Relaunching your HR Career After a Layoff

Relaunching your HR Career After a Layoff

Charles Goretsky | Toni Thomas Charles Goretsky | Toni Thomas
18 minute read

Managing a successful layoff takes a blend of planning, skill, and compassion that tests the abilities of many top HR leaders. However, while many might perceive HR professionals to be better prepared when staff reductions hit their jobs, such a role reversal can hit particularly hard. Feelings of surprise (“I should have seen it coming”) and loss of control are equal, if not greater, for the pros who typically drive or develop decision-making criteria, standards, and benefits to be offered to impacted employees. Losing an HR job after a layoff, distinctly at the highest levels of the organization, can be especially rough.

The past couple of years have been notably challenging for HR teams. The whiplash effect of significant staffing increases during the pandemic, rapidly followed by reductions in force, has hit HR and related teams hard.  

As a result, increasing numbers of HR leaders have found themselves on the outside, looking for new opportunities that either continue their career arcs or provide opportunities for professional gratification and financial stability. The seeming uniqueness of a senior HR practitioner’s journey as a laid-off job seeker requires special attention and support. Whether a CHRO, an HRBP, a senior Talent Acquisition, an L&D leader, or a seasoned DE&I specialist, their knowledge and experience as frequent coaches or advisors to laid-off employees force them to face a similar reality that physicians face when they fall ill. Calling another professional to diagnose their situation, establish a plan of action (treatment), and support them in their healing process is best.

Prevalence of HR job loss

Major job losses have occurred despite the projected growth in HR jobs (e.g., employment of human resources specialists is projected to grow 6% from 2022 to 2032). For example, layoffs of recruiters were announced in leading technology companies as they came out of the pandemic and government COVID loan programs expired. Those companies pointed to over-hiring to meet demand during “The Great Resignation,” while experts quietly pointed to significant advancements in AI-based automation in applicant tracking systems (ATS). The efficiencies gained through those capabilities decreased the need for many screeners and other junior-level recruiter roles. 

Bloomberg reported that HR or recruiting roles have accounted for 28% of all layoffs in the technology sector. Recruiters appear to be among those hit the hardest, with Meta letting go of 30%, Amazon 37%, and Microsoft releasing 39% of their recruiters. Similarly, corporate diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) staff members have been decimated in some organizations. DEI positions were hit with a disproportionate 33% reduction versus a 21% cut for other roles, while LinkedIn reported that listings for those roles were down 19% overall in the past two years. 

Adding to the challenge is the link between CEO departures and CHRO job losses. For example, during the first year of a new CEO’s tenure, 43% of their CHROs are either dismissed or voluntarily resign. Furthermore, only 48% of CHROs remain in their roles longer than 12 months after their organization hired a new CEO. Unfortunately, CEO exits have risen to record numbers recently, with Challenger Gray reporting them up by 49% during the first quarter of this year. 

While the pace of HR layoffs has slowed this year, the length of time that it takes to find a new job has made things challenging for the more senior members of HR teams. The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reports that the average duration of unemployment is five months, which represents a 14% increase over the prior year. 

Unfortunately, the circumstances are more pressing for senior HR professionals and executives, with the time to find a suitably leveled and compensated role typically taking 9-12 months or longer. It has become a precarious position for senior HR executives and professionals alike, with job security challenged and losing an HR job increasingly likely.

Issues unique to displaced HR leaders 

Dealing first with the shock of the circumstances (I can’t believe this has happened to me), then the confusion (What will I do next?), perhaps anger and regret (I wish I had… or Why did I…), then the questioning about the future  (How will I…), and finally, planning (I need to…). Losing an HR job after a layoff is somewhat unique, given the roles and the skills developed through years of experience.

Toni Thomas, Regional Director of Business Development at Challenger, Gray, and Christmas, has years of experience dealing with executives and senior leaders across all functions who have lost their jobs. What she says will likely resonate with anyone in such a position. Beyond those steps typical for others laid off, some issues are more common to losing an HR job based on the experiences and depth in managing recruiting, terminations, and layoffs. Some commonly observed issues among senior HR leaders include: 

  • Assuming they understand the job market and career marketing strategies equally or better than others.
  • Expecting that their experience and knowledge have prepared them better than most others to find a new role.
  • Experiencing greater frustration or anger over the feeling that they should have “seen it (the layoff or dismissal) coming” due to their inside knowledge of the status of the business, the leadership team, etc.
  • Having the confidence that they can solve the problem and find a new role based on their years of success and industry connections.

Common errors of displaced executives

As a result, with the sense of security that a longer severance period associated with an executive or senior role can create, many HR leaders will make mistakes both common to many other executives and unique to those losing an HR job after a layoff:

Underestimating the time needed to deal with the emotional aspects of a job loss

No matter how healthy and satisfied one is, losing an HR job is a jolt to one’s system. Displaced people need time to deal with all aspects of their well-being - physical, emotional/mental, financial, and even spiritual. It is all too common to see laid-off people jump into action (or feel frozen and unable to act) after receiving the news. Work provides us a purpose, a social structure, and status. It provides workers with a certain (relative) level of financial security where a reliable paycheck is delivered on a schedule. The loss of all those benefits people value so highly creates tremendous stress. It hits not only the displaced leader but also their family members.  

