Few people are as knee-deep in our work-related anxieties and sticky office politics as Alison Green, who has been fielding workplace questions for a decade now on her website Ask a Manager. In Direct Report, she spotlights themes from her inbox that help explain the modern workplace and how we could be navigating it better.
Job hunting can be difficult at the best of times. It’s absolutely dismal right now. With layoffs climbing into the millions, workers are being abandoned in an economy where, in many fields, it feels impossible to find a job anytime soon.
There’s never been a more depressing time to be a work advice columnist. I started Ask a Manager in 2007, right before the 2008 recession hit, so for years my inbox was full of questions from frustrated, desperate job seekers. This is far worse than that.
I’m hearing from people whose job searches had been going well and who were often on the verge of job offers when everything suddenly came screeching to a halt:
I’ve been interviewing with a company for two months, they checked my references, and had told me to expect an offer. This was a field I’ve wanted to get into for a long time, and I was thrilled. Then everything blew up. The distraught hiring manager called to tell me they have a hiring freeze, everything is on hold, and there’s no telling when or if they’ll move forward with the job. Meanwhile, two other companies canceled interviews with me this week. I’m starting to panic.
Even worse off are the people who accepted job offers—and quit their current jobs—only to then find out the new job has been put on hold due to layoffs, a hiring freeze, or overall uncertainty. In some cases, these people have been able to ask for their old jobs back, but some of them are now unemployed, without the old job or the new one:
I left my full-time job at the beginning of March for a great offer at a company I was excited to join. I planned to take a few weeks off before starting my new job. Then Covid-19 struck. My new employer has been hard hit, and my job with them has been put on hold indefinitely. My old employer has already hired someone into my old position, so I can’t go back. I don’t have either job and am stuck in limbo.
And then there are the heartbreaking accounts from people who graduated into the 2008 recession, were finally catching up professionally, and are now hit with this:
I work in a museum, and am pretty certain my job is unlikely to survive this. I just graduated from graduate school with a load of debt (my plan was to join the program that forgives your loans after 10 years if you work in nonprofits, so if nonprofits are laying people off and not hiring I am pretty well forked, can’t afford to pay those off on my own) and I just moved into a new apartment in my dream city, with my dream job. Now it’s crumbling in front of me, I’m terrified that I’m going to have to give up all those dreams and move back in with my mom in my home state. I spent 10 years making this dream a reality, and after two months it’s been gutted. When I graduated college I had to live at home because of a lack of jobs and it put me into a depressive episode I’m still untangling myself from. I’m afraid if I have to move home I’ll be stuck there forever, and will be unlikely to be able to try this again.
And at the same time, I know I’m being an entitled whiner because there are people out there who are afraid they’re literally going to die, and I’m over here crying because of cancelled dreams. The fact that I even have a place to move back to makes me so lucky, and I know I should be more appreciative of that.
I don’t have good answers for these people. Not yet, anyway. Right now things are so up in the air that it’s impossible to give good advice. I’m hoping that will change in a few months—that some of this uncertainty will clear, companies will be more willing to move forward with hiring, and people can again job-search with some success. The best direction I can offer now is to hunker down if you’re somewhere stable and proceed with real caution before making a move. If you can’t avoid a job search right now because you’re unemployed, don’t be surprised if hiring processes are slow or full of false starts. And if you’re in a position to help others—with references, job leads, or contacts—be as generous as you can. People will need all the help and support they can get.
It’s also worth noting that it’s not all dismal. People are getting hired (think health care, tech, biotech, finance, and all the industries you see on states’ “essential business” lists), some industries are still relatively stable, and companies are figuring out how to onboard new hires remotely. But it’s hard out there right now, and there’s likely to be more pain before we’re through this.
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