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12.10.2007 in Top Stories Bookmark and Share

Finding the silver lining in unemployment

They’re two phrases most of us dread to hear: “We’re going to have to let you go” and “You’re fired”. But according to research conducted by York Professors Jelena Zikic and Julia Richardson, job loss – due to restructuring, downsizing, dismissal or being laid off – can often lead to positive outcomes.

Right: Julia Richardson (left) with Jelena Zikic

It’s hard to imagine a silver lining in finding yourself unemployed, particularly given the potential financial implications, negative perceptions among colleagues and friends, and the anxiety of having to compete for a new position in an increasingly competitive job market (not to mention a bruised ego). According to Zikic and Richardson however, many professionals may eventually view job loss as an opportunity for development. While acknowledging that job loss can be stressful and have a negative professional and personal impact, they also offer a new way of considering what many find a debilitating experience.

Zikic and Richardson, who are both faculty members in Atkinson’s School of Administrative Studies, recently published the findings from a study of the effects of job loss among older workers, specifically middle managers or executives, in the Canadian Journal of Administrative Sciences. The findings were part of a larger study on job loss, spearheaded by Zikic in 2005 and published in the Journal of Vocational Behavior. The researchers conducted 30 in-depth interviews with professionals using one of four outplacement (career transition) services. The interviewees came from a wide range of organizations, including consulting firms, banks, insurance agencies and manufacturing companies. Of the individuals interviewed – 54 per cent were in managerial positions and 32 per cent in executive positions – many had long-term tenure with their organization prior to being let go and most were considered experts in their field.

The study focused on the implications of job loss, exploring how it is managed individually. While interviewees discussed both the good and the bad, Zikic and Richardson were surprised to find that for many, job loss provided an opportunity for “self-reflection”, “stock taking” and “time out”.

“After the initial shock wore off, many interviewed felt that their loss opened up possibilities for career growth, self-reflection and self-exploration,” said Zikic. “Losing their job gave them the chance to redirect their careers and their personal lives, leading to positive career outcomes and enhanced personal fulfillment. Many described undergoing a personal transformation as well as renewing family relationships and increasing their self-awareness.”

Many of the interviewees noted that because of the nature of their previous jobs, opportunities for any kind of professional or personal transformation were practically impossible – mostly due to lack of time and energy. Several of the interviewees were working long hours, considered themselves trapped in a routine, felt under “pressure to perform”, and believed that their careers offered very little, if any, flexibility or downtime. Job loss provided them with a rare opportunity to take a step back and assess their careers, and for some, to “explore, unlock and, in some cases, reconstruct their family and personal relationships.” What Zikic and Richardson found particularly significant was that most interviewees believed their job loss enabled them to “escape one life and embark upon another.”

“Many had reached milestones in their career and this was an important moment for them to contemplate next steps,” said Richardson. “The interviewees understood that job loss is dynamic rather than static. Thus, for example, once they engaged in periods of downtime, they began a deeper exploration of the experience and, in some cases, made sense of losing their job as a ‘blessing in disguise’.”

Along with confronting typical notions of job loss, Zikic and Richardson’s research challenges stereotypes about older workers. While one might expect that interviewees might have focused on their “lack of credentials” or being too old to tackle a new career, their research suggested otherwise. Indeed, for most it was an opportunity to support a career move, to try something new professionally, or to pursue additional education.

An information technology manager who was continually "on call" in her previous job, realized, only after the fact, that she had hated her job. She took out a loan, went back to school and trained as a nurse. Similarly, one former manager told the researchers he’d had “a reputation as a hardcore workaholic, which was sort of what you needed to be.” He had worked every Sunday, and routinely received e-mails from colleagues well past midnight. Once he lost his job, however, he adopted a more reflective approach to his career which made for a great sense of overall life balance – something nobody, least of all himself or his wife, would have expected.

“What our research uncovered is that the unemployed can be self-reliant and are able to successfully explore and manage their career options, as well as engage in various learning opportunities,” said Zikic. “Our findings challenge typical notions about job loss and provide a more useful outlook on how any professional, regardless of age, can better manage the experience.”

Zikic teaches in Atkinson's Human Resources Management Program and has an extensive international background. Her research centres on individual and organizational career management issues – focusing on the impact of career transitions and mobility on one’s career growth and development. Richardson teaches management in Atkinson's School of Administrative Studies. Her recent work focuses on internationally mobile professionals and flexible work practices. Her research draws on conceptions of the ‘boundaryless career’, where career decisions are managed by the individual. In 2005 she was awarded the Atkinson Dean’s Award for Excellence in Teaching.

For more information on the study, contact Jelena Zikic at jelenaz@yorku.ca or Julia Richardson at jrichard@yorku.ca

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