How to back up your contacts and work files before a layoff

There’s no sugarcoating it: getting laid off stinks. And while there’s no such thing as a “good” layoff, a bad one can absolutely be made worse if your now ex-company cuts off your access to contacts, emails, and work without warning.

You probably know someone who had this happen to them. (Or perhaps you’re worried it could happen to you.) It seems heartless, but the bottom line is that companies abruptly cut off access to protect their interests. You might just want a colleague’s email to keep in touch or might want to save examples of your work to prove your worth to possible employers. To the company, however, the most important thing is to make sure disgruntled ex-employees don’t abscond with sensitive information like internal presentations, trade secrets, or proprietary information.

Being prepared ahead of time is the best course of action. It’s one less worry on your plate if this is a “just in case”-type scenario. But even if the timing isn’t in your favor, here are some tips and tricks that’ll hopefully make a layoff less bad in the moment.

Know what you can take with you

The last thing you want is a layoff to haunt you at your next job. Taking data that can be considered trade secrets can get you in hot water — especially if you didn’t read the fine print in your employment contract. It pays to take a few minutes to reread your contract so you can remember whether you signed an NDA, or non-solicitation agreement, and, if so, what the terms are.

Generally, if it’s an ingredient in the company’s secret sauce, it’s off the table. That includes things like financial data, formulas, designs, business plans, etc.

One gray area is your contacts. Here’s where checking your employment contract can come in handy. Some companies may have stipulations on how you can use your contacts, while others may not. Regardless, it’s a good idea to brainstorm a list of people you’d like to keep in contact with — and find other ways to reach them.

LinkedIn is a great resource because it’s a professional, work-related platform and can help you maintain your industry relationships regardless of where you work. Sign in, find your best contacts, and ask them if you can add them to your list of connections.

On the other hand, keep in mind that if you choose to message someone’s personal account — like Instagram or Facebook — it may not be appreciated. Going forward, it might also be a good idea to maintain a digital Rolodex in a spreadsheet for your most important industry relationships.

Email clients are your friend

There are a ton of ways to back up your emails. Google Takeout, for instance, will create a backup for you. Or you could go to Google Contacts and export everything to a CSV file. You can also export your Outlook contacts.

These are fine methods, but they’re not always viable. While mass layoffs ought to come with a 60-day WARN notice, it seems like poorly planned layoffs are more common these days. Even if you’re preparing in advance, some companies disable Google Takeout and / or Outlook exports for work accounts. (You should check, lest you have an unpleasant surprise at the last minute.)

Google Takeout is super convenient, but some companies have disabled it for work accounts. You should check and make contingency plans if Takeout isn’t an option.
Screenshot: The Verge

In those instances, desktop mail clients like Outlook (assuming your company doesn’t use it), Apple’s Mail app, or Thunderbird can come in handy. The nice thing about clients, as opposed to accessing email from a website, is that it gives you a local copy on your device. The setup process will depend on which client you choose and might take an extra step or two. You might also have to input some server information.

If your company uses Google Workspace, you can either check out Google’s guide here or go to your Gmail settings and click the Forwarding and POP/IMAP tab to find instructions. I use this method, and it’s given me some peace of mind. For companies that use Office 365, here’s Microsoft’s guide on POP / IMAP settings and another guide for setting up an Outlook account in another mail app or device.

That said, this might not work if you only have a company-issued laptop that you can instantly get locked out of. So once again (and this can’t be said too many times), plan ahead.

Take your phone offline

In an ideal world, no layoff would be a total shock. But because we don’t live in an ideal world, you can log in to work and get ambushed by an unplanned, ominous calendar invite for a meeting with HR in your inbox. You may even have an employer that cuts off your email access as they’re laying you off. In that nightmare scenario, turning off your phone’s Wi-Fi and cellular connection as quickly as possible is your best bet.

This is the least convenient way to try to retrieve your stuff, but it might work in a pinch. Depending on which email app you use, you may or may not be able to export the data off of your phone. At the very least, you can manually write down the five to 10 email addresses of people you want to stay in touch with before reconnecting to the internet (and possibly losing access to all of those emails for good.)

Get numbers that make you look good

If you have a little extra time, it’s always a good idea to write down some key figures related to your performance while you have full access to relevant data. For example, if you’re in sales, it looks way more impressive to say you increased revenue by 25 percent in Q2 than to say you were a “high performer” on your resume. Work in social media marketing? You can at least estimate a ballpark figure of how you’ve improved traffic or engagement during your time there. Again, don’t take anything that could get you in trouble. Any figure you come up with should relate to your personal performance and shouldn’t reveal any confidential information.

It doesn’t have to be numbers, either. If you can access positive performance reviews, download them. If you have an email or DM where a colleague thanked you for your hard work, save that. Not only is it a confidence booster, but you can also use it as inspiration when you’re sprucing up your resume or writing the dreaded cover letter.

While you’re at it, now’s a good time to create a running folder of screenshots. Any time your bosses, co-workers, or clients send a complimentary email, text, or DM, throw a screenshot in there. You’ve got nothing to lose. If you’re not impacted by layoffs, you’ve already built a case for why you should get a raise or promotion.

If you’re close with any of your colleagues, make sure to exchange contact information like personal emails or ask to friend them on social media. In a mass layoff, you might also want to create a group chat on platforms like Slack or Discord so you can help each other find job opportunities and offer moral support.

You could also create a spreadsheet with your co-workers’ names, contact information, and roles and then post it to, say, LinkedIn so recruiters can easily find you. That’s exactly what one Peloton employee did during the company’s first round of layoffs in 2022 — and you can see in the comments that it caught the attention of several hiring managers.

Lastly, try to treat yourself with compassion. If you don’t manage to save anything in time, it’ll be okay. Make yourself easy to find on LinkedIn and other spaces where people in your industry hang out on the internet. And remember: layoffs are a reflection of the economy and your company’s leadership, not you.

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