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When You're About to Lose Your Job

"When You're About to Lose Your Job

By Jodie-Beth Galos and Sandy McIntosh, Ph.D.

Excerpted From Firing Back: Power Strategies for Cutting the Best Deal

Long before an actual termination, you get the feeling that odd things are happening. Rumors fly back and forth across the employee grapevine. There's a definite suspicion that something is going on, something upsetting. And perhaps there's some suspicion, too, about who's going to be upset. In order to determine what that something is and if you are the someone it will affect, examine yourself and your world for the telltale signs of change. Is the threat real, or is it only your vague paranoia setting off alarms?

Reading The Signs Of Change In Your Job Security
To begin, check yourself. If you've been flipping through this book and you're reading with more than casual interest, it's probably accurate to assume you sense something in the works threatening your security. You may have chosen to ignore it or at least diminish its significance, but something is going on. Look for one or more of these clear signs that will tell you that your job security is threatened:

  • Changes in the behavior of your co-workers, subordinates, and boss
  • Changes in job performance feedback
  • Changes in your assignments and responsibilities
  • Changes in your perks
  • Changes in company management
  • Changes in the company's financial position

These signs can appear individually or all at once. Try to identify them as objectively and unemotionally as possible.

Changes in the Behavior of Your Co-workers, Subordinates, and Boss
Study the behavior of your co-workers. In an ideal world governed by a benevolent and protective team spirit, you might expect someone to warn you if he or she knew your number was up. Abandon this belief. Despite corporate myths fostered by expensive, time-devouring employee "teamwork" programs, your co-workers do not constitute an extended family. Real families do not downsize their members: "Sorry, son. Your mother and I have been talking, and we think that there are too many layers between us and the dog. Keep in touch; if something opens up, we'll do lunch." Don't be surprised or disappointed when your co-workers put their self-interest first and politely (or less than politely) ignore you and your plight. Your co-workers have concluded that you have a dread disease called bad luck or failure, and they're afraid whatever you've got is catching. Here are the changes to look for:

  • You aren't invited to relevant meetings and aren't sent pertinent memos, or your memos are given limited distribution.
  • Decisions are made without your input but with the input of your peers or subordinates.
  • People who formerly asked your permission or advice are not asking you now.
  • Information from your boss or your peers is given to your subordinates before it's given to you.

The most important co-worker to observe for changes in attitude toward you is your boss. If your boss is feeling either remorse or relief, he or she will behave differently than in the past. An unpleasant human being who, startlingly, becomes pleasant is just as dangerous as one who does the reverse. In most cases, however, the behavior to look for in your boss is his avoidance of you. Guilt and fear are often a boss's emotions in anticipating a termination. Strange as this may sound, some of the best indicators of a change in status can come from secretaries. That's because they're often the people who either type up the documents critical to employees' futures, or they overhear good information. Check it out-are you given a cooler greeting from your boss's secretary? Worse yet, do you detect a new note of sympathy in his or her voice? Be cautious in your search for information about your job security. You are after information, so you should be listening; someone else should be talking. Don't confide your fears to co-workers, no matter how close you feel to them or how trustworthy they've been in the past. Your situation has changed, and it will do you no good to validate suspicions that you are on a hit list. Instead, give someone the chance to deliver the bad news to you. Whatever else this says about human nature, it might make someone's day.

Changes in Job Performance Feedback
If you've received an oral or written warning, or a poor performance appraisal, this may be a prelude to termination. It's a mistake to ignore these, because no supervisor ever enjoys giving them. If your supervisor has made an honest effort to alert you to your doom, you should regard your situation as serious. Even if the warning seems mild to you, don't disregard it. Most warnings are kinder than the harsher reality. They may be worded ambiguously because the writer or speaker is uncomfortable, inexperienced, or both at giving bad news. Sometimes, a change in performance feedback is far from an honest attempt to give you notice. It's not beyond a sneaky supervisor to file a poor performance appraisal as a setup for termination. Keep in mind, however, that performance appraisals and other forms of documentation will serve as effective "paper trails" for the company only if they report the truth, the whole truth. If, in fact, the event described didn't happen or happened differently from the way it was documented, it will hurt the company's position. It means someone has lied to set you up because he or she couldn't fault you any other way. Whenever you're given a document to sign that you don't agree with, either don't sign it or sign it under protest and place a rebuttal in your file. Remember that your salary history speaks volumes about your job performance, and evidence of flattering raises can be used to refute the harsh words of a written warning. It's obviously suspicious when a warning is suddenly given to an employee who has had years of satisfactory performance reviews and good salary increases. If this happens to you, you'll be able to point out this inherently contradictory and questionable documentation, supporting your position that your supervisor engineered the "setup." If you're slated to be part of a no-fault termination, such as a layoff, you may not be given advance feedback about poor job performance. Some companies consider information about job performance when selecting employees for a layoff; other companies use tenure or position to make a sufficiently fair and business-focused decisions.

