When the axe falls: Adjusting to life after job loss.

When the axe falls: Adjusting to life after job loss

VIRGINIA GALT

Globe and Mail Update

Eleanor Clitheroe recalls feeling numb, disoriented and barely able to comprehend “what was coming down” five years ago, when she was fired from her post as chief executive officer of Hydro One in a controversy over expenses.

“It was an awful feeling … a hollow feeling … realizing what I had thrown so much effort into was now finished and over.”

Ms. Clitheroe’s distress was amplified by the public nature of her firing. However, she adds, anyone who is suddenly fired or laid off is likely to be swept up by the same tsunami of emotions.

“There’s a sense of loss of control and embarrassment, and a question of self-worth,” says Ms. Clitheroe, who tells her story in a podcast recently posted on the website of Ottawa-based coaching firm, CareerJoy ( www.careerjoy.com ).

Eleanor Clitheroe recalls feeling numb, disoriented and barely able to comprehend “what was coming down” five years ago, when she was fired from her post as chief executive officer of Hydro One in a controversy over expenses.

Eleanor Clitheroe recalls feeling numb, disoriented and barely able to comprehend “what was coming down” five years ago, when she was fired from her post as chief executive officer of Hydro One in a controversy over expenses.

The Globe and Mail

Ms. Clitheroe, who is now an Anglican priest, said in an interview this week that her aim in doing the podcast was to help others adjust to life after a job loss.

“Whether it is public or otherwise, people will be very severely and strongly impacted by it,” says Ms. Clitheroe, who sold her $2-million home after she lost the top job at Hydro One and moved with her family into married students’ quarters at the University of Toronto, where she studied theology.

Alan Kearns, founder and head coach of CareerJoy, says a layoff is one of the most traumatic events an employee can experience – and it makes no difference whether the person is a front-line worker or a top executive. (Although, from a number of negative e-mails he has received about the half-hour-long Clitheroe interview on his website, it is apparent there is far less sympathy for fired CEOs than for average working Canadians who have lost their jobs, Mr. Kearns concedes.) Still, he says, Ms. Clitheroe’s story is instructive in terms of how to deal with the emotional trauma of a layoff, how to figure out what to do next, and how to “move on.”

To recap: Ms. Clitheroe, who initially trained as a lawyer, worked in senior roles at Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce and as a deputy finance minister with the Ontario government before moving to Hydro One, where she was appointed CEO in 1999, with a mandate to take the power transmission company private – a mandate that was later reversed as a result of changing political priorities. In June, 2002, the entire board of directors resigned in a power struggle with the provincial government over executive compensation. Shortly thereafter, Ms. Clitheroe was fired – with no severance – from her $2.2-million-a-year post and publicly castigated for her expenses, which allegedly included $330,000 in limousine services over three years.

Arguing that her controversial perks and expenses had been approved by the former chairman of Hydro One – in part to help her juggle her dual roles as CEO and the mother of two young children – Ms. Clitheroe launched a wrongful dismissal suit against the company. The case is still before the courts.

It was a hard fall from the top, says Ms. Clitheroe, who set about reassessing priorities and putting her life back together.

The job, she realized, had consumed most of her waking hours, to the detriment of her family life. And even if she had wanted to lead another company, “it was very clear that I wouldn’t have the opportunity to do another significant job like that, at that time, in Corporate Canada … because of the controversy that was raised at that time,” says Ms. Clitheroe, whose wrongful dismissal case is still before the court.

When the initial shock wore off, she started consulting friends and family – and went on two religious retreats – to figure out her next move. In the end, it was four of her closest friends who influenced Ms. Clitheroe, at the age of 47, to abandon corporate life, return to school and train to become a parish priest – a calling she had considered in her younger years.

But starting over was not easy. Ms. Clitheroe found her study skills were rusty; she had forgotten how to do footnotes; she sometimes found herself weeping over textbooks at 3 a.m., pulling “all-nighters like a 20-year-old … “I thought: ‘How did this happen to me? This isn’t my life.’ But it was my life, and it’s become a very joyful life,” says Ms. Clitheroe, who serves as executive director of Prison Fellowship Canada, which assists offenders and their families, as well as serving as a parish priest in Oakville, Ont.

Her advice to others who have suddenly lost their jobs is to be open to change, even if the change might initially appear to be a step backwards.

Mr. Kearns adds that the loss of a job is particularly traumatic – and the options are less apparent – when the person involved has no life outside of work.

As with a death, the grieving process generally goes through stages: denial (“this is not real – I’m having a bad dream”); anger (how dare you lay me off, I have given so much”); bargaining (“is it possible to finish this major project?”); depression (“I don’t have anything to offer, what will be the financial implications?”); and acceptance (“now I can move forward”).

It is important to analyze what might have gone wrong that led to the layoff, Mr. Kearns says. Often jobs are lost because of mergers, acquisitions and other events that have nothing to do with the displaced employee’s performance, he says.

But whatever the reason, too much obsessing about the past is neither healthy nor productive, he says. “If you don’t move on, it’s not the company’s fault … it’s tough, but that’s also part of life.”

Obviously, money helps make the transition to new employment easier, he adds. “When you don’t have as many resources, you have to use the resources that are out there … there are tons of online resources where you can get great advice and listen to great information, and you don’t have to pay a dime for it.”

Mr. Kearns says Ms. Clitheroe’s experience stands as “an excellent example of people just rethinking where they want to go.”

Ms. Clitheroe said in an interview this week that she loves her work as a priest. “The people who knew me well helped give me the courage to believe that following this path was possible.”

She now counsels others that, while people often have little or no control over the circumstances that lead to the loss of their jobs, they can and should take control over what happens next.

“If you do jump at that first job, don’t stop trying to figure out who you are and what drives you – you can always change again, if you realize that you have just repeated a pattern that doesn’t work for you and your family.”

Along the road with you!

Alan Kearns

Canada’s Career Coach

Workopolis career expert

Alan@CareerJoy.com

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