Monday, April 19, 2010

Lulu's Mailbag: Should I go back to a firm that laid me off?

Today's question is from Vida, who asked the following via email (which has been edited for length and identifying details):

I'm a 23 year old female currently finishing up my fourth year in a B.Arch program. I landed a pretty good internship at a 40-person architecture firm last year through one of my studio instructors (he was the head principal of this firm). I really enjoyed working there, however I got laid off within seven months (May of 2009). It was a "soft" layoff, as I understand, since they just asked me and the other interns to go "on call". I was really confused since up to that point they were pretty satisfied with me and the principal himself had even told me that he wants to hold on to me and offer me a full-time position upon graduation. The layoff was a big shock to me probably because it was my first internship and I didn't see it coming with the principal's big promises. I felt like I was led on.

I have not held any other internships since then because the job market has just been awful in this area. I have held on to a retail job, but I'm looking to get back into the architecture industry to start my IDP training.

On one hand I'm thinking I could potentially go to my old boss and see if he would re-hire me. But I'm afraid he'll re-hire me only to lay me off again - and I just can't afford that (financially). Plus, I'm not sure about going back to the same firm that laid me that a bad idea?

On the other hand, I have made a few connections at this firm who might be able to help me get a job at another specific firm. Although this other firm is larger and doesn't seem to be hiring at the moment. I figure it'll be pretty tough to get an internship with them, but it just might happen with the help of my connections.

Any advice on how to get an internship when no one is hiring?! I figured even though they say they are not hiring, they could probably squeeze in an intern if they wanted to, right? Plus, I've never seen a firm announce that they are hiring for interns (unless it's a specific summer internship program...)

This is a good question, Vida. I'm betting you're not alone in your situation. Here's the thing about work, especially during the last 18-24 months: lots of really good people have been let go from firms, and it's not an insult to be let go during this economy. If you were laid off in May of 2009, it had everything to do with how much work they had available for you to do, and nothing to do with how good you are. Firms don't like to hire people and then lay them off shortly thereafter, because it gives them a reputation like the one you're considering might be true of your old firm. I really think few if any architects saw this economy coming, as it seemed to me that even very conservative firm owners are still hurting even now. If the economy hadn't grand-mal tanked the way it did in the fall of 2008, you might still have a job.

That being said, you may still have a job if you go back to your firm--they seemed to like having you work there, and they know how good you are. If they don't have a position available (which is entirely possible), then ask your old boss and other former supervisors to provide references for you. That way, you'll have a good testament to your character and work skills when you apply somewhere else. Bear in mind that the economy hasn't fully recovered, so you may indeed have a hard time finding a position right now. Would you consider moving out of state? If so, you might have more luck finding somewhere to work. And as always, if you do find a position, make sure that you're getting paid. It's illegal not to pay interns for work, period.

If you have a question you'd like answered or a topic you'd like to see discussed here, please email me in the sidebar or leave it in the comments. Thanks!


  1. I second that. If you had said I've been there 5 years, they kept the CAD guy fresh out of school who spends more time on Facebook than on redlines, then you can be a little more grumpy! Even then, if your experience was good to that point, you don't totally have to trust them again but don't burn the bridge. As this is described, definitely go back and talk to your old boss and contacts. In this economy you CAN NOT have enough. Leverage the heck out of both - either to come back or find a contact in another firm. Ask for your old boss to be your mentor and help earning EPC (Emerging Professionals Companion) credits. It sounds like they liked you and wanted to help you. This is a good thing. You can grumble about their lack of forecasting, but it's actually lucky that you were able to get 7 months in.

    There have been people all over town hanging on, but there are only so many models of completed projects to be built, old documents to be filed and limited revenue coming in to pay for it to keep people around no matter how good you are. It can be a real jolt to the system whether this happens at 23 or 40. The main difference is that at 40 you've might have been through a couple of these cycles and have more perspective on what is business reality and what is BS (sometimes its a VERY thin line!)

    All told though it sounds like you were let go on good terms, keep it that way and as Lulu said get references. Believe it or not, by wondering about this, asking questions, talking to your contacts and employers you are FAR ahead of most people who are sitting on their couch ticked off about what happened. The difference between this economy and other downturns in the last 20 years is that even the well intentioned and motivated are often still looking. The ugly truth...but hang in there.

  2. Anonymous, thanks for the insight. It's definitely helpful to hear comments from those who are older and wiser.

    But, in general, I guess I'm wondering if it's normal to ask your employee to go "on call" instead of just telling them that there is no work for them (which would be the honest truth). The reason I was unhappy with the way I was laid off was because I felt like they weren't being honest with me and (maybe) even took advantage of my inexperience with these situations. Although, maybe I should have known that "on call" = "no work".

    I was ticked off about this for a good couple of months and I was at a loss as to how to treat the situation. I thought about it long and hard to try to figure out if, as you say, it was "business reality" or BS. But I've realized that no matter what, I had made some really good connections at that office that are worth holding on to.

    And Lulu, thanks again for your helpful insight.

  3. Vida, I can definitely see why the circumstances were offensive. It may be that the firm thought some work might come in soon, so they said "on call" instead of "layoff." However, if the truth was indeed that there was simply no work in the near future (three months, I'd say), then it would have been fairer to say, "we just don't have anything for you at this time." Also--and this is a big guess--depending on how you were employed, having you as "on call" instead of "laid off" may save them from having to pay unemployment for those who were let go. That's a wild shot in the dark on my part, mind you--I don't know the rules and ins & outs of unemployment benefits, but if it's a small(ish) firm, meaning less than 50 people, paying for unemployment is a hefty sum. Either way, i think you're doing the right thing--seek them out, be polite and appreciative, and either get a job or some good references out of them, and part ways with them on good terms.