Building a Smart Job Loss Plan

Imagine that tomorrow – or your next day at work – you go into your workplace only to find a pink slip waiting for you. You’re done. Your employer heard some horrible rumor about you, or maybe your organization is downsizing, or maybe you made a big mistake recently and it’s caught up to you. Whatever it is, your job is no longer yours. You have 15 minutes to clean out your desk and half an hour at HR to sign some papers and then you’re out on the street.

What now? What do you do?

For many Americans, this scenario is a total nightmare. Remember that 78% of Americans live a paycheck-to-paycheck lifestyle – they’re running into major financial trouble if they miss just a single paycheck (here’s the scoop on that frightening statistic). The idea of a sudden job loss can feel almost overwhelming, and it’s often those big overwhelming things that we push to the side and try not to think about.

As with most big fears in life, however, an unexpected job loss can be made much more tolerable by having a plan in place for what to do if and when it happens, and then taking action on some of those steps now rather than later, because actions on those steps will often help you now.

Here are six things you can do right now to prepare yourself for the possibility of a job loss and make the impact far less painful. These steps lead directly to actions you can and should take as soon as you find yourself without work.

Step 1: Keep your resume updated all the time.

Your resume should always be ready to hand to someone, regardless of how you feel about your job security, because you never know when an opportunity will pop up, just as you never know when you might lose your current job. A resume is a tool that you need for both positive and negative unexpected events.

Your resume should be intentionally geared toward getting the job that you would like to have if your current job vanished. Would you be aiming for the same type of position? Something a little higher on the career track? Something decidedly different? Whatever that target is, design your resume to sell yourself for that job.

Make sure that your resume is loaded with things you’ve actually achieved and skills you can clearly demonstrate that all indicate competency and qualification for that job that you want. Remember that general skills, like leadership and organization, are generally always welcome. If you load it down with irrelevant things, you’re making it harder to get that job.

How do you get those things? You should be aiming to do as many resume-worthy things in your current job as possible. Make a conscious effort to work on things that you’d want to list on your resume, and try to get involved with tasks that make for good material for your resume.

The document itself should be continuously updated, too. Keep it somewhere where you can grab it in a pinch. Keeping it updated on sites like LinkedIn is a good way to keep yourself open for opportunities.

Step 2: Keep your training and education current, preferably using current workplace resources.

The “training” and “education” sections of your resume should be as fresh as possible and directly applicable to the things that people are looking for right now as they search for professional candidates to fill positions.

If you don’t know what’s in demand right now, do the homework. Look at the exact job listings for positions you might want to fill and ask yourself if you have everything that they’re asking for in a reasonably current form. If not, then you have a checklist of things to work on.

Right now is the right time to start working on this, because there’s at least some likelihood that you can take advantage of workplace resources with your current employer to obtain that training and education. Does your workplace offer any resources or funds for additional training? Do they offer flexibility for increasing your education? Talk to human resources and know what’s available to you.

Keeping these parts of your resume fresh will go a long way toward not only opening up opportunities for you today, but ensuring that you’re ready to go should a job loss come your way tomorrow.

Step 3: Have a set of strong professional contacts in place; do favors and make sure those relationships are strong.

Who do you know in your field that would be able to quickly connect you to another position should your current one dissipate? Which people are working at companies that are actively hiring? Who do you know that’s a high performer in your field?

Cultivate those relationships. Have lots of conversations with those people. Go out to lunch with them. When you hear that they need a favor, step up to the plate, particularly if it’s a “multiplier favor” – the kind of favor that’s far more valuable to the recipient than to the giver (you should always give out multiplier favors in any and all situations) – and don’t expect anything in return immediately. These relationships become ones that you can tap when the chips are down. They’re also relationships that sometimes pop up in your life with great opportunities.

Build those contacts. Invest the time to keep them strong. This means sending emails and Facebook messages and tweets. This means going out to lunches and participating in professional groups. This means even going to conferences and conventions. Those are things you should always be doing to maintain professional relationships.

Step 4: Have a very healthy emergency fund.

Having enough cash sitting in the bank to sustain you for a month or two without a job is another key step in preparing yourself against a potential unexpected job loss. That money can sustain you for a few paychecks while you find new employment opportunities.

Not only that, a healthy emergency fund is able to assist you in other life emergencies, such as a car breakdown or a need for emergency travel. Those expenses can come out of nowhere and cause all kinds of personal crises.

Doesn’t a credit card work in this situation? A credit card works as long as your identity is secure and the bank is willing to extend credit to you. In an credit card fraud or identity theft situation, your credit card is useless; if a bank happens to be reassessing credit limits, your credit card can become useless. Don’t rely on it for genuine emergencies. Cash is king.

Getting this started is easy. All you have to do is set up an automatic transfer from your checking to your savings where a small amount of money is moved each week – say, $20 or $40 or whatever you’re comfortable with. Set it up and forget about it and you’ll have thousands set aside within a year or two.

Step 5: Know exactly what benefits you’re due if you were to lose your job and how to get those benefits.

What exactly is due to you should you lose your job for some reason? What benefits does your contract provide if your employment is terminated for various reasons? What benefits are available to you outside of your workplace in that situation?

You owe it to yourself to know what these benefits are and how to access them. It’s well worth the half an hour of research needed to find that information and store it someplace secure, such as in a note on your phone.

If you’re not sure where to start in terms of finding out that information, your human resources officer is the right person to ask. Simply ask the questions and, if asked for a reason, state that you’re simply reviewing your finances because you want to get all of your ducks in a row (which is the genuine truth).

If you do find that you are suddenly unemployed, having the phone numbers to call all ready on your phone makes the crisis a lot easier to deal with. It’s likely that you’ll be emotionally fraught at that point, and it’s also likely that human resources may suddenly be less cooperative with you than before. Ask the questions now. Get the information straight now.

Step 6: Have a list of people to contact immediately to start finding another job.

If you’ve lost your job, what do you do next? For many people, this is a panicky crisis and they’re likely to not make the wisest of moves in those first days after a job loss. That’s why it pays to give the matter some thought now when you are calm, cool, and collected.

Who exactly would you call first if you lost your job in order to start moving toward your next employment opportunity? If you’re not sure, give it some careful thought. Who are your first contacts? Who’s likely to return your call and actually provide genuine help?

Make a brief list of these people and their contact information. That way, if you do find yourself in this situation, you know who to contact quickly and efficiently. Again, this is a good “note” to have on your phone for just such a situation.

The key lesson here extends beyond mere job loss.

The key lesson is that thinking about life’s potential problems now and coming up with solutions in a rational and calm way, then taking steps to make those solutions easy to execute in a crisis, goes a long way toward making any and all crises in life much easier to handle.

The little steps you take now, handled with rational thought and just a little effort and a little money, can save you enormous headaches and a great deal of money down the road when an unfortunate event does occur. Preparing for a job loss is just one example of this powerful life strategy.

Good luck!

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Trent Hamm

Founder & Columnist

Trent Hamm founded The Simple Dollar in 2006 and still writes a daily column on personal finance. He’s the author of three books published by Simon & Schuster and Financial Times Press, has contributed to Business Insider, US News & World Report, Yahoo Finance, and Lifehacker, and his financial advice has been featured in The New York Times, TIME, Forbes, The Guardian, and elsewhere.