Your Career Q&A: Preparing for and Surviving a Layoff

By Martin Yate Sep 19, 2016
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How do you know when a layoff is coming? Best-selling author Martin Yate, a career coach and former HR professional, takes your questions each week about how to further your career in HR. Contact him at the e-mail address at the end of this column. 

I lost my job as a benefits manager, and everyone in my seven-person department except one did, too. I feel like such an idiot; we were acquired and told our jobs were safe and had welcoming calls from the vice president saying he wanted the two teams to get to know each other.

Every week, my team went to the headquarters and met our counterparts. We shadowed them for two days and discussed how we could best align business practices. After that, our counterparts came to meet us on our turf. After three months, the axe fell.

Our counterparts were promoted to department manager, benefits manager and so on. The only person to survive was the administrative assistant, and she is suffering such survivor's guilt, it may cost her the job. I feel like I let myself and everyone else down; I just didn't see it coming. How can I learn from this and protect myself and my people from this in the future?

Anonymous

It is a wise person who learns from his or her mistakes. Your question will cause many others to rethink the dangers of blind loyalty. Every one of us has guaranteed employment, in exchange for total dedication and an endless workweek—at least for as long as it takes an employer to find someone cheaper, automate the job out of existence, outsource the job or undergo a merger, which can cut payroll almost in half.

Lesson one: You cannot expect an employer to alert you to the inevitable. Longer-term employees are the most likely to feel fireproof. Perhaps having survived earlier restructuring and layoffs, you may make the mistake of believing that because you give the job your all that it couldn't happen to you. Start paying attention to what is really going on around you and how those actions could impact your work life. With the right focus, you can know as much as the CEO and the board.

Here are some danger signals: new projects are put on hold, information becomes less available and the normal open-door culture of your company disappears, and there's an increase in C-suite closed-door meetings. The mere whiff of a forthcoming merger or acquisition should never be discounted.

An increase in lawyers, consultants and strangers in suits visiting are all signs of impending change, as are initiatives to cut costs and payroll while increasing productivity. The latter can happen up to 12 months prior to a sale. 

Watch for measures like reducing professional development budgets, restructuring, outsourcing, bonus reductions or elimination, and an increase in internal audits. When you suddenly feel out of the knowledge loop, are suddenly reassigned or are surprised by bad reviews, it's time to start thinking of Me Inc.—that is, what is best for the financial entity that is you.

Lesson two: Don't take the official company propaganda at face value because the odds are that your common sense and instincts, backed by research, are more reliable. Most people don't like to think about the unthinkable, especially when giving their all to the job. Despite this, you can find ways to treat your financial stability in a more businesslike way. If you see storm clouds gathering, then take these actions to create a firm foundation from which to launch a job search.

  • Subscribe to industry news websites. Apart from staying abreast of developments and breaking news, you'll hear scuttlebutt about mergers and layoffs. Using Google, enter search terms such as: mergers, acquisitions, reductions, layoffs, then with the word "anticipated" added, then again with the name of your company added. Also Google "merger and layoff gossip."
  • Collect job postings for what could be your next gig.
  • Look for skill sets you are lacking and start developing these skills. This makes you more marketable and your current job more secure. 

  • Update your LinkedIn profile based on what the market values.
  • Join groups relevant to your profession, and start expanding your professional networks by connecting with everyone in your profession who is in your geography and holds the same job title or, better yet, holds a job title two or three levels above you. These are the people able to hire you.
  • Don't state anywhere on your social media profile that you are looking for a job. It won't attract a recruiter (they are only attracted by skills) and it could jeopardize your current employment.
  • Be careful not to take any actions that could be construed as being disloyal. Consciously rededicate yourself to the job and behave as you have before, even though you are hoping for the best but preparing for the worst.
  • Check out these sites that offer warnings of forthcoming mergers and layoffs and advice on how to protect yourself:
    --thelayoff.com
    --gossipnewshub.com

Your resume is central to your success and it almost certainly needs work. Don't leave it until the last moment. Roughly 30 percent of my resume clients come to me for help when they have been laid off and their job search is in trouble, but only about 15 percent are proactive. Financial stability is a matter best not left until the last minute. 

Have a question for Martin? E-mail your queries to YourCareerQA@shrm.org. We'll only publish your first name and city, unless you prefer to remain anonymous—just let us know. We look forward to hearing from you!

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