Has this happened to you? You’re headed to a meeting with your boss, and when you reach his office, you find the corporate attorney and/or HR director with him. The next thing you know, the tag team is telling you, “We no longer need your services,” and they’re ushering you out the door.
The first time it happens, it can come as a complete shock. But chances are there were early warning signs that indicated your job was in serious danger—warning signs you missed.
“I’ve seen a lot of people get blindsided,” says Dan Coffey, a consultant with Spherion who helps executives who’ve recently lost their jobs find their next one. He estimates that 50 percent of people fired are caught completely off guard when they should have been aware of the evidence against them.
To help you decipher the signals, we’ve compiled a comprehensive list of red flags. Learn them, and you may be able to take measures to get yourself out of a precarious position—before the only exit route is through the front door while carrying a cardboard box.
1. Your company is sold. “If your company is sold or your division is sold, you have to realize your job could be affected no matter what level you’re at,” says Coffey.
Job-saving tip: “Always have your slide deck ready that shows the value you are providing to the firm so that when your company is taken over or you get a new CEO or CFO, you’re Johnny-on-the-spot ready to explain your value,” says Karen Rubenstrunk, a recruiter with Korn Ferry International. The mistake many professionals make, she says, is waiting for their scheduled meeting with the new management to make their case. “They don’t recognize how important it is to make that first impression,” she adds. Fail to have your self-promotional sales pitch polished, and you’re at the whim of others’ perceptions of you.
2. Your company is not making money. If your company is unprofitable, it’s ripe for some kind of change whether it is job cuts, reorganization or the pursuit of a new business strategy, says Coffey. Either way, you have to realize your job may be in jeopardy.
Job-saving tip: Coffey advises professionals to pay particular attention to the way their department is viewed inside their companies for further clues. If their function is viewed as a commodity, the board may decide to outsource the entire department or replace the department head with someone cheaper to cut costs. Either way, start looking for a new job.
3. Your company pursues a strategy you didn’t support. If your company decides to centralize or decentralize, grow through acquisition or divest businesses, and you didn’t recommend the move the management team is making, you’re going to be perceived as not being on the proverbial bus, or worse, not having the skills necessary to take the company in its new direction.
Job-saving tip: Start making a list of companies that could benefit from your experience, and work on arranging interviews with them.
4. Your span of control has been reduced. “Any reorganization in which you no longer have the full span of control [that you had prior to the restructuring] is a sign that you’re getting moved out,” says Korn Ferry’s Rubenstrunk. “If part of your organization was taken away, there’s a reason. And it’s probably because people didn’t feel you were up to the task, regardless of what your superiors tell you,” she says. If your boss tells you he’s reassigning some of your responsibilities to another executive to lighten your heavy load, don’t believe it. It’s just a diplomatic way for the boss to say he no longer believes you can do the job.
Job-saving tip: Do the best you can in your reduced capacity and start looking for new work.
5. You’re left out of key meetings and decisions. “If you are a respected technology person, you’re asked for your opinion,” says Rubenstrunk. So when you’re suddenly no longer asked to weigh in on budget changes, staffing decisions or process-improvement initiatives, it can signify many things: that your company doesn’t view IT as strategic, your peers don’t see you as strategic, your C-level colleagues have lost confidence in you, or you’ve become an impediment to getting things done and they’d sooner move ahead without you.
Job-saving tip: Start returning recruiters’ phone calls and rebuilding your network.
6. You’re not getting buy-in. Not being able to get approval for your strategy, individual projects or budget can indicate that your fellow execs no longer support you. It can also indicate that your proposals are not aligned with the business. Either way, it shows you’re not in tune with your colleagues or your company’s needs. You can’t be effective or successful without buy-in.
Job-saving tip: Allan Sommer, CIO of Kraton Polymers, advises executives to talk with the individuals who are not giving them the support they need. He recommends saying something like, “I’m sensing an issue around buy-in. On the last three projects, I got support from HR and finance but not from you. Can you talk to me about that? Do you think we’re making investments in the right areas?” In so doing, he says, “You show you know what’s going on and that you care about their opinion, but you have to be ready for a confrontational discussion.”
7. You have to fight tooth and nail to get anything done. “If you’re always arguing with colleagues in meetings and they either don’t listen to or rebuff your ideas, it tells me your objectives are not the corporation’s objectives,” says Dennis Connor, a retired CIO who’s now chairman of the Dallas-Fort Worth area chapter of the Technology Executives Networking Group ( TENG).
Job-saving tip: Purchase that premium subscription to TheLadders.com that you’ve been putting off.
8. You have a new boss. Any new CXO on staff should automatically serve as a warning that personnel changes may be afoot, says Rubenstrunk. Why? Because they like to assemble their own teams, says TENG’s Connor. Charles Schiappa, the former CIO of HP’s medical products business who’s currently in transition, says IT professionals must realize that a new boss is going to judge their performance along new criteria—that is, the new boss’s metrics, and not your old boss’s. And if that new exec starts talking about a wonderful friend with whom he used to work and who held your position, that’s a surefire sign he has designs on your job, adds Spherion’s Coffey.
Job-saving tip: Coffey advises employees to treat getting a new boss like taking a new job. He says a lot of professionals make the mistake of continuing to work as they did before the new boss arrived and thinking that it’s the new boss who has to get acclimated to the culture, not them. “That’s how they get blindsided when they get let go,” he says. “The new boss has a mandate, and you have to make sure you’re aligned with that mandate. If you’re not, you’re toast.”
