Hi, my name is Arlene and I was laid off.

One day I was the senior meeting and event planner for The Boeing Co., planning high-level executive meetings and teaching a series of meeting and event-planning programs companywide. I had just been named “Outstanding Planner of the Year” by the Orange County chapter of Meeting Professionals International.

Then it was gone.

The layoff process was an emotional journey—frustrating at times, uneventful at others, sometimes lonely. I wish I had been more prepared. That’s my message to others: My layoff came as a surprise and yours could, too. Start preparing for your “next life” while you still have a job.

Early September 2010

My boss called one morning to tell me that my job was being transferred from the communications department to customer relations. When I was hired, these two had been one department; years later, they were split and I remained in communications, planning high-level executive meetings.

I was shocked by the forced move—it felt as if they were throwing me out. But I wasn’t shocked about layoffs taking place all around me. With all the meeting cancellations in 2009, the terrible economy, and top executives being moved around, I had the sense that there would be more changes coming.

I started thinking about what changing departments meant to my job at Boeing. Instead of being a single meeting planner in the communications department, I was now one of many meeting planners in the customer relations department (which, in the aerospace industry, is the term used for the meeting planning department). Instead of continuing to work from home, which I loved, I would no doubt need to drive the 20 miles to work every day. Instead of planning meetings for the president of our division, I would probably need to take turns with the other planners.

During the next two weeks, I was told, there would be a skills assessment to determine which person at my pay level would be “surplussed,” since, with my move, the department now had one too many planners. (Yes, surplus is the official term, though it sounds more like a furniture outlet sale.)

As tension built up among us, I waited a grueling two weeks for the layoff decision. In many ways, I wanted them to lay me off. Unemployment, a week of severance for every year with the company, and COBRA insurance would bridge some of my gap to retirement. I could leave after almost 12 years knowing that I had worked for a fabulous company with wonderful people, and managers who knew what I brought to the table and appreciated my skills.

It’s amazing what happened during those two weeks. No, the customer relations department head didn’t call to welcome me to that group. No, the execs I had worked with for years didn’t tell me how sorry they were to see me leave the department. A few people did mention that they had heard about my job move, but they were actually embarrassed to talk to me about it. Even my boss was overly businesslike to me.

Mostly, there was silence. Silence, it seems, was easier for everyone because by now my name had been turned into a number. I was about to become another statistic reported on the evening news.

On September 19, I learned that my job had been eliminated and that I would spend my final 60 days in my original department. Actually, I was pleased that my job would remain status quo, and it was comforting to finally know what was going to happen.

The uncertainty is worse.

Back to May 2009

Those who knew me well knew that when asked about retirement, I always said that I planned to work forever or until I wasn’t having fun anymore. But my story changed back in May 2009. One day I was fine, staying up late working or writing articles. The next day I was deathly ill. That was followed by a week in the hospital and many weeks of recovery from a severe case of varicella zoster, or shingles, related to chicken pox.

You’re wondering what this has to do with my layoff story? After my serious illness, I came to the conclusion that I would retire on my 65th birthday. At that point, I started planning for “life after Boeing.” I learned about shingles and now warn everyone that it can happen to them. (See box, page 18.) And I also learned how essential it is—especially if you live alone—to have a relative or good friend who will be there for you in case of accident or illness. I leaned on my husband daily to support me during my recovery—I could have never done it alone.

Back to my layoff story. ...

September 19 to November 19

It was lucky for me that The Boeing Co. gives people the luxury of a 60-day layoff notice. Most companies are not that gracious. Some walk “layoffs” to their cars immediately after the big blow. Others have their computers removed while they are in the boss’s office getting the bad news. A friend of mine was pulled from an out-of-town seminar to be told that he was laid off and that someone would pack up his office and ship the personal items to him.

At the beginning of the 60 days, I filled my time completing Boeing work, cleaning up Boeing files, and finalizing expense reports with accounting. I met with my boss by phone to get her up to speed on a large January meeting that I had produced for the past 11 years. Boeing provided seminars and resources to guide me through many of the layoff processes. Some instructions were clear-cut, but some left me pulling my hair out. Just getting the correct final-day paperwork took me half a day.

Once I had waded through the paperwork, I spent the rest of the time … doing absolutely nothing! I was taken off the planning team for the upcoming meeting, when I would have been willing to work on the meeting until I turned off my office light and left the building. I was immediately replaced with a new team and left to contemplate my future. I realized that the layoff stigma was bigger than I first thought. One minute I was at the top of my game with high evaluation marks and a great salary—and the next moment, I had a “laid off” sticker across my forehead and was almost being treated as if people no longer trusted me.

Adding insult to injury, I was uninvited by a major hotel chain to its annual corporate appreciation event. Didn’t they realize that I had been their trusted Boeing customer for 11 years and 11 months—and had been supporting their organization for my entire career? Didn’t they think that I would continue to patronize their company when I got back on my feet? I guess they weren’t even concerned that I might tell my colleagues about my invitation rejection?

At the beginning of October, I attended a Meeting Professionals International meeting. What would I say during the introduction when everyone gives their name, company, and title? When my turn came, I took a deep breath and said, “I’m Arlene Sheff and my last day at Boeing is November 19, as I got laid off.” I didn’t utter another word. A close friend and respected supplier, Mark Lorimer of The Eventive Group, chimed in and put me at ease. He told everyone that I was a fabulous professional speaker, and I was going to be an integral part of the industry by teaching meeting and event-planning programs. I still tear up when I think back about how Mark saved that moment for me and boosted my self-esteem. That was my turnaround point from “laid off” to “magnificent future.”

My Last Day

I waited for something—anything—thanking me for my 11-plus years of service, but it didn’t arrive. Even a sticky note saying “good luck” on my final paycheck would have been nice. No call from my boss. A work colleague who had been previously laid off sent me a wonderful uplifting note saying how much she’d enjoyed working with me, and an MPI friend sent me a “welcome to your new life” congratulations note. Those gave me the push I needed to start working my game plan for “Life after Boeing.”

Life after Boeing

Two months later, as I write this, I have learned so much. I learned that it’s impossible to register for a trade magazine or an MPI meeting without a title and a company name—so I quickly created both. I learned that it takes skilled friends and lots of time to transfer computer files that need saving. I learned that “life after” has colleagues who believe in you and are waiting for you to get back into the industry, friends who are there to offer support, and family members who still love you.

I’m now busy telling everyone about my plans to produce custom workshops for planners and hotels. I’m also planning to take on on-site management assignments. I will continue to teach at both Cal State Fullerton and the University of San Diego (in the George Washington University Event Management Program). I’ve already gotten invitations to be on advisory boards, write articles, teach webinars, and speak at conferences.

I now have more time to spend with my year-old granddaughter. I also have plans to buy a fancy embroidery sewing machine to rekindle my “life before career” homemaking skills. But I haven’t the foggiest idea what kinds of projects I’ll use it for...

Arlene Sheff, CMP, can be reached at sheffcmp@gmail.com.

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