On the Chopping Block: How to Prevent Getting Downsized

Answers to questions submitted by the Washington Post

Describe the current jobs climate for employees. What should employees in general be expecting in the upcoming month? What should the unemployed expect? Are there any jobs that are recession-proof?

Most likely, employees should expect another round of layoffs in January. Many employers held on to their employers during the holidays to avoid the “Scrooge” complex. Now that the holidays are over, many employers will be forced to let them go.

I received a phone call from a concerned individual who works at a large IT company in the U.S. She started describing her current work environment. She said, “The economy has changed everything here. Management has started outsourcing to India. We are all under the gun to cut costs and improve productivity. If we don’t, they said we could be the next to go. Just a month or two ago, they had a collaborative work team. They worked well together and helped each other. That al has changed. Everyone is afraid to work with each other for fear they may look like the weak link. Everyone is angry and frustrated and no one wants to help each other.

Just about every industry has been affected by this economic crisis. However, there are many areas of this country and industries have been less affected than others. The oil and gas industry remains strong. An emerging natural gas industry is expanding and vibrant. Subsequently, many states in the Midwest are facing labor shortages and are recruiting from other states to keep up with demand. For example, the city of Atlanta has 7% unemployment, while Bismarck, North Dakota faces unemployment of less than 2%.

The jobs least affected by the recession are the military and government. Law enforcement positions are always in demand. Healthcare positions in nursing and medical specialists remain strong and in constant demand. Dental specialist jobs were in demand prior to the recession. Now dental practices are finding their patients skipping exams and cleanings. More people are having dentures put in instead of paying for costly dental treatments.

High-tech job are in demand and growing. I recently spoke at a technology conference. One of the outcomes from the meeting was to discover 80% of the employers were still recruiting and hiring IT engineers. That trend is expected to continue

Despite the growing unemployment rates, many employers still need skilled people. Skilled workers are the ones in greater demand versus soft skilled jobs. Those individuals who have a particular skill will have an easier time finding a job. The old belief that a college education will land you a higher paying job may be changing in this economy.

What are the warning signs an employee should start mailing resumes (will be fired soon)?

As a management consultant, it is my feeling that everyone should consider themselves a temporary worker. We are interlinked with the world. Any change in the U.S. economy will be felt by the global community within hours and visa versa. The old days of permanent employment is over for most industries.

All businesses want to attract and retain their best and brightest, but layoffs maybe become inevitable. So here are a few warning signs to consider.

The easiest way to tell you might be in danger is the most obvious—stock price and decreasing sales. If both indicators are going down—then get ready.

If you have not received “high marks” on your performance evaluation, or if you have not received a promotion in quite a while, then you should be wary.

What are some strategies every employee can use to stay off the chopping block?

The bad news is there maybe nothing you can do to stay off the chopping block. Businesses use different criteria to determine who stays and who goes. Some businesses use an arbitrary process while others may base layoffs on individual performance or seniority—“last in, first to go.”

Like most things of life, relationships and your performance can help prevent you from being one of the first to go. Make sure you make your boss aware of your contributions at work, what you have done to better yourself and your educational advancements and certifications. If your boss is not aware of your contributions, you are at risk. Make a list of your contributions and accomplishments and let your boss see it. Make sure you don’t exaggerate.

Your performance evaluations need to be top notch. If your performance has been sub-standard—then start boxing your stuff up.

Employees should make sure they are part of important projects—be seen and noticed as an important contributor to the team. Start asking for more responsibility and take charge of important projects. Make yourself as indispensable as possible. Make sure you don’t volunteer for a project that is going to be terminated.

However, even if you do all these things it is no guarantee you are not going to be let go.

Should you listen to office gossip about the future of the company? Who should you listen to?

Rumors run rampant during these times. Employers need to communicate 10X more to control rumors. Try to avoid listening to rumors—it will have a debilitating effect. Hopefully, your Human Resource department can provide a source of reliable information.

Should an employee try to stand out or keep a low profile?

In many of my jobs, I had to make decisions about who stayed and who had to go. It was never easy. However, the ones that I kept were the ones who stepped up to the plate and took action–not the ones who had easy jobs and just showed up for work. It is human nature when you face fear and the unknown is to take a low profile. However, it can be the worst thing to do when an employer is looking to downsize. Employers want to make sure you are part of the solution, not the part of problem. If an employer is going to downsize, then they are going to look for people who are going to be the least damaging to lose.

Can an employees’ reputation help them to retain their position?


How do you improve this reputation?

Your reputation is everything. It begins the first day of work and it takes months to change or repair it. Be aware, if you have been a wallflower since you were employed, taking charge now could be viewed with suspicion and only a ploy to save your neck.

Your relationship with your bosses is important and could help you from getting downsized. All bosses form opinions of their employees in different ways. Many bosses are influenced by the personality and friendliness of their employees. Personally, the characteristics that positively influenced me the most was if that employee was effective getting their job done. They could be counted on and if they were responsible and reliable. Those were the most important characteristics I valued. “Brown-nosing” would get you on my bad list very quickly. It also damages your reputation with your co-workers.

Make sure you know what your boss values and expects from you. You might even go so far to ask your boss for an “unofficial” job evaluation so you can see how close you come to his/her expectations. However, if you company is already starting to downsize, then it could be too late to for this. Again your reputation is formed within a few weeks after you begin your job and it takes up to six month to change.

What jobs are impacted the most by recessions?

Industries most vulnerable are the same ones always vulnerable during downturns. Sales, retail, hospitality and general management and administrative jobs are more at risk. Obviously, manufacturing and construction jobs have faced major losses. Unique to these time, the financial industry is facing some of the greatest loses due to turmoil in the banking and financial industry.

What should employees do to prepare in case they’re laid-off?

People need to do an audit of their skills. Write them down and decide how many different industries they could possibly work in. Just because you have only worked in one industry does not mean you are not qualified to work in a different industry. This is called “cross-lateralization.”

I just met a man who was an executive in the restaurant industry. His company was sold and he lost his job. He went back to school and now is a sleep technician working in a hospital. He is making less money, but he enjoys his job and his salary is paying the bills.

The next step is to decide if you are willing to relocate. Moving to another located where employment opportunities are better could give you a leg up.

Finally, be prepared to take a cut in pay. People who are hired today are getting offered less for the same level of responsibility.

When the axe comes, in lieu of being terminated, see if they would be willing to keep you on if you offer to take a cut in your pay. If you have a valuable skill, then you can offer to come back as a contractor.

What are the proper steps to take after being laid-off?

The first thing is not take it personally. It is no longer a stigma to be laid off.

The other thing to keep in mind is these are not normal times. So traditional job seeking techniques may not be the best way to go. Posting your resume on an internet job board won’t suffice. Recently, I was watching television and there were men wearing billboards on the streets of New York with their job skills painted on it looking for work.

Any job could be a good job. Be realistic—forget that “dream job” and think about survival.

I would also seek work with a temporary agency. Businesses use staffing agencies to do the screening for them. If they like you as a temporary, then once the economy improves, they may offer you a permanent job.

Make sure you keep touch with your former employer so hopefully you can be one of the first hired back when the economy improves.


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