9. Your top priorities don’t match up with your boss’s. This is a clear indication that you and your boss are drifting apart, says Connor, and unless you get back in alignment with him, he may decide to let you go. Similarly, if you find your lines of communication with your boss are drying up—or worse, he assigns you to report to someone else—it means you’re no longer a priority in his mind. If you were, he’d devote a portion of his precious time to you.
Job-saving tip: Check in with your boss regularly to make sure you’re on the same page.
10. You can’t attract top talent. “Good IT workers will work for people they feel they will learn from, and they’ll make sacrifices to do so,” says Rubenstrunk of Korn Ferry, even if the sacrifice involves moving to Duluth. If you can’t recruit good workers, your reputation in the industry may be scaring people away. What’s more, if your best workers start leaving, it’s often because they’re frustrated with the IT department, she adds. As the leader of the IT organization, you’re accountable for being able to attract and retain the best and the brightest. “If too many of your good people go, others [read: those C-players evaluating your performance] are going to notice,” she says. This may not lead to your immediate dismissal, but it does stack up as a strike against you.
Job-saving tip: Ask existing and departing employees what you can do to be a better manager, and take their recommendations seriously.
11. You screw up big-time. Failed systems implementations have cost countless IT employees their jobs. If you consistently miss project milestones, whether you’re a CIO or a project manager, your boss is going to toss you out and hire someone who can get the job done. And if the project for which you’re ultimately accountable causes your company to miss its earnings expectations, you can count on getting canned.
Job-saving tip: Come up with a way to spin your failure so that it doesn’t appear to be such a big liability when you interview for your next job.
12. You engage in an unethical activity. If you take kickbacks from vendors, use corporate funds to bankroll vacations or otherwise defraud shareholders, you can bet you’re going to get the boot. And rightly so. Companies have instituted a no-tolerance attitude toward unethical behavior in the aftermath of the corporate scandals of 2002 and the HP pretexting fiasco. Restaurant chain operator Buca fired CIO John Motschenbacher in March 2005. He has since been charged with soliciting and obtaining illegal payments from vendors.
Job-saving tip: Read your company’s policies on ethical behavior. Consult your corporate counsel for advice. If your company doesn’t have an ethics policy or officer, think about what you’re doing and if you’d want to read about it the next day in the newspaper.
13. You’re on bad terms with a colleague responsible for generating revenue. If the VP of sales starts squawking to the CEO that your systems and processes are preventing him from booking sales, Korn Ferry’s Rubenstrunk says you should be concerned. The last thing you want to do is prevent your company from making money.
Job-saving tip: Fix the problem. ASAP.
14. Your boss places unreasonable demands on you. If your boss or management team continually asks you to do something without the right resources, such as implement SAP in 90 days or cut your budget by 50 percent in a year, “you have to question their faith in your role,” says Sommer of Kraton Polymers. Conversely, they may place these demands on you without understanding what’s humanly possible in your role, he adds. “It’s your job to educate them,” he says. Coffey of Spherion notes that a new boss who wants to get rid of an incumbent employee will often take the tactic of setting unreasonable expectations. “He’s setting you up to eliminate you,” he says.
Job-saving tip: Being set up to fail is a tough situation to turn around. The best you can do, especially if this is happening under a new boss, according to Schiappa, is to “take the high ground” and try to understand your new boss’s demands from her perspective. They may not be all that unreasonable—just different from what your previous boss wanted, says the former HP CIO. And while you’re searching for a solution, start working your network to find a new job.
15. Your boss minimizes your accomplishments. “If you’re doing handsprings and your colleagues are saying they didn’t notice, that’s pretty bad,” says Schiappa. “That shows a lack of respect and that your [internal] customers don’t see what you’re doing as worthwhile.”
Job-saving tip: Schiappa recommends redoubling your efforts to demonstrate the value of your work. Find a way to prove your value that resonates with your boss, he says.
16. Your boss hires an executive coach for you. This can be a good thing or a bad thing. Getting an executive coach can indicate that your boss is still invested in you, says Sommer. But, he adds, it can also be a formality—a way for your current employer to cover itself after later firing you for poor performance. By hiring an executive coach, your boss can say, “We tried and you just didn’t work out.”
Job-saving tip: Don’t be cynical about this if you care about your current position. Have an honest conversation with your boss about why he hired an executive coach for you and what he wants you to get out of it. Make every effort to learn from what your boss and your coach tell you.
17. Your boss asks you to work on “special projects.” Special projects are a euphemism for busy work. When you’re assigned to special projects, it means the boss has lost so much confidence in your ability to lead that he’s trying to get you off the high-profile projects you had been working on until he can find a replacement for you. “The whole purpose [of special projects] is to put someone on an island without having to give them a lot of maintenance,” says Sommer, who observed this at JP Morgan Chase. When he was working for the financial services company, he recalls, an employee was chosen to work on a special project that involved investigating an opportunity for a new hedge fund product line in Eastern Europe. The clues indicating that this project (and this person’s role in the company) wasn’t going anywhere were the fact that JP Morgan Chase didn’t have much of a presence in Eastern Europe at the time, and the individual wasn’t given a staff or a travel budget.
Job-saving tip: Sommers says at this point, it’s too late to save face. The best you can do is keep a smile on your face in the office while dusting off your resume.
18. You see a confidential search ad that describes your job to a tee. Spherion’s Coffey says he recently worked with an executive who got a call from a friend while on vacation. The friend told the executive that a rumor was circulating in the office that the executive was going to lose his job. When the executive got back from vacation, he saw a job ad that looked remarkably like his own, and he later found out the rumor that he was going to be replaced was true.
Job-saving tip: Memorize these warning signs so you don’t get taken by surprise again.