RIF'd at 59: The Lessons She Learned

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By Christine Jensen

As I drove to work on that Monday morning last June, a thought came into my mind, seemingly out of nowhere: What if I lost my job today? One hour later, that is exactly what happened.

My boss informed me that I was losing my middle-manager corporate job as part of a business restructuring, a "reduction in force" (RIF).

After almost seven years in my position, I was "RIF'd" at age 59. I wondered about that thought that had come to me just an hour earlier: Was it a premonition? Or had my subconscious simply put together clues that my conscious mind had ignored?

Over the last seven months since the RIF, I've learned seven lessons from my experience that could be helpful for others in a similar situation:

1. Put first things first. After getting the news, the HR representative said I could return the next day to pack my personal things and return my security badge, credit card, laptop and phone. So I went home with just a large manila envelope under my arm. Once home, I tossed the envelope containing my severance package on the dining room table and got to work immediately on the only thing that mattered to me that day: retrieving a single voicemail message from my company phone.

Although I could easily forward a personal photo or email from work, there was no easy way to save a voicemail message. The last voicemail message I'd received at my job was from my mother. So I went online to find a program that allowed me to save the voicemail message. The process required a certain cable, so off to Radio Shack I went. When I returned, cable in hand, I was able to save the last recording of my mom saying: "I love you." First things first.

2. Let your adult children act like adults. I dreaded telling my husband and my two adult daughters the news; saying it out loud made it too real. My husband was caring and supportive - not a surprise. But when I called my daughters and shared the news, they comforted me to a degree that I never expected.

They put everything in perspective. I was used to being the comforter; how wonderful it felt to be on the receiving end of my daughters' compassion and support.

3. Feel the loss. I grieved the loss deeply, although I was embarrassed to be so upset. Drawn to revisit a book I had read a year earlier, Life Lessons by Elisabeth Kübler Ross and David Kessler, I found its chapter about loss particularly relevant, even though I had lost just a job, not a loved one.

One quote really stood out: "No one can predict the response to loss. Grief is personal. The feelings can be conflicted, delayed and overwhelming." So true.

4. Lean on your faith. Of course, faith means different things to different people. For me, a verse from the Old Testament (Psalm 119:105) emerged as my mantra. Every day, I asked God to be "a lamp to my feet" - especially since I didn't have a clue where I was headed!

That verse helped me get through the dark days - to trust that I was moving toward something better in my professional life.

5. Do the math. Back to that fat manila envelope that held the severance package: I ignored it on the first day, but it didn't lie undisturbed for long. I carefully reviewed all the information and evaluated my options.

My husband served as a sounding board and adviser, and we met with our CPA to get his advice. It wasn't fun to look at the numbers, but I'm glad we made some time-sensitive decisions fairly quickly.

6. Closure can come in unexpected ways. One of the hardest parts of being "RIF'd" was the suddenness of the dismissal. As Thanksgiving approached, I decided to send thank-you notes to a few people who remained with my former employer. I bought a small package of Thanksgiving cards and wrote personal notes to those people who had made my work particularly engaging and rewarding.

Mailing the cards gave me a genuine sense of peace. I wasn't expecting that feeling, but it was a wonderful, if unexpected, byproduct.

A bigger surprise came when some of the people I'd sent cards replied with handwritten notes of their own. That was deeply touching and helped me, finally, to close that chapter of my professional life.

7. Sitting on the fence has a cost. Until the end of December, I straddled a fence. On one side was the prospect of a full-time job; on the other was the prospect of full-time freelancing. For six months, I had pursued both, having difficulty choosing one side of the fence.

Decision Day was December 31, the last day applications were being accepted for a full-time job that appeared to be a near-perfect fit. Applying meant that I would tentatively pursue freelance work for another three months, waiting for a final decision about the full-time job. I'm not sure what changed that day, but I was ready, finally, to get off the fence. I did not submit the application.

Looking back now, I see that my indecision had a cost: About 30 percent of my time had been spent applying and interviewing for full-time jobs; another 30 percent was spent doing project work as a freelancer and the remaining 40 percent was worrying about which direction to choose.

Seven months after being "RIF'd" at age 59, the pain is starting to fade into memory. For now, I am feeling energized and optimistic, pursuing enough freelance work to keep the bills paid and add to the retirement fund.

And while I haven't had any premonitions lately, I do have a sense that many good opportunities lie ahead, some of which I may need to create for myself.

Christine Jensen, MBA, is a communication consultant and freelance writer in Des Moines, Iowa.
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