Laid off? “White boxed”? Join the Club
I remember that my day started like any other Friday.
I arrived at the office and prepared for my workday. As I checked email, I noticed an “urgent meeting” had been added on my calendar for that morning.
So at 9:00 a.m., I went to the conference room, took a seat, and waited patiently with my co-workers. At 9:05 a.m., our CEO quickly entered the room and closed the door behind him.
“I’ve called you together this morning to make an important announcement. We’re taking a new direction with the company and all of you in this room are not included. You are being let go immediately. You will be given a severance package including any unused vacation, and HR will be contacting you to follow up. There are boxes out front for you to take back to your desks, pack up your things, and leave the premises within the hour. We are sorry to do this, but it was a necessary step.”
Announcements like this are not uncommon. Not anymore.
Layoffs have happened since the dawn of employment, but in the rapidly changing landscape of our current business economy—including the increase in AI and outsourcing—“trimming down” is becoming more commonplace.
But is it only certain sectors of a company being cut or downsized? Nope. Anyone could be laid off: a janitor, teacher, or CEO.
No one is immune to business restructuring
Our first reactions to being laid off are usually, “Why me? What did I do wrong?” This thought automatically assumes that we are to blame for the unexpected change. In reality, the layoff had nothing to do with us, personally.
The majority of layoffs are business decisions and not based on personal performance. However, just because it was a business decision doesn’t mean it doesn’t feel personal. Since we are all human beings with feelings, how can we not take this type of shock personally?
When a layoff is announced but doesn’t take place right away, the grieving process is likewise gradual. But in a “white box” layoff, there isn’t time to sort and prioritize. It’s a clean break, a quick cut—and it slices through all company connections instantly: relationships, intellectual ties, and personal investment in the work.
I was numb. I stopped at the front desk, picked up a Banker’s box and carried it back to my desk. I looked around my office at everything I’d created over the last two and a half years, and realized it was no longer mine. The only things that belonged to me were personal trinkets: a few pens and pencils, my calendar, a couple of pictures, and other miscellaneous items—the only memories that I could take with me fit into a single white box.
After I finished packing, I walked out the front door and in that moment, my career with the company was over—a grand total of 35 minutes from announcement to exit.
Like many of my friends who’d also been recently laid off, I, too, had become a member of The White Box Club.
Now what? Good question.
When you’ve experienced a sudden layoff, it’s virtually impossible to think. It’s hard to remember that you have become wiser, larger, and more powerful than you were before this job. It’s hard to think that your routine is gone, and all those meetings on your calendar? Doesn’t matter. Everything vanishes.
It’s even more difficult to figure out what do next.
Within a week, my response was to process my disappointment by starting a Meetup group appropriately named The White Box Club™. I set-up bimonthly meetings and brought in people from my network—like my resume coach—as guest speakers to help us regroup and find our clarity again.
And as a writer and coach, another way that I process is by writing about my experiences. So a few months later, I published The White Box Club Handbook. This guide follows my layoff experience and the stories of others as we learned how to navigate through this transformative and life-changing experience.
I never thought that responding to my own need would blossom into such a movement, but I’m honored to help others process their experiences. Having been there myself, I am dedicated to supporting others in career transition and helping them to feel optimistic and eager on their new adventure. Leading these clubs has become part of my life’s work.
What have I learned from being laid off? Here are a few key takeaways:
Losing a job is losing a relationship. For most of us, work is a significant portion of daily life, and for many, their work has helped them to define their purpose and direction. Losing a job is losing a relationship—a connection to people, passion, and purpose. And we will feel it.
Allow time to grieve. A layoff is a major life event. Recognize that you will experience waves of emotions and give yourself permission to treat a job loss like any other type of loss. The process of grieving and acceptance is a very important and integral step to moving forward. Get out the anger and doubt so that your clarity and confidence have space to come back. Grief comes in waves, but so does clarity.
Opportunity can come when you least expect it. Career transitions are opportunities to re-create ourselves. We can choose to expand a previous career direction or pursue a new one. And, for many, a layoff becomes a golden opportunity to start a new venture. Only you set the rules about what you can create next.
Everything will be okay. You’ve survived other challenges that life threw you; you will survive this as well. There will be anger, frustration, and grieving, but like all other sudden transitions, this too will pass.
We are always growing. Everything in our world grows and expands, including us. Growth is part of the creative process that exists in all things and people. Even when it’s not our choice, going with the flow of life and releasing resistance to change always brings relief.
It could be worse. Travel to a foreign country—particularly one that is impoverished—and you will realize the true meaning of appreciation. Be thankful for the life you have and the plethora of choices available to you, even after sudden or unexpected life events. Many people wish they had it so good.
When in doubt, reach out. Friends and family are in your life for a reason. Reach out. Connect with them. Listen. Share. And be there for others as well. I find that when I am feeling low, it always lifts me up to help someone else.
Recently, I ran into my former CEO during lunch and said hello. He apologized for having to lay me off years ago. And my response? I thanked him. I told him about The White Box Club and how that unsettling event had transformed into a blessing for me and for hundreds of others. He smiled.
Being laid off has been a gift. It has given me a new sense of purpose and direction and has created a means for me to share my passion for supporting and coaching others. It has ultimately created a new career direction for me. Clearly, the Universe has guided me toward my purpose—and for that, I am grateful.
Michael Thomas Sunnarborg is a career coach, best-selling author, and founder of The White Box Club™ — live coaching and resources for people in career transition. Find his syndicated blogs on Thrive Global, Medium, and The Huffington Post. Learn more at connect.michaelcreative.com
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Text Samples: Taken from The White Box Club Handbook: Simple Tools for Career Transition
Photo: 12 50 Design, Asheville, NC