by Meridith Levinson

4 Cynical Strategies for Protecting Your Job During a Recession

Sep 10, 20085 mins

On Monday, I spoke with Stephen Viscusi, author of a new book called Bulletproof Your Job: 4 Simple Strategies to Ride Out the Rough Times and Come Out on Top at Work. Viscusi is an executive recruiter in NYC, and his career advice has been featured all over the media, from the New York Times to the New York Daily News. Bulletproof Your Job, which you can read portions online, is his second book.

Viscusi offers a clear prescription for everyone who fears losing their job during this unstable economic time in the United States. He says employees need to take four measures to make sure they don’t get cut when their employers decide to do a layoff:

1. Be human. The most important thing employees can do to prevent getting the axe is to allow their bosses to get to know them on a personal level, says Viscusi. The reason developing a rapport with your boss is so critical is because that relationship makes it harder for your boss to let you go. It’s easy for him to get rid of people he doesn’t like, but it’s not easy for him to say good-bye to employees he genuinely enjoys working with.

Viscusi also recommends telling your boss things about your personal life that will humanize you and/or will inspire your boss’s sympathy. For example, if your spouse recently lost his or her job, Viscusi thinks you should mention it to your manager. The same advice goes for healthcare problems that may be afflicting a family member. 

Personally, I find this strategy of burdening your boss with your personal tsorres risky, but Viscusi says that in a recession it’s important to “pull out all the stops,” including, apparently, playing for pity. The idea is that it’s hard for managers to fire employees they know well and whom they like, or whom they know are enduring some personal hardship, says Viscusi.

2. Be visible. Make sure your organization and your boss are aware of you, your work and your value to the company. If your boss doesn’t know who you are, feels indifferent about you or is unsure of your contributions, you’ll be a lot easier for him to lay off when he’s told to cut staff, says Viscusi. He recommends several ways for employees to boost their visibility, including by promoting their work, dressing more nicely and professionally than co-workers and by coming into work before your boss arrives and going home after your boss leaves, even if that means arriving just 10 minutes before your boss and leaving 10 minutes after your boss.

3. Be easy. Mandated staff cuts give managers the opportunity to get rid of employees whom they don’t like personally or who are too high-maintenance for the boss to handle. Those employees may work hard and may do good work, but they might also be whiners and complainers, gossips or back-stabbers who badmouth co-workers.

“Bosses have been known to keep employees they like over employees they don’t like even if the person the they don’t like is more qualified than the person they like,” says Viscusi.

So if you’re easy to work with and easy to talk to, you have a good chance of dodging a bullet. 

4. Be useful. Going above and beyond your normal responsibilities by taking on extra work or mentoring someone new to your organization helps demonstrate your value. 

What do you think of

Viscusi’s advice?

The more I think about it, the more I disagree with portions of it. I agree that if you want to avoid getting laid off, you need to go above and beyond the call of duty and be easy to work with. I also agree that having a good relationship with your boss goes a long way toward keeping your position safe. But you can’t manufacture that chemistry with your manager. You either have it or you don’t, and if you do, you most likely developed it long before your job stability was ever in question. Similarly, you’re either an easy-going person by nature or you’re high-maintenance.

I also think telling your boss sob stories about your personal life in order to protect your job is a bad idea. I suppose desperate times call for desperate measures, but this recommendation strikes me as manipulative. In fact, I would think most managers would resent being put in such a position. Don’t get me wrong: I understand the need to tell your boss about family problems when they happen. Last winter my mother was bed-ridden for two months due to back problems. You better believe I told my boss about it. But I didn’t tell him to earn his pity or sympathy. I simply told him to explain why I was taking time off from work. 

The recommendation that bothers me the most is Viscusi’s tip about getting to work just before the boss arrives and going home just after the boss departs–in order to give the impression that you’re committed to your job and working long hours. That is such cynical advice. Viscusi must think managers are idiots. I would hope managers would see through such under-handed and dishonest tactics. 

This advice about making the boss think you’re working long and hard when you’re not does such a disservice to honest, hardworking professionals. It’s indicative of a complete lack of faith in people and the workings of the business world. It implies that hard work doesn’t matter, only the illusion of it does; that an employee’s intellect, work ethic and the quality of his character doesn’t matter. All that really matters to survival at work is appearances and perception, smoke and mirrors.  I’m one of the most pessimistic people in the world, but even I don’t want to believe that. 

Do you believe you need to be manipulative and underhanded to survive in this economy? Let me know what you think.