New Research from Syracuse University’s Whitman School Offers Explanatory View of Bouncing Back from Significant Job Loss

New entrepreneurship research from Syracuse University’s Martin J. Whitman School of Management offers a “rock bottom” model for generating a new positive work identity after experiencing significant job loss. In “Hitting rock bottom after job loss: Bouncing back to create a new positive work identity,” Trenton Williams, assistant professor of entrepreneurship at Whitman, and his co-author, Dean Shepherd (Indiana University) provide a deeper understanding of why some people recover after losing their work identity, while others languish and develops interventions that facilitate recovery from job loss.

“It can be a devastating loss of identity when someone loses a job they’ve held for decades,” said Williams. “For some, the loss might come in the form of an injury, such as a professional athlete, but for others, such as an entrepreneur whose business didn’t succeed, it might signal a failure. We examined two paths that someone in this position could take – a positive and negative journey.”

The pathway a person chooses depends on his or her decision-making orientation, according to the researchers. Some can constructively move forward, engaging in “work identity play” to constructively explore different opportunities and identities, until transitioning to more formal identity construction that helps them settle on a professional identity that is right for them. Others remain in a deconstructive state where they cannot get past the perception that the failure of a lost identity means their total failure as a person. At best, they languish in a deconstructive state and at worst, they become depressed, much like what happens when a person experiences a traumatic loss.

The researchers applied “regulatory focus theory” to describe what happens. Those who try to prevent losses find it difficult to take risks and they may be unlikely to try new things. Those who are risk takers are more likely to seek out help and resources and get themselves back on their feet. The key, according to the researchers, is the time spent in each phase of the journey.

“You can experiment and network in a non-targeted way at first and that is very healthy,” said Williams. “But at some point you have to focus and outline a clearer process. And those who have the education and support, as well as the belief that they can take risks, are the most likely to pull themselves up after experiencing a devastating job loss.”

The research is forthcoming in the Academy of Management Review.