When a Layoff Recharges a Network

Jane Helfen had been at Agilent 26 years when she found herself on the hunt. “Getting laid off was the kick in the pants that I needed,” she said from her new desk.

HandsIf Jane Helfen had not been laid off last May, she says she’d still be in her former position at Agilent, waiting another year before she turned 55 and qualified for retirement benefits.

It didn’t work out that way. And Helfen said she’s happy about the change of plans.

“Getting laid off was the kick in the pants that I needed,” she said from her desk at her new position as senior director of human resources at Juniper Networks in Sunnyvale, Calif.

Helfen had always expected her next move would be her decision to make. She had worked first at Hewlett-Packard, then for 26 years at Agilent, an HP spinoff. Helfen had been feeling restless for the past three years, and she even began to look for a new job in 2006.

“I spoke to people at other companies, but there were good financial reasons to stay a few more years. And I was doing wonderful work, so I recommitted to staying,” she said. “Then, the economy tanked, and it was clear that the company would make changes with business HR functions. Still, it was a surprise when I was one of the people laid off. I didn’t expect it.”

She quickly recovered and “started networking like a fiend,” she said.

“I hadn’t had to look for a job in 26 years, so I needed to get up to speed.”

Helfen began attending networking events.

“It wasn’t so much for the job leads but to keep me positive,” she said. “I had to keep [myself] pumped up about my value, what I could contribute.”

She also formed a close partnership with her sister-in-law, a marketer who had also been laid off.

“We would go to networking events together; we would talk regularly and pick each other up. I think it’s important to have a couple of people to whom you can say, ‘It’s not a good day,’ and just get cleared up and get to it again. She helped me stay positive.”

She used her network to take interviews at several companies that proved unsuccessful, but the experience allowed her to practice her interviewing skills and explore the types of companies she might like to work for.

“They let me try it on.”

Fortuitous lunch

Eventually, Helfen’s efforts led her to lunch one day with a friend who worked at Juniper Networks. Helfen was considering starting her own business as a consultant, but the friend talked her out of it. Helfen realized she wanted more experience inside a major technology vendor before she went out on her own.

“Juniper was one of my target companies, and she knew that.”

Juniper had no openings at the time, but Helfen maintained contact with the friend, and by December a position opened up. “It went pretty quickly from there.”

Helfen credits her network for getting her the opportunity at Juniper and has no plans to stop networking just because she is employed.

“Companies are more interested in me [now that I am employed],” she said. “I realize now, there are companies that will not look at people who are not employed. While I understand it logically, I just think it is so sad. There are some terrific people that are not employed.”

With that in mind, she’s made networking a daily priority.

“I go home from work now, and I might be tired, but I will make contacts with one or two people a night. I am never going to stop now. I have reconnected with people I haven’t spoken to in 10 years; who knows when they will be able to help you?”

There’s a lesson she wouldn’t have learned had she not been laid off in May.