Changes in Assignments and Responsibilities
Many people, sensing the winds of change, are quick to deny to themselves that they may be blown away. People in denial protest that a change in responsibility or assignment is either meaningless or actually for the good. They're only right when the change increases their responsibilities or provides them with exciting new assignments. Loss of responsibility is never good, no matter how flatteringly the change is presented. If your contribution is truly valued, the best way to liberate your time would be to have the task assigned to someone who reports to you. That enhances you, enabling you to provide guidance and input.

Be wary when you are told that the change will free you for more productive tasks. People who are being groomed for bigger roles are usually given more responsibility, not less.

Changes in Perks
There's a message being delivered when tokens of esteem are taken from you and given to others: Others are in favor and you're not. Many medium-to-large companies are so bureaucratic that perks--office size and position, parking access, paid club memberships, and so on--are institutionalized to the point where they don't change despite the changing status of employees or the company itself. You could be lucky and work at a place where the largesse isn't carefully regulated and real perks are provided to those who are well regarded. Being close to the locus of power is always better than being out of the loop. Sitting in an office close to your boss is good. Being sent to parking lot Siberia is not good, and it seldom happens accidentally. If you question your loss of perks and privileges, and you're told that the new rule is "no exceptions," scrutinize your environment. Exceptions are how the favored few receive confirmation that they are the favored few.

Changes in Management
Managers entering a new job are often clueless as to what they should do first. Since new managers seldom are hired to continue the work of their predecessors, they feel pressured to take action to justify their existence. Rolling a few heads, particularly those associated with the old regime, often seems to be a logical first move. If your new boss is asking you for your views on the company's past, it's a good sign. If your new boss is asking you for your views on the future, it's a better sign. If your new boss is taking your subordinates to breakfast, it's a bad sign.

Changes in the Company's Position
As you review the signs of change, you may conclude that you, personally, are in good shape. In that case, it may be your company that's in jeopardy. If your company is in a downturn, it could mean problems for you. Some of the more obvious signs include revenue reductions and budget cuts, which often translate as job eliminations. Other problems include changes in technology or new market advances that render your company's products and your specialty obsolete. Bad news on a corporate level can affect your job security on a personal level. Companies that survive major strikes or work stoppages are often forced to take drastic steps to return to normalcy. Bad news about a product's performance in the market may result in work curtailment, and downsizings can accompany a corporate merger or acquisition. For some people, a corporate restructuring presents unfettered opportunity; for many more, it's the nightmare version of the children's game of musical chairs, with the spoiled brat of your childhood memory unseating you. Be aware of these potentially dangerous signs of corporate change:

  • Unannounced meetings on strange or seemingly unimportant topics
  • Unexplained absences of the company's senior executives
  • Discussions about budget changes and expense cutting beyond what would occur normally
  • Projects that were important before but are mysteriously put on indefinite hold
  • Hiring freezes
  • Product offerings that are failing or withdrawn
  • Stock market fluctuations or other market actions
  • Industry news and rumors of takeovers or mergers

While layoffs resulting from an acquisition may affect you, they are seldom intended as personal criticism of your job performance. You may be an innocent bystander caught up in something bigger than you. On the other hand, it's not impossible that someone has been waiting for an opportunity to get rid of you. To management, a layoff often seems the perfect place to stash some bodies. Unlike a firing, a layoff doesn't require the demonstration of faulty job performance, which an employee might refute by an exemplary work history. In a layoff, because there appears to be no individual fault-it's a catastrophe affecting a large group of people-employees are more likely to accept minimal separation packages, sign releases that relinquish the right to sue, and leave quietly, believing there was nothing they could do.

What Happens If You Ignore the Signs That Something Is Wrong?
There's a great temptation in an unstable work situation for you to ignore the signals, hoping that the problems will miraculously disappear. They won't. Worse yet, ignoring the signals contributes to the possibility that you won't have time to cut the best deal for yourself. Time isn't necessarily on your side. Your assertive response can preserve options, or at least buy you additional time. If nothing else, ignoring the problem leaves you unprepared-and preparation is vital to your negotiating strategy. One of the most important things you can control is your response to what's going on around you. Ignoring the telltale signs that you are about to be terminated cuts into the hours you have to mount your cause. Follow the principles and procedures we'll outline for you, don't give up, and learn how to come to your own rescue."

<Note from JobFairy.com: This is excellent advice - you should purchase their book - see our Learning & Skills section, then Books to Read. Whenever any of these signs occurs, start looking for another job - ASAP. You never know how much time you have left before the axe falls.>

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· When You're About to Lose Your Job
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