Always the good worker, Lisa spent her days coding in her cube. Her work was respectable and her team liked her. Although she heard the company was a little shaky and sales were down, she was optimistic. But when she learned the project she’d been working on was on the chopping block, her stomach suddenly dropped. Reality hit.
If the recession hasn’t affected you yet, it probably will soon. Although technology continues to make up a big chunk of corporate spending, many analysts predict the current economic volatility will catch up with the technology sector in 2009. Your company already may be taking steps to get through the downturn, and with news of mass layoffs, dropped projects, delayed upgrades and canceled equipment purchases, who isn’t worried about job security?
Unfortunately, anyone can lose a job for reasons unrelated to skill, talent or dedication. No matter the economic climate, it’s a cruel lesson to learn: No job is always safe, and most of us are dispensable. The good news, though, is that there are ways to safeguard your job, even during the worst of times.
Do You Know Where You Stand?
One software architect was working at a large IT services firm during the 2001 downturn. Because he formed alliances on the business side of the company, he learned early on that there were serious financial problems with the project he was working on. As a result, he was able to get a head start looking for other opportunities in the company, and he landed on another team just a few days before his project was dropped.
Just as important as understanding what’s happening on the business side is being aware of how others perceive your value. While you’re intensely focused on checking items off the to-do list, you may miss a cue that opinions about you are changing. It’s always smart to know where you stand — especially when the corporate footing starts to get shaky. If you’re not sure what others are thinking, ask.
“Ask how you are doing. Know what your boss and others think about you. It’s your responsibility to know where you stand,” said Joel Basgall, president and chief culture officer at Geneca, a custom software development firm. “It’s amazing how often I hear of people who are surprised their boss doesn’t think they’re doing well.”
However, it also is the responsibility of the manager to make sure everyone is on the same page regarding performance, Basgall said.
One way to keep yourself in good standing is to get all the items on your plate done on time or early and at the highest quality. Most important, be predictable in your ability to deliver, even if that means working a little slower. Deliver more than expected and let people know about it. If you can take on more work and greater responsibility, identify such opportunities and volunteer. Be the person your company can count on.
Are You Indispensable?
Most corporate executives understand that one of the worst things to do is to cut resources so drastically that there aren’t enough to move the business forward when the economy improves. In reality, though, project priorities will be changing, and very often the people who get sacrificed are those working on projects no longer deemed critical to the company’s mission and survival.
Keep in mind that regardless of the status of your projects, individuals who consistently demonstrate value are the ones who usually survive cuts. If you know your project is vulnerable, redouble your efforts to build a value trail and make a difference, however great or small. Some ways to achieve this include:
- Raising your hand. If your superiors need someone to volunteer for a project, raise your hand. Deliver ahead of schedule and blow them away.
- Being resourceful. If your company is struggling, research and recommend ideas and opportunities to add business value.
- Getting involved. Be an active participant on the transitional and strategic projects your company is implementing to cope with the recession. These activities may include reducing risk in operations, preparing processes for a skeleton crew, contingency planning for pruning offerings and quickly developing new offerings for additional revenue streams.
- Learning new skills. Look for those specialized skills that can support strategic efforts. Approach your boss with a plan to develop yourself and be ready to explain how these new skills can bring value to the company. That said, be realistic about what your company training budget can support. In a tight economy, self-study and online courses or community colleges may be more affordable options. If your company can’t support your training because of cost or missed time on the job, you may want to pursue this on your own to keep your skills marketable. After all, employers are less likely to lay off workers with specialized skills.
- Being visible. Make sure that whatever you do, your work is visible within your organization.
Jeremy Frank, a Geneca client liaison, stressed the importance of investigating what is going on in other parts of the company and uncovering projects sitting on the back burner that would be easy for you to finish.
“Maybe you’ve overheard some technical or process issues that are causing frustration, or maybe a team needs more SharePoint or Java skills,” he said. “Find out the details with someone you already know and work to fill in the voids. Be excellent at something — especially in an area your boss is weak in or where there are voids on the team.”
Teamwork and Beyond
While it’s always a good idea to be a team player, these days it’s critical for success. When your team is feeling anxious, you may be tested in ways that surprise you. Here are a few tips to stay grounded:
- Present a united front and support your boss and the team.
- Never bad-mouth the company, your boss or co-workers — especially in an e-mail. Assume nothing is off the record.
- Embrace change and be flexible in your role. Don’t let pride get in your way, and be willing to take on different responsibilities that may be outside or beneath your current role.
- Grow yourself and others around you.
- Try to become the go-to person so everyone sees you as indispensable.
- Be cooperative. Sometimes trying too hard to protect your own turf can backfire and make you seem difficult.
In addition to being a team player, you also must maintain objectivity and independence by building relationships with managers from multiple levels above you. Try to find out what their pains are and position yourself to offer relief.
One project manager observed firsthand the importance of cultivating relationships beyond the IT department.
“Unfortunately, tough times can trigger an increase in office politics and favoritism,” he said. “This can easily play against you if you lack understanding of where you stand in the company. I experienced a situation where the person making the layoff list based it solely on who he didn’t like. Imagine how unnerving it would be to put on this kind of list and then someone decides to spare you because he or she knows about your contributions to the company.
“Remember the importance of workplace relationships. If you don’t play your cards right, you may lose.”
Even if you are not feeling particularly nervous about your job, never underestimate the value of maintaining your network and helping others who have lost theirs. You never know if — or when — your time will come, so keep in mind that if you’ve helped others in their time of need, they likely will be there for you. Even little things such as hearing their side of the story, reviewing a resume or sending contacts can make a difference.
Be Positive, Proactive and Predictable
The current economic climate presents both challenges and opportunities. There’s nothing like the risk of layoffs to drive us to rethink and amend our employment situations. The consequences of inaction now can cost you your job later. If your company is in downsizing mode, you can be sure it is seeing everyone a little differently now. Just as management may be taking steps to cut nonessential vendors, questionable projects and low-performing employees, you, too, should be taking steps to safeguard your job.
Rather than letting anxiety defeat you, quickly assess your situation, create your plan and discipline yourself to carry it out. By following some of these basic suggestions now and throughout your career, you stand a much better of chance of making yourself indispensable and securing your future.
Jessica Chipkin has been working with and writing about software professionals for more than two decades. She can be reached at editor (at) certmag (dot) com.
Living Through a Layoff
by Treva O’Banion
If you are the most valuable person during a business boom, you probably will be the most valuable person when times are tough, too. That’s because when companies select employees for layoffs, they aren’t just looking at the past 30 days of performance. Prior work history and performance evaluations are the deciding factors. Further, your boss most likely will be able to tell if your behavior changes only after layoff rumors circulate in the break room.
Assuming you survive a layoff, you now face its stressful aftermath. In addition to continuing your previous efforts, here are a few more things to keep in mind:
- Fight the urge to retrench. Your company is counting on you even more now.
- Fill voids. Layoffs create opportunities that may not have been open to you even a week before. Look for the new challenges and take the initiative.
- Remember that you are human. Layoffs aren’t fun for anyone. Both stress and expectations are increasing. Work friends may be lost. You may be worrying about subsequent rounds of layoffs. It’s OK to acknowledge this is a tough time. Make sure you use your support network and keep up with hobbies or activities that allow you to de-stress and forget about the job for a while.
Treva O’Banion is director of the program management office at Mercer Retirement Technology Group. She can be reached at editor (at) certmag (dot) com.