When the U.S. economy collapsed in 2001, companies quickly responded with massive layoffs. Airlines shed jobs by the thousands. Technology companies large and small cut staff. And unemployment rose from 4 percent in 2000—the lowest level since 1969—to 6 percent in 2003, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Now, with the U.S. economy lurching toward a full-blown recession, fears of layoffs have been reignited, and for good reason:
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Axes are falling on workers’ desks right and left as red ink drips from many a corporate balance sheet. And no one is safe, no matter where you stand on the corporate ladder. Though senior executives are less vulnerable to losing their jobs than the employees below them, they can be casualties of restructurings.
Indeed, Bear Stearns deposed CEO James Cayne in early January. And more than one company fired its CIO and replaced him with a lesser-paid director of IT during the last economic downturn. (Of course, the top executives generally leave with generous severance packages while employees on the front lines are lucky if they get four months’ severance.)
Whether you’re a CIO or a help-desk technician, career coaches say you can take measures to prevent the hatchet from falling on your neck. CIO.com has drawn up a list of actions to take and behaviors you should avoid to safeguard your job. Some of the recommendations may sound trite or obvious, but don’t kiss them off. They might just save your skin.
Know Your Value and Communicate It
“If you’re flying under the radar, you’re going to be the first to be eliminated,” says Kirsten Dixson, author of Career Distinction: Stand Out by Building Your Brand.
Dixson recommends compiling a weekly status report that outlines the project or projects you’re working on, your progress on those projects and your key performance indicators, and sending that report to your boss each week. You can also present this same data to your boss in weekly meetings.
Proving your worth in challenging economic times ranks high on the list of IT executives hired based on their records of expanding lines of business. If you’re known as a “growth and innovation CIO” and you want to keep your job with your current employer, which is focused more on weathering the economic storm than innovation, you need to prove you’re as adept a cost cutter as you are an idea generator, says Joanne C. Dustin, a 25-year veteran of the IT industry who’s now a career coach.
Dustin says CIOs need to talk up the efficiencies and cost savings that their innovations have achieved as well as the revenue they’ve generated. Your company may still decide that it needs someone with a different skill set in the CIO role, but at least you’ve given it your best shot.
“People who are bringing the team down and stirring the rumor mill are definitely the ones who are going to be on the list to go,” says Dixson. “I’ve noticed in working with my clients that the people who tend to get laid off are those who have been vocalizing their dissatisfaction with their jobs or their company for some time.”
If you want to keep your job or control when you leave your employer, you can attempt to change your attitude, says Dixson, but your coworkers’ perception of you as Debbie Downer may not change as quickly as your negativity. Dixson recommends a more assertive measure: Meet with your boss and recommend ways you can improve the situation in your department or in your company. In other words, show your colleagues your change of face.
Dustin notes that having a history of playing devil’s advocate can work against an employee during a recession. If you’re always playing devil’s advocate and you’re worried about your job, she recommends you find a gentler way to express your opinions.
If being positive about your job or your company is impossible, Dixson advises professionals to look for another job. “The fact that you’re doing something about your situation improves your outlook,” she says. Knowing you’re on your way out also makes your existing job more bearable.
Be a Team Player
Getting along with others is critical when downsizing is on the table, especially for IT professionals who tend to be independent, says Dustin, who’s worked as a programmer, project manager and systems manager. “These times require cooperation, flexibility and a willingness to go the extra mile,” she says.
Ed Longanacre, senior vice president of IT at Amerisafe, a provider of workers’ compensation insurance in Deridder, La., says IT professionals who “just sit at their desk or in the server room and do their 8 to 5” are at risk. The problem with hunkering down, he says, is that it gives the impression that the employee is not interested in the organization.
Longanacre also puts prima donnas on notice: “If you’re an excellent performer but you don’t get along with people and you’re always causing trouble, you’re not worth the effort,” he says. “If the IT organization is getting smaller, those who remain have to work well together.”
Make a Sacrifice
Some CEOs of banks plagued by the subprime mortgage crisis have given up their bonuses to save their reputation and their job.
Mark Cummuta, who writes CIO.com’s CIO Job Search blog, noted on a recent post that he gave up several paychecks while serving as CTO of a software and services company that fell on hard times after September 11 so that the company would have money to pay the team. He said he also paid for servers and networking equipment using his personal credit card to make sure his company could meet its clients’ needs.
Giving up a bonus, forgoing a few paychecks and purchasing supplies out of your own pocket certainly shows dedication. But be careful of offering to take a pay cut, says Dustin. You risk being perceived as having less value if you’re willing to accept less money, she says. “You’re earning what you’re earning because you’re worth it,” she adds.
Sharpen Your Skills
Patricia Stepanski Plouffe, president of Career Management Consultants in Worcester, Mass., advises workers to learn more about their companies when the going gets tough.
Workers need to understand their companies’ business, its challenges and different functions in the organization. The more they know, Plouffe says, the more versatile and valuable they’ll be and the more easily they may be able to transfer to another department if theirs gets shaken up. She recommends that workers use opportunities to volunteer on safety committees or for events to meet other people in the business and ask them about their roles, departments and takes on the company.
Longanacre underscores the importance of continuous learning for his IT workers. The more they understand Amerisafe’s business, the technologies it uses now and how those technologies will interface with future ones, the more valuable they are, he says.
He also appreciates when his staff volunteer for projects, help others in the IT department and offer to serve as a liaison to the business. Serving as a liaison is particularly impressive because the role often has nothing to do with the IT staffer’s day-to-day job as, say, a network administrator, Longanacre says. Those who serve as liaisons demonstrate their ability to build relationships with employees outside of IT, explain the IT department’s strategic direction, understand the needs of the business unit and communicate those needs back to the IT group—all things that will increase an individual’s value to the company.
Don’t Spread Rumors, But Pay Attention to Chatter
Rumor mongers are high on the list of people to cut during a downsizing, so let that be your warning. Although it doesn’t pay to spread gossip, it can pay to listen to it.
Staying attuned to what’s going on inside your company, including all the gossip, can help you anticipate changes, says Stepanski Plouffe. “If there’s a rumor that your department is going to fold or downsize, you can identify other areas of the company where you could transfer your skills,” she says.
Just remember that you can’t trust everything you hear, whether it comes from the water cooler or the CFO.
Don’t Be Condescending to Business Units
Longanacre says that the infrastructure manager who worked for Amerisafe when Longanacre first joined the company in April 2000 upheld an “I know what’s best for the business” attitude that didn’t sit well with Longanacre’s boss, the company’s previous vice president of IT. “My predecessor had six months of that and got rid of him,” he says.
Managers who don’t put up with supercilious staff during boom times certainly won’t let that behavior slide during a recession.
“Executives are expected to set the vision and reassure people of the path the company is on,” says Dixson. “This is not the time to go in your office and shut the door. Show decisiveness, strength and integrity. Show that you’re combating the rumor mill.”
Show Enthusiasm for Your Projects
“The project you’re working on right now is really important because you’re only as good as the last project you worked on,” says Dixson. And let’s face it: That’s the way personnel decisions are made.
Adapt to Change Quickly
“If you can develop an attitude that nothing is going to stay the same and that your organization and your job will always be in flux, that will help you cope,” says Stepanski Plouffe. “Be ready for whatever change may come up.”
Don’t Leave Your Job Without These Materials! A Checklist
If you do get laid off, make sure you gather the following documentation before you’re escorted out the door.
1. References from coworkers, superiors and subordinates in writing
2. Past performance evaluations
3. Letters and e-mails from customers expressing positive feedback
4. Your job description
Source: Patricia Stepanski Plouffe