Recently I went to see “The Company Men,” a drama about the devastating effects of downsizing during the recent recession. The film focuses on the character of Bobby Walker, played by Ben Affleck, who is a hardworking, ambitious sales executive enjoying the fruits of success: big house, sporty Porsche, exclusive golf club membership, etc.
Until he loses his cushy corporate job–and with it, his upscale lifestyle and to an extent, his identity.
The film explores a lot of issues: company loyalty, downsizing to increase stock prices and living the American dream (which often means living beyond one’s means). But from the character of Bobby Walker, I took away much in the way of things NOT to do when faced with a layoff.
Here are some things our protagonist messed up in a cautionary tale should you ever find yourself in similar circumstances:
- Not having a sufficient emergency fund – If you’re a regular reader of personal finance websites like The Dough Roller, this is a concept that has been drilled into your heads over and over. Having a savings cushion to cover six months of living expenses is essential in our volatile economy. In the movie, the Walker family had a little slush fund which was depleted due to a ski vacation, balloon mortgage payment and other odds and ends. Emergency funds are for EMERGENCIES. Luxuries like ski vacations do not qualify and neither do known expenses like mortgage balloon payments. Of course even having a balloon-type mortgage is yet another mistake, but that’s another story.
- Not keeping job options open – In this story, Bobby was cognizant of the financial difficulties his company was facing, but had been assured by his boss that his job was safe. Assurances aside, a much smarter move would been to have started his job search at the first signs of trouble. You are much more employable when you are already EMPLOYED. Even during good times it’s always smart to keep an eye on the job market and keep up with all your business contacts.
- Not negotiating severance – Severance packages, like salaries, are negotiable. Of course when you’re in shock after being terminated, it can be difficult to maintain enough composure to navigate this process. Bobby was offered one week’s salary for each of the twelve years he’d been with the company along with some health coverage and four months outplacement. He should have angled for two weeks per year of service and at least six months health insurance coverage and outplacement services.
- Not applying for Unemployment Benefits – I can’t be sure that Bobby Walker DIDN’T apply for unemployment, but given his generally cocky attitude about getting a new job in just weeks, I’m pretty sure he neglected to apply for this benefit. Let’s get this clear: Unemployment benefits are NOT welfare. During your employment, your employer contributes money into Federal and sometimes state funds based on your earnings. There is usually a week delay between submitting a claim and receiving unemployment benefits so it’s best to file your claim immediately. Also, severance payments are not classified as wages for the purposes of unemployment–unless they are paid as wages in lieu of notice.
- Not hunkering down for the long haul – Bobby is so sure he will get a new job in a matter of weeks, he refuses to concede to his wife’s more practical suggestions to cancel the golf club membership and put their house on the market. When the going gets tough, the tough need to cut back on expenses. Any luxuries like your cable bill, eating out, expensive car leases, shopping sprees need to be eliminated until you’ve stabilized your financial situation.
- Not burning bridges – Bobby is understandably pissed when he loses his job and he takes out his frustrations on the head of HR at his former company, his former boss and even a job recruiter at another company. No matter how righteous your indignation, it’s best to handle things professionally and with discretion. You never know what the future holds and who you might need as a job reference.
Those were the major mistakes the character of Bobby Walker made in The Company Men. Although the movie eventually had an upbeat ending for Ben Affleck’s humbled hotshot, it did a fairly good job of portraying the excruciating limbo that occurs when one loses their job. But the film also highlights another issues to be overcome with being unemployed: the loss of one’s sense of identity along with the loss of income. So learn not only from the mistakes outlined above, but the even more important lesson that you are more than just your job.
Stella Louise is the editor of the Savings.com Blog & Save, a lifestyle blog for savvy consumers offering insight and advice on personal finance, shopping and money management.
Published or updated January 28, 2011.