Let’s start with something positive: the job market will get better. Even though we are bombarded with news of company collapses, massive layoffs, and talk of the unemployment rate hitting close to 8 percent in 2009, we should stay focused on the things we can control which include things like upholding strong job performance, building a strong internal and external brand, and keeping a strong hold on the reality of your situation.
In any economy, no one’s job is safe, but in a weak and unstable economy, the concept of job security goes off the table. What can you do to prepare yourself for this type of work environment? Here are 10 steps to developing your job, career, and life survival plan.
1. Don’t stick your head in the sand. While it’s a natural inclination to avoid or hide from bad or potentially bad news, you must stay alert to the signs that your company or your job (or both) are in trouble. Numerous signs will suggest that your job may be in jeopardy, including problems the company is facing (such as corporate restructuring, big drop in earnings, and rumors of a merger or acquisition) and factors related to you and your job (such as being reassigned from strategic projects, not being invited to key team meetings, and negative comments from your boss). Once you see the evidence stacking up, jump into action to protect yourself, your job, your marketability, your finances, and your family.
2. Create or strengthen your distinctive niche/personal brand. Most of us, in normal times, don’t spend a lot of time on our careers. We’re so focused on doing our job to the best of our abilities that we sometimes lose sight on the importance of building and promoting our career brand. While your job is not in jeopardy, you should be taking advantage of your employer’s benefits to further your education, training, and certifications. But even when your job is in jeopardy, track your accomplishments weekly and develop a clear and distinctive niche — a personal brand — that you can use as a key tool to find your next job. Of course along with building your brand, you also need to retool your resume, polish your interviewing strategy, and seek opportunities through a variety of methods (including the all-important method of networking, step #4).
3. Develop a career strategy with multiple options. You always want options, but in a bad economy or when trying to safely jump from a dying organization, job-seekers need a strategy with multiple options… you need not only Plan A, but also Plan B, Plan C, and Plan D. Your main career goal should be your top option, such as another job in the same field. But when you face the possibility of getting downsized, it’s also an opportunity to evaluate what you really want to do in the next phase of your life — which might include changing careers. You also may need to consider taking an interim job, such as temporary work or consulting. A final option to have on the table is simply a job that will pay the bills until things get better (what experts call a survival job — see step #9). Even if you’re the type that hates planning, now is the time to map out some potential exit strategies that are best for you. And, most importantly when conducting your planning, follow Apple’s strategy and “think different” to uncover multiple career options.
4. Stay connected with your network. If your industry is contracting and/or your employer is likely to announce a company-wide restructuring and downsizing, chances are most people in your network have already heard the rumors. Too often in times of trouble when we should be reaching out to our network of friends and contacts for their assistance we hide in shame or embarrassment. Bad things happen to all of us at one time or another. Swallow the bitter pill as quickly as possible and begin talking, phoning, and emailing all the people in your circle from friends and family to former co-workers and bosses. Seek their advice and ask for information about people they know who may be hiring. In other words, your mission is to seek job leads that you can lead you to a new job. Along the way, you can also ask for career advice.
5. Get organized at work, gathering contacts and resources. While it is certainly not time to panic or cause panic it is a good time to get things in order in case a downsizing occurs, and especially if it is one in which employees are told at the end of the business day to vacate the premises and not return. So, move all your personal files to a flash drive that you can remove at a moment’s notice. Have your file of performance reviews and what I call “kudos comments” (boss, co-worker, or customer spontaneous notes to you about your good work) on your desk or in a handy location. Personally, I would bring them home today so that I don’t accidentally forget them. It’s also a good time to quietly gather co-workers’ personal email addresses and ask a few key people whether they would serve as references for you should anything happen. Of course, also provide your information to others and agree to serve as references for them. If possible, request a copy of your personnel file “for your records.” If your employer is offering severance packages to people at your job level, you should read all the details even if you are positive you want to stay with the employer.
6. Prepare your finances by developing a conservative budget. One of the things that many downsized workers do is to keep spending at a level beyond their means it’s kind of a way to protect their ego from the reality of the situation which just makes matters worse when the bills arrive. Instead, prepare yourself ahead of time and start making adjustments to your budget now so that perhaps you’ll even have a cushion to fall back on if the layoffs become a reality. You can always find some non-essential items in everyone’s daily or weekly spending, whether cutting back on eating out or walking the few blocks to work rather than taking the bus or subway. Find ways to become more thrifty. If you have any kind of company-based pension plan, now is also a good time to familiarize yourself with the options from rolling it into your next employer’s plan to being able to withdraw money to afford your housing, fuel, or food costs.
7. Make use of all your benefits before they disappear. While some employers may pay you for any unused vacation days if you’re laid off, many others will not and none will pay you for unused personal days, comp time, or sick days. So, you might consider taking some time ideally to find a job with a more stable employer. And if you have employer-based health benefits, now is the time to schedule that physical, eye exam, or dental appointment. While you can buy extended health coverage if you are terminated, expect the costs to be double or triple or even higher than what you had been paying. If you have unreimbursed expenses, submit those receipts as soon as possible. If your employer still has a professional development budget and you find a seminar, class, or certification that can improve your job performance (as well as make you more marketable when job-hunting), go for it.
8. Put together a layoff plan. No one likes planning for bad scenarios, but it makes sense to be prepared for the worst. No matter how much you try to prepare for it, the shock of a layoff is traumatic — and you will not be able to think straight for quite some time. So, it’s best to develop a plan now, while you are thinking normally. Ideally, develop a one, three, and six-month plan to cover the time you may be unemployed. (In a really bad economy, you might want to also develop a one-year plan.) You’ll want to include in the plan contingencies such as money set aside in a layoff fund for the most basic bills; a strategy for telling your partner, family, and your network; a home-equity or line of credit for emergency use; a quiet place in which you can base your new job-search
; a revised resume showcasing your skills and accomplishments; and a list of job-support organizations and groups. You may also want to include a list of financial and job-search resources, such as the location of the local unemployment office or one-stop career center.
9. Consider a survival job to pay the bills. Depending on the economy, your industry, and your profession, you may not be able to find a job at the same level as you had before the layoff. Never give up on finding that job (or one at a higher level), but there may come a time when you are close to exhausting your savings and other financial resources when you’ll be forced to make a decision about how long you can last without any job and how well you can handle a working in a job that you feel is beneath you but one that will help pay the most basic of bills. Taking a survival job can be a humbling experience. You’ll need to check your ego at the door, and you’ll probably work longer and harder hours than you have in years.
10. Find support from family and friends and keep a positive outlook. Besides getting a good handle on your finances, the next most important thing you can do is seek the solace of family and friends (rather than hiding the news from them, which many laid off workers attempt to do). Family and friends can help mend your ego and emotions by providing the positive support you’ll need. If you are like most people, you’ll need to work out your feelings of anger, embarrassment, fear, and others that typically follow a layoff and while some of that will need to be done on your own, the more people giving you positive reinforcement, the faster your recovery.
While you never know what to expect when your employer is struggling to survive in a weak economy, the chances that you might be downsized increase greatly no matter what your job and you can better prepare yourself for the worst possible outcome by developing a plan to assist you in getting through the situation. What’s the worst that could happen? You waste a few hours developing a plan you never have to use? That’s the best scenario!
by Randall S. Hansen, Ph.D.
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