By Liz Ryan In the 80s, I remember interviewing many job seekers of one particular type: Displaced middle managers from large companies who had been laid off after 10 or 20 years of service. Many of these folks were entering the job market for the first time since college. Back then, an interviewer's most appropriate response to a story that ended with, "And then, I was unexpectedly let go after 18 years of service," was a sympathetic murmur.
A lot has changed for managers. Unlike their predecessors, few of the current generation of execs expect to have a lifelong career with a household-name company -- and they're right. Many have had two or three employers over the past 20 years, as the era of cradle-to-grave employment has given way to the millennium of self-directed career changers.
GET IN THE GAME. One byproduct is that today's job interviewers have much less sympathy for managers who end up on the street after being blindsided by reorganizations, consolidations, and layoffs. More likely, they'll ask a seemingly impertinent question: "Why did you join a company whose prospects were so shaky?"
Such a reaction may seem harsh, but look at it another way. Today, as you gain experience in an industry, your instinct for self-preservation should inspire you to learn about the players, the competitive landscape, and the strengths of each major brand, plus any other factors (political or economic, for example) that might influence the industry's direction. Once you understand all that, you should never get caught off guard.
If you do, the consequences could be severe. For instance, a CEO won't get far on the interviewing circuit by saying: "And then, outta nowhere, boom! I get my pink slip." A chief exec should know what's going on. So should a chief financial officer. And a VP of marketing or human resources. And a chief technology officer. And so on, down to the director of benefits and the marketing-research manager.
ONCE IS ENOUGH. You can hope that future employers will cut you a break if you've changed industries often. After all, you might argue, how quickly can anyone expect you to become an expert in every new industry you enter? As reasonable as that question sounds, though, don't count on much mercy.
An executive recruiter will want to know: What was your due diligence before you took the job? Which sources did you consult, and how unexpected was the buyout to industry analysts and other experts? If you're burned once, moreover, make every effort to ensure that it doesn't happen twice.
A string of layoffs or displacements on the résumé of a middle-to-senior level manager is never a good thing. It's human nature for a recruiter or hiring manager to wonder, "Why does this person always seem to end up on the short list when there's a layoff? Can he or she really be any good?" And really, you can't blame them for thinking that.
DITCH THE DEAL. What's your defense in this blame-the-victim environment? For starters, when companies in your industry start eliminating staff, don't make a habit of sticking around to turn out the lights. Better than laying out your litany of layoffs while you're interviewing for a new job is being able to say: "The company was ultimately sold to a competitor, but by then I was at XYZ, Inc." It's infinitely superior, from a recruiter's point of view, to have bolted to avoid being downsized, rather than to have stuck around to be let go.
But wait -- what about your package? Won't you miss out on a generous deal if you jump too soon? Yes, but that's the point. You're a serious player, right? You aren't supposed to make a career of collecting severance. There are dragons to slay in the non-downsized world. A string of last-man-on-deck stories paints a picture of you as a passive victim, rather than as someone who reacts quickly and decisively in the face of challenges.
O.K., but what if you're offered a lucrative "stay bonus" to stick around until the bitter end? You can do that -- once. If you become the Stay Bonus King (or Queen), then future employers will know you're skilled at closing offices. In that case, I'd be worried about the employer who's keen to get you on board!
SHOW WHAT YOU KNOW. Seriously, though, unless you're a turnaround expert or bankruptcy specialist whose expertise is closing and consolidating things, this isn't a reputation you want. Your motto should be: "Onward and upward!"
So if you already have three layoffs on your résumé, what's to be done? How do you surmount potential employers' concern that you're unable to see what's going on around you?
You have to develop a story that makes a virtue of your history of downsizing. Talk about what you learned in each situation. As as you meet with a prospective employer, be able to speak authoritatively about its place in its industry, as well as about its competitors. You need to show that, despite what has happened in the past, you really do see the big picture.
START LOOKING EARLY. But if your company shows signs of a Mount St. Helens-type eruption, should you try to survive the event, or get off the mountain before it happens?
Here's my opinion. If you're an executive-level manager, do your best to vacate the premises before the cataclysm -- unless this will be your first layoff. It would be great to hear the sad news from your former co-workers over drinks rather than in a conference room alongside them, but I think everyone gets one layoff for free. So, you need to decide whether that severance check is worth the risk of having to explain to your next employer why you really weren't unaware of what was going on around you.
If this isn't your first layoff, or if you have a history of hanging around to be executed, start job-hunting today. Read the Yahoo! message boards. Subscribe to industry listservs. Talk to everyone who knows anyone who knows anything, because you'll likely be working for yet another employer someday. Sorry, but that's the way the workplace is in the new millennium. Do you have any great business leadership tips to share with BusinessWeek Online's readers? Send them to Liz Ryan, an at-work expert, speaker, and writer, and CEO of online networking organization WorldWIT