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Career Setback Recovery Guide

Career Setback

Sometimes it seems the hits keep coming. If the past year was murder on your career, you’re not alone. More than 65% of young professionals under the age of 25 report their job or career path is less stable due to COVID-19, while 30% of Millennials have suffered career setbacks. Women—particularly mothers—have been disproportionately affected.

COVID isn’t the only enemy to a career trajectory, of course. Setbacks can be caused by any number of factors—both in and out of your control. But recent studies show they can be the key to future success.

“…Individuals with near misses systematically outperform those with narrow wins in the longer run. Moreover, this performance advantage seems to go beyond a screening mechanism, suggesting early-career setback appears to cause a performance improvement among those who persevere,” report researchers examining the careers of junior scientists applying for National Institutes of Health R01 grants. “Overall, these findings are consistent with the concept that ‘what doesn’t kill me makes me stronger.’” 

Later setbacks can be overcome, too. In fact, 50-year-old startup founders are 1.8 times more likely than 30-year-old founders to create a top 1% growth firm. 

“There are only two responses to failure at any age. One is to quit. That is the simplest and most seductive of the two. The other is more demanding and requires reflection,” says Sixty and Me blogger Stephanie Raffelock. “In the second scenario, failure becomes the guide that opens the doors to dig deeper into your psyche and keep going. You can choose option two all the way up until you really do no longer walk this earth.”

Let’s look at some career-crushing scenarios and how you might consider overcoming them:

A Poor Performance Review

Receiving a negative performance review can be horrifying, particularly if you’re blindsided by it. An Adobe poll of 1,500 workers revealed that 37% of respondents looked for another job, and 20% quit due to a bad performance review. Each of those responses could set you back further if you miss out on growth opportunities or burn bridges because of them.

What should you do? Stay calm and ask for time to process the news. After a few days, ask for another meeting to discuss ways to move forward. The Wall Street Journal offers a helpful guide with steps on how to turn the review into a launching point instead of a dead end.

Getting Fired

Being fired can be one of the most devastating things to happen to a person, but it’s not the end of the world. One 10-year study tracked more than 2,600 executives with an impressive finding: Of those that got fired, 91% eventually found a new position that was as good or better than their last. An astounding 78% went on to become CEOs.

MONSTER offers this guide on going from fired to hired, which includes working your network (they’re your biggest allies and cheerleaders), maintaining a connection at your former company (don’t burn any bridges that are still standing – you’ll need them for references), and learning how to frame the situation when asked about it during interviews (don’t lie but do choose your words carefully).

Getting Laid Off

A layoff can be hard to stomach right now, but it can also be used as a jumping-off point into a better job as well. Many candidates get worried about explaining a layoff to prospective employers, but it’s not a roadblock, especially during these volatile times. Using the correct terminology will convey why you lost your job with no tap dancing required. “I was laid off as part of a company-wide reorganization” or “I was part of a reduction in force” are all the explanations most hiring managers and recruiters need (as long as it’s the truth).

The other key to moving ahead after a layoff is to, well, move ahead. It can be tempting to use up any accrued or severance time to wallow in self-pity, but don’t. Indeed offers a great step-by-step plan for how to bounce back after a layoff. It covers details like clarifying the terms (maybe you’re only temporarily laid off or furloughed and may be able to pass the time with temporary work), filing for unemployment, and then moving on with a budget, new goals, and job search tips. We offer additional tips here.

Being Forced Into A Big Pivot

There are more reasons than ever before to be forced into a big career pivot, even if you don’t feel ready. Perhaps you’re finding that your hard stills aren’t showing up on job descriptions (we’re talking to you, Visual Basic, Perl, and Cobol coders). Maybe you’ve been out of the workforce for some time due to parenting responsibilities or other reasons. Or, perhaps you’re an entrepreneur or worker whose business or industry became a victim of pandemic shutdowns.

If you need to refocus right now, you’re certainly not alone. Start by assessing your skills, goals, and options. We love this SWOT analysis advice from MONSTER that can help you get started. We provide additional tips here:

When Someone’s Out To Get You

Do you have a feeling a former boss or coworker is sabotaging your job search? It’s possible. You may feel utterly helpless if it’s happening, but you do have some control over the situation. If you suspect the sabotage comes from a former manager at the reference check stage, conduct your own either through a reference check service (for a fee) or with your recruiter. Evidence of a scathing review? Consider these steps suggested by TopResume, including a conversation with the person or a more legal remedy like a cease and desist letter. And be sure to fill the rest of your reference list with positive references.

But what if you don’t have hard evidence of sabotage? Could you be sabotaging yourself? Do a Google search on your name (and ask a few friends to do one, too, since the results could be different). Have a recruiter review your online presence and listen to their advice. Be sure to remove anything in your resume or LinkedIn profile that could contribute to unconscious bias. And remember that employers may be screening you in other ways, including checking your credit in some cases.

Out of the thousands of famous quotes on the virtues of failure, this one from Mickey Rooney sums things up nicely: “You always pass failure on your way to success.” Don’t let it define you or hold you back. For some extra encouragement and advice, call your friendly neighborhood recruiter.


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