Organizations such as the American Psychological Association (APA) and the National Institute of Health (NIH) provide definitive evidence that job loss results in tremendous stress on mental and physical health. Common issues include depression, anxiety (15-30% higher), lowered self-esteem, family distress, and estimated financial losses of 33% percent of earnings following a job separation.

People need time to process, evaluate their options, and prepare a strategy before beginning a search for a new role.

Starting the replacement job search too soon 

Too often, laid-off leaders either sit back for too long or, much more commonly, aggressively charge down a path of job seeking before they are ready. In the latter case, the executive hastily updates their resume, starts calling industry contacts and headhunters, schedules lunches or drinks with peers at other companies, etc. 

The issue with this, of course, is that the job search is started without a clear purpose, understanding of what kind of job, industry, and company they prefer to work in, what their value proposition is to those jobs and organizations, and how their marketing approach should be designed. Losing an HR job can put leaders into "drive" mode too soon, with an assumption that their native skills will carry them quickly into a new role.  

It is like taking off on a sailing trip without a clear destination, the right outfitting/equipment, a planned route, or backup plans and provisions. A successful replacement job search requires a strategy, targets, goals, and activity schedules.

Failing to seek support 

Like the elite athlete who gets continuous coaching and support to maintain and improve their performance, so does a successful executive or senior manager. Particularly when that athlete is in a slump, they spend extra time with their coaches to regain their peak performance levels. Unfortunately, as “experts” who have hired, fired, and laid off many people in a typical HR career, the CHRO or HRBP can perceive their skill sets as sufficient to land a new role quickly.  

Consider job loss a slump—extra care needs to be taken to evaluate one’s skills and capabilities, where they need to be adjusted and fine-tuned, and develop a plan to get there. That calls for extra expert support in assessing and presenting one’s strengths, understanding what is needed to succeed in a given industry or company, building a responsive brand that speaks to industry needs, and marketing/selling oneself most efficiently and effectively possible.  

Too often, the support requested is too narrow. As experts in helping others manage their displacement, losing an HR job requires a reminder to provide for their own emotional, physical, psychological, financial, and career development/search needs.

A person using outplacement support

Best practices in using outplacement support


1. Take advantage of the available support offered

Outplacement services are offered to most top executives and many below the organization's top levels, with 44% of organizations offering such services for most, if not all, terminations. Research has proven the value of such services, with one study demonstrating that executives and managers who participated in outplacement programs with high levels of support experienced a higher likelihood of reemployment and received higher salaries in their new jobs than those with less support.

Despite data supporting the wide availability and positive value of those services to affected leaders and employees, one study suggests that only 10% of transitioning executives complete their outplacement program. 

Challenger, Gray & Christmas has found that success in both surviving the experience and thriving in the job search comes from five key elements and considerations, most effectively delivered by outplacement firms:

  • Job search coaching 
  • Job search strategy
  • Resume, social media, and cover letter optimization
  • Interview preparation  
  • Emotional support

2. Have a strategy 

Starting a search without a well-considered plan will likely lead to significant frustrations and inefficiencies. In fact, one study found that using a comprehensive strategy increased both the number of job offers and the subsequent quality of the new job. 

Remember that while painful, the job search presents an opportunity to find a more meaningful and fulfilling role than the previous one(s). It is an opportunity to relaunch one's career. Leaders who experience losing an HR job should consider the elements of the previous role and company that either “fed” or “drained” them. The biggest caution is to avoid considering returning to the same role with a different organization as the primary option. Create a plan of action that assesses current skills and gaps, work style and cultural preferences, and industries/segments/companies that are healthy and growing. Develop a list of contacts and associations where meaningful networking can occur, updates to personal branding and social network positioning, and a project plan that sets goals and timelines for action.

3. Clarify strengths, preferences, and aspirations

Conduct an assessment of the current skills, capabilities, and critical experiences that have defined or contributed to the greatest career successes to date. Consider which tasks or challenges inspired and motivated the greatest engagement and satisfaction levels in previous roles. Research and build a listing of the most important skills for current and longer-term success in the HR career field and functions.  

Losing an HR role should prompt reflection on what kind of work environment, mission or purpose, and culture best “feed” one's aspirations and preferences for work life. Remember that different types of cultures will appeal to different people, and be prepared to research different organizations to understand their purpose/mission, culture, and work styles.

4. Focus presentation on skills and results

Create a clear picture of how one can (and will) contribute to meeting each organization’s needs by highlighting and consistently reinforcing the critical skills and track records of results achieved in the resume, cover letter, social media profiles, and interview discussions. Demonstrate a focus on assessing situations and strategic needs, designing and influencing solutions, and achieving talent and business results. Share experiences using the S-A-R (situation-action-results) interview question response pattern that simplifies and clarifies how successful interventions address organizational needs and objectives. Present quantified results as often as possible.

