If You Think the End Is Near

It's time to get your work affairs in order, plan a graceful exit, and set the wheels in motion for finding your next job

It's one of the intriguing contradictions that often attends an economic downturn. While a majority of Americans say they expect unemployment to rise -- as a new University of Michigan consumer survey illustrated -- a large number also say they aren't worried about losing their jobs anytime soon.

Most of them are right, of course: Even when unemployment is high, it usually affects less than 10% of the workforce. Even so, pink slips are piling up in Corporate America these days, with such supposed stalwarts as Lucent Technologies, AOL Time Warner, and Sara Lee slashing payrolls. And increasingly, employers seem to be making lightning-quick decisions -- at least by the standards of past downturns. All of which raises a couple of questions: How do you spot the signs that your job is in danger? And once you've seen them, what should you do?


  You can start by simply being aware of what's happening around you. "If you smell smoke, there's probably a fire somewhere," says Jim Borland, senior vice-president at outplacement firm Goodrich & Sherwood. "It may not be under your chair, but it's likely to be close." Pay attention to cues that could signal trouble, such as vacancies left unfilled or frequent reorganizations of divisions, adds Ruth Luban, author of Are You a Corporate Refugee? A Survival Guide for Downsized, Disillusioned, and Displaced Workers. While it may seem obvious, read what the press is saying about your company and industry. No one likes to learn about layoffs in the newspaper, but it happens.

If that day ever comes, you want to have your important documents in order. Make copies of your performance appraisals, Borland advises. And if you keep a personal address book on your office computer, maintain an up-to-date copy on a floppy disk.

Beyond that, bone up on your rights -- or at least, what you want -- just in case you're called in and given the bad news (see BW Online, 2/7/01, "When the Ax Falls"). Your supervisor likely will ask you to clean out your desk immediately, but sometimes that's negotiable, says Damian Birkel, executive director of the Professionals in Transition Support Group, a nonprofit career-counseling service in Winston-Salem, N.C. Ask to come back over the weekend or after-hours to pack your boxes, he suggests, and offer to let a human resources staffer or security guard be present if the company's worried you'll take its property.


  While you're waiting for the ax to fall, keep doing your job -- better than ever -- even though you may feel like blowing off projects. This also means keeping your supervisor clued in on what you're doing. "Your boss doesn't know everything that you're doing," Borland notes. "And how you leave the company could affect your potential in getting a new job." Be understanding even if you get a call at home asking: "Where's that file again?" Borland tells the story of one female client who lost her job about a month ago and has since received no fewer than four calls and two e-mails from the less-experienced person who was assigned her duties. "I told her: 'Enough is enough. This person has a boss, who was the one who fired you,'" Borland says.

Once you've been let go, do the opposite of what your instincts tell you -- and just relax. "The last thing you want to do is call all the people in your network and have a panicked tone in your voice," Birkel says. If your financial situation allows, take some time off before looking for your next position, most career counselors advise.

That's just what one senior finance executive at Mobil did after he lost his job last spring when he chose not to relocate to another state after the company was acquired by Exxon. Instead of rushing to find another position, he lived on his severance pay while training for a marathon over the summer and taking a vacation with his family. It was quite a lifestyle change for someone who rarely took all of his five weeks of vacation each year. "It's a joke with me [because] there were years when I took no vacation," says this exec.


  Whether you were in your previous job for 20 years or 20 months, think thoroughly about what you want to do next and outline a plan for getting there. The former Mobil exec crafted a seven-page strategy to land his next position in finance. He developed a list of some 80 headhunters in his area and sent customized resumes to each one. He went online daily, checking out newspaper sites for local job listings, finance sites such as CFO magazine where companies post openings, executive-job sites such as Execunet.com, and broad job sites such as Monster.com.

And he networked. He estimates he attended three to six networking events a week, many of them arranged by local professional organizations. They weren't billed as career events, which was fine with him since he didn't want to compete against other job hunters. He took a stack of business cards but left his resume at home. "It's counterproductive to be too aggressive in looking for a senior position," he says. He approached people who worked at companies he was interested in, and whenever the conversation turned to his own situation, he gave them his "60-second speech," explaining he'd turned down offers to stay on at Exxon/Mobil because he didn't want to relocate.

In fact, career advisers say it's important to be up front about why you and your former employer parted ways. And make sure your story jibes with what your previous boss would say. If you got canned because the new guy wanted to bring in his own team, say so, Borland says. If you were part of a layoff, simply explain that a business downturn led to a reorganization and you were let go, adds Birkel. "There is no shame in losing your job anymore," he says.


  It's easy to get wrapped up in a 24/7 job search, but don't neglect your health or personal life. Marital tensions are common, Birkel says, especially if the other spouse is employed. The working spouse often feels compelled to come home and grill the unemployed partner about how many resumes he or she sent out or how many phone calls he or she made that day. Instead of a round-the-clock interrogation, he says, set up a specific time to give your spouse an update -- and promise to stop talking about it over dinner with the kids. The former Mobil exec recently found his new job using a combination of his search techniques. A fellow job hunter sent him an e-mail saying that a well-known company in the area had listed an opening for a treasurer on Monster.com. He went to Monster and read the description for the job, but stopped short of applying online.

Instead of sending his resume over the Web (where it "goes into a black hole and you never hear from them again," he says), he decided to contact the recruiting firm that posted the job. But before he got around to it, he ran into a headhunter from the firm at a networking event a few days later. The recruiter wasn't familiar with the treasurer position since he handled technology searches, but promised to pass on the executive's name to his colleague. He did, and three interviews later, the executive was offered the job. He started last week.

By Jennifer Gill in New York

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