How to Recession-Proof Your HR Career

10 steps to help you prepare for an economic downturn.

By Daniel Bortz November 19, 2019
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How to Recession-Proof Your HR Career

Despite a notably low unemployment rate, the U.S.'s long-running economic boom may well be nearing its end, as a chorus of warning bells signals the strong potential for a recession in the near future.

Employment growth in the country is slowing, with employers adding only 165,000 jobs a month, on average, over the first seven months of this year, down from an average of 223,000 a month in 2018. In addition, an escalating trade war between China and the U.S. is stirring economic volatility. Another warning sign: The country's yield curve—a measure of the spread between the yield on the 3-month Treasury bill and that of the 10-year Treasury note—slipped below zero earlier this year, which has historically been an accurate predictor of recessions.

Taken together, these red flags indicate that the U.S. economy could very well stall out in the not-too-distant future, which is why it's important to be proactive about protecting your job security.

"Anyone can get laid off, as we learned in the last recession," says Los Angeles executive coach Libby Gill. "People who thought they were recession-proof were not. And, ironically, HR professionals are not always the best [at protecting their jobs]."

The good news? There are 10 straightforward steps you can take to recession-proof your HR career. 

1. Whip Your Resume into Shape

If it has been a while since you've dusted off your resume, now is the time for a touchup, says Anna Cosic, a leadership and career strategist in New York City. In addition to spotlighting recent quantifiable accomplishments (e.g., creating a plan that trimmed last year's turnover rate by 20 percent), make sure to remove any outdated skills or obsolete software, advises Robin Reshwan, professional resume writer and founder of CS Advising, a career coaching firm in Danville, Calif. Follow the same process when updating your LinkedIn profile. 

2. Re-Connect with Key Contacts

In an ideal world, you'd keep in touch with everyone in your professional network so that your connections are there when you need a job lead or a reference. But, alas, we often lose touch with people, especially those folks we don't see on a regular basis, such as former bosses or co-workers. However, there are some simple ways you can re-establish contact with professionals in your sphere. 

If you have a connection's e-mail address, shoot the person a brief note with a simple subject line, such as "Hello from your former colleague at XYZ Company—would love to reconnect." In the body of the e-mail, Cosic recommends offering something of value to break the ice (e.g., "I read this article and it reminded me of that project we worked on years ago"), and then asking to take the conversation offline by scheduling either a phone call or a coffee break.

3. Make Your Boss Your BFF

It's no secret that many managers play favorites, especially when handing out raises or promotions. But likeability is also an important factor for retention, says Rochester, N.Y., job coach Hannah Morgan, co-author of Social Networking for Business Success (Learning Express, 2013). "If your manager doesn't like you, you're going to be the first person your boss lets go if they have to lay off employees," Morgan says, "so you need to get on your boss' good side." 

One way to build rapport is to find things that you have in common. "Do you have the same hobbies? Do you watch the same TV shows? Do you have kids the same age? Those are all great topics you can bond over," Cosic says. Can't find common ground? Take an interest in your boss' life outside of work by asking friendly questions like "How was your daughter's play last weekend?"

4. Keep Your Manager Up-to-Date on Your Achievements

To protect your job, you can't just be a top performer—you have to be a great self-promoter, Cosic says. Therefore, set up regular one-on-one meetings with your boss where you can articulate the value you're bringing to the company. "You don't want to wait until your annual review to discuss your job performance," she warns.

During these sit-downs, make sure the assignments you're working on are aligned with your boss' priorities. "Every boss has their own definition of what it means to provide value as an employee," Cosic says, "so get clarity on what success means to your boss."

5. Improve Your Visibility

If you want to gain more job stability, take steps to stand out from your co-workers. Start by asking your boss to let you tag along to executive meetings. You can also gain exposure to higher-ups by rubbing shoulders with them at companywide volunteer days or social events—or, "depending on the culture and the bureaucracy of your company, you may be able to reach out to your boss' boss to request some face time," Gill says.

"If your boss' boss has no idea who you are," Cosic says, "you may be on the chopping block when it comes time for layoffs."


6. Establish Yourself as a Thought Leader

Gaining exposure outside of your company can make you a more valuable employee and, in turn, demonstrate to your boss that you're indispensible. These moves will help you establish yourself as an expert in the field: 

  • Join trade associations that give you access to resources and networking events. Assume a leadership role or a volunteer position on a committee for extra visibility.
  • Get on the speaking docket at industry conferences. Or volunteer to moderate a panel on a topic you're passionate about.
  • Appear as an expert in the media. "You can demonstrate your expertise through appearances in blogs, podcasts or articles," says Teri DePuy, a Colorado-based career coach at ICC Inc. Pro tip: Join the website Help a Reporter Out (HARO), a database that journalists use to find sources with particular areas of expertise.
  • Publish content on LinkedIn. LinkedIn isn't just for networking—you can use the website's self-publishing tool to share your opinions on industry news, Cosic says.

7. Create Multiple Streams of Income

Having a side hustle, such as consulting work, while you're still employed full-time can give you a cushion to fall back on if you're let go unexpectedly, says Kristen Tolbert, Ed.D., founder of Career CoLabs, an Aventura, Fla., human resources company.

8. Build an Emergency Fund

In the unfortunate event that you get laid off, you don't want to be scrambling for cash or racking up credit card debt to make ends meet—which is where a rainy day fund comes in: a lump sum of money you set aside to pay for living expenses while you're unemployed. As a rule of thumb, individuals should build an emergency fund that's big enough to cover three to six months of their essential expenses, such as housing, groceries and utilities, recommends Joe Pitzl, a certified financial planner in Arden Hills, Minn.

Park your emergency cash in a savings or money market account so that you can access the money easily while still earning a little interest.

9. Develop Hard Skills that Are in Demand

Part of recession-proofing your career entails staying relevant professionally. In other words, you need to possess HR skills that are in demand, DePuy says. 

Start by developing an understanding of artificial intelligence tools, data analytics and cloud-based solutions, three of the most critical aspects of HR technology today. AI is being used to speed up hiring and monitor employees' productivity, while knowing how to cull and analyze data is crucial. Specifically, many employers seek HR practitioners who understand implementation and management of human resources information systems (HRISs), which companies use to store employee records, benefits data and compensation structures within a single digital framework. Finally, a growing number of companies are turning to cloud-based solutions to house payroll, benefits and recruiting data. 

10. Join Your Company's Mentorship Program

Grooming a junior-level employee is another way for you to add value to your company, which is no small thing. Becoming a mentor can also be a great learning opportunity for you as well, as your mentee may be able to teach you a thing or two.

Daniel Bortz is a freelance writer based in Arlington, Va. 

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