5. Target the search 

Develop a listing of industries, industry segments, and companies for which a credible transfer of skills, experiences, and cultural fit can be established in the minds of company recruiters and leaders. Overcome the biases of those reviewing applications against individuals outside their industry, company size, geographies, etc., by prioritizing companies within a reasonable orbit of one's career experiences. Map the industries and companies that compete in, supply to, or feed from the targeted one to create a solid list of potential organizations to target.

6. Network for success

Networking is critical for those losing an HR job, regardless of their comfort level. Economists at the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis found that networking leads to significantly more job offers, shortened search times, higher quality offers and pay levels, and longer resulting tenures.  

Toni Thomas of Challenger Gray suggests that once potential corporations are identified, targeted networking is essential to build connections within those. This includes reaching out and connecting with current leaders and recruiters, headhunters who serve those industries and companies, and others who can provide a referral to hiring managers and decision-makers. This includes asking existing and new contacts during networking discussions whether they know anyone in those organizations and providing an introduction. This referral tactic has been shown to increase the likelihood of being hired by 45%. 

Online networking is a crucial element of a larger strategy for those losing HR jobs, with data suggesting that the size of a LinkedIn network was positively correlated with more job offers. Key actions include following and inviting others to join your network and posting multiple times per week with meaningful but brief “snippets” of content representing one’s thinking, lessons learned, specialized expertise, industry perspectives, etc. Consistency is key and should become part of one's routine.

Remember that networking is not a one-time event - relationship building is the primary objective. Plan on staying in touch with contacts by asking them questions, requesting (or offering) advice, providing updates on progress and interesting and relevant professional insights, sharing new perspectives based on what you learned from them, etc.

Options for meaningful interim activities after a layoff

Options for meaningful interim activities after a layoff

Relaunching an HR career after a layoff can be taxing, but staying active and productive during unemployment is vital for mental health and well-being. Constructively filling the time offers the opportunity to stay focused professionally, potentially adding income and staying motivated to have networking and supportive conversations. Given the time (6-12 months) it can often take to find a new job at the executive or senior management levels, it also helps answer the question, “What have you been doing since leaving your job?” In short, getting into action, especially after a layoff, demonstrates a job-seeker’s initiative, discipline, resourcefulness, and motivation and helps explain the gaps in employment history for the remainder of their career.

The ideas for filling in the gaps demonstrate a willingness to continue to grow and develop professionally.

Seek out consulting projects or “fractional” work

Promote your skills and experiences as a value-add for companies looking for expert advice, counsel, or short-term project work. Reach out to former colleagues, use it as an offering during networking discussions, or search and apply for freelance work on contracting platforms such as Upwork, Fiverr, Bark.com, FlexJobs, Freelancer, Toptal, etc. 

The benefits include generating an income stream, strengthening credentials as an expert, updating skills in “hot” topics, introducing oneself to smaller companies, and demonstrating unique areas of expertise relevant to potential employers. After losing an HR job, being open to consulting, freelance, or “fractional” HR assignments demonstrates agility and resourcefulness less obvious in corporate executive roles. In this case, Wowledge can represent a valuable resource to help prepare for or amplify your HR expertise, accelerating and enhancing the work you might offer to potential clients.

Publish articles and posts and give presentations

Publicize your brand, perspectives, and points of view by publishing articles, submitting and giving presentations, etc. Researching these alone can provide growth and a broadening and updating of professional knowledge and perspectives. The fastest way to reach a broad audience of potential employers is to announce and reinforce one’s areas and depth of expertise by writing or presenting insights on topics of interest to targeted audiences. 

Start with LinkedIn, where a series of posts on a given subject or group of related topics can generate interest from peers, recruiters, or executives looking to learn more or fill roles with experts. Contact HR and business groups or associations and their local chapters and submit an article for publication or presentation for an upcoming meeting. Contact blog writers and website sponsors focused on your expertise and ask if they will accept a guest post. Start a blog to document and advance opinions on commonly experienced HR issues and cross-promoting it on LinkedIn, Facebook, Instagram, and other social media sites.

Volunteer at a local non-profit

Giving back by donating time and effort is a great way to meaningfully build a brand while honing and sharpening management and related skills. Look for opportunities to improve operational processes and establish new relationships and collaborative or mutually beneficial connections to demonstrate a continuing orientation and track record of results. Leveraging these opportunities can also lead to visibility and introductions to business leaders who support and promote the mission of these organizations.

Develop and enhance skills

Commit to continuous professional growth by actively seeking new credentials, participating in learning programs that develop highly valued skills, and enhancing professional capabilities in critical skill areas that may represent a gap. These could involve eLearning, webinars, synchronous online programs, or seminars that offer badges, formal certifications, or continuing education credits. Examples of highly impactful and valuable enhancements specific to HR leaders include:

  • Executive coaching certifications
  • Organization Development or Performance Consulting methodologies
  • Analytics, evidence-based HR (EBHR) approaches 
  • Lean, Six Sigma, etc., as business and process improvement systems
  • Technology, AI, and machine learning applications 
  • Change management, digital transformation
  • Business acumen (finance, supply chain, customer experience, etc.) 

Losing an HR job after a layoff can be an opportunity to relaunch a career, expand one's horizons, broaden skill sets, enlarge a professional network, and discover just how resourceful and agile one can be.

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