How to Save Your Job During a Recession

When layoffs threaten, having a good attitude and showing empathy for your leaders becomes more important than ever.

The smell of fear is getting stronger as the "R" word pops up more frequently in business discussions and layoffs loom in many companies. In this month's Harvard Business Review, Janet Banks and Diane Coutu assert that workers who feel that their jobs are threatened often react in exactly the wrong way.

Banks, a former executive at FleetBoston Financial and Chase Manhattan Bank who is currently doing small group facilitation work for nonprofit companies, told Kathleen Melymuka that your best strategy may not be the one that's intuitive.

If I'm an IT professional, what's the single most important thing I can do to keep my job when layoffs seem to be looming at my company?

I'd love to say it's your work on relevant projects, but attitude is probably the single biggest thing you can control, and it will impact how you perceive yourself and how others perceive you. It's much easier to deselect a sour, negative person than someone who is constructive and creative.

Janet Banks

I don't want to pigeonhole people, but tech work often attracts introverted people. And most business people are extroverts, so they are not going to know how an introvert is thinking. So you need to take risks and put yourself out [there] more -- offering constructive ideas.

Many people hunker down and keep a low profile when layoffs threaten. Your advice seems to be to do just the opposite.

Hunkering down is an illusion. You have the payroll sheet with everybody's name on it. Nobody is invisible, and you can't hide. Everything is being assessed: every project, every person. And if you're not visible in a positive way, it's easy to say, "I won't miss him."

You write that it's also valuable to be ambidextrous. What does that mean for an IT professional?

The ability to play multiple roles. For me, the most important would be a capacity to identify with the business as opposed to just the tech role. In companies I've worked with, there have been terrific examples of people in IT who really became business leaders. Art Ryan at Chase came from that world and became CEO. But he was always identified with how to make the business more profitable. That's a [mind-set].

You stress the importance of showing empathy for your leaders, even if they may be planning to cut your job. How does that differ from sucking up?

The people who do it well do it from an honest effort to be supportive to their boss, and it starts with having a relationship that is built on trust so you can give honest feedback. You can't manufacture that in a crisis; it's something you need to be working on whether you're worried about your job or not.

Kissing up is when people hear you talking out of two sides of your mouth. You say one thing to the boss and another around the water cooler.

Have your say

What's your technique for surviving layoffs?

You can't do that. Phony behavior is spotted a mile away, so the empathy has to come from your authentic self.

What makes you think this approach to helping people save their jobs will work?

There's no guarantee that any approach will work. Sometimes it's not personal at all: If a project is gone, you're gone. Sometimes there's nothing you can do about it. But at end of the day, how do you want to feel about yourself? Did you give it your best?

Plan B

No job protection plan is foolproof. As you do what you can to keep your job, it's wise to also prepare for the worst. Here are some things you can do now:

  • Determine what you're good at and what you enjoy most.
  • Revisit Myers-Briggs or other tests you've taken over the years to gain a better understanding of your strengths and weaknesses.
  • Read self-help books for inspiration.
  • Update your résumé.
  • Network.
  • Consider a creative leap to a different kind of job.

Adapted from Harvard Business Review

This story, "How to Save Your Job During a Recession" was originally published by Computerworld.

Copyright © 2008 IDG Communications, Inc.

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