jobs created that match their skills than if they sit back and wait for a job to be created.

Fourth, they are reliable, courteous, and disciplined in managing their lives when unemployed. Someone I know worked recently as a recruiter for a temporary staffing firm. He was astounded by the unreliability of many people for whom he was trying to find temporary work. They would get an assignment, and then fail to show up for work.

Fifth, they volunteer in the not-for-profit sector to serve others less fortunate than themselves. Although the purpose of their volunteerism was to help others, they often secured full-time positions.

Sixth, they use or build support systems. In the 1930’s, African Americans in Harlem devastated by the Depression banded together to prevent any of them from being evicted. They would hold rent parties to help the friend closest to eviction get current on their rent. Those who cope best with unemployment are more focused on building or drawing on support resources in times of economic disaster.

There is even a barter system that has been created in economically-depressed communities called TimeBanks.org, which helps match people with different skills with people that need those skills. For work an individual does for others, he or she secures “dollars” that can be used to “purchase” services such as child care, transportation, home repair, and even companionship. This kind of exchange helps people connect socially with one another, learn new skills, and reduce their cost of living. It keeps them active, and gives them a sense of control over their future, but creating a new support system for them.

Finally, they treat unemployment as a gift as well as a setback. At Pitney Bowes, during my tenure as CEO, we went through a transition in which we wound down and ended our manufacturing operations in Stamford. Many good manufacturing people had to leave the company.

I recall two encounters: one in Greenwich and one at a gardening store in Stamford. In Greenwich, an angry custodian at a school at which my son was playing chess told me that I had ruined his life by the company’s decision to wind down Stamford manufacturing.

In Stamford, a different gentleman approached me and thanked me for making the manufacturing transition decision, which forced him to realize that he was much happier doing outdoor gardening work. He discovered that many people needed more affordable landscaping services. He had started a landscaping and yard maintenance business with another laid-off Pitney Bowes employee, and was happier than he had ever been in his life.

The news media does a very poor job telling a balanced story on the issue of unemployment. They foster the myth that when unemployment occurs, the only way out is for someone else to create jobs for people. As a result, an unemployed person comes to believe that the future is out of his or her control. That’s devastating and morally indefensible. We owe those displaced by unemployment guidance on how to increase their likelihood of securing reemployment, and how to restore their sense of and self-worth and self-control.