January 23, 2009
In tough times, prove your worth
CHICAGO — Whether you are sitting in your cubicle or standing with co-workers by the coffee machine, you can see as well as anyone that the jobless rate keeps climbing: The workplace isn't as crowded as it used to be.
Amid one of the worst economic downturns since the Great Depression, layoffs are hitting all levels of many organizations, with little regard to tenure or title.
"Six months ago they cut the fat, three months ago they cut into the muscle, and now they're cutting into the bone," said Craig Randall, managing director of the Chicago office of executive-search firm DHR International.
It's a numbers game now. And the challenge is to keep yourself from becoming a statistic, from becoming the next person to pack your belongings in a box.
The easiest workplace-survival strategy seems a no-brainer: Keep your head down and keep quiet; this is no time to draw attention to yourself.
Wrong, wrong, wrong. This isn't the time for no-brainers, career experts say. This is the time to grab hold of your career and recession-proof your job. That involves adjusting your attitude so it fits the seriousness of the times and taking as many specific actions as you can to beef up your performance and prove your worth to your current and perhaps future bosses.
"You need to be in control of you," said Kirsten Dixson, co-author of "Career Distinction: Stand Out by Building Your Brand."
"It's the whole concept of Me, Inc. If they don't notice you, you'll be the first to get a pink slip," Dixson said.
"Laying off someone who is quiet and doesn't say anything is much easier than laying off someone who other people know is working hard," echoed Marilyn Moats Kennedy, a management consultant. "The people who try to hide out are the first to go."
How to survive
Brian Pitts, assistant director of public relations at law firm Mayer Brown, learned the lesson of making himself indispensable seven years ago while working for a public-relations agency. When things turned bad and the staff of 100 was downsized to 16, he was one of the survivors.
"I saw a lot of my friends lose their jobs," Pitts said. "I never came to work with fear on my mind. You just need to do outstanding work."
At Mayer Brown, Pitts has worked to build his profile within the firm, getting involved in important transactions and expanding the circle of partners who know him and his work. At a recent office holiday party, he introduced himself to a partner not just by name but also by dropping the name of another partner for whom he had done work.
"That's a fine line you walk," he admitted. "You don't want to be perceived as bragging or fluffing your feathers too much."
He also has maintained his outside network by belonging to eight professional groups. "Some of my friends think I'm nuts for going to so many groups," he said. "Anyone can be a source of a potential new job."
Pitts seems to have taken a page from the playbook that career consultants recommend for employees looking to boost their job security:
Keep tabs on what's going on internally. Skip the $4 cup of coffee from the neighborhood barista and head for the office kaffeeklatsch when others gather around the machine. Eat at your desk more often instead of heading to the local sandwich shop or going to the gym. It's the best way to keep your ears open to office gossip as well as to potential opportunities elsewhere in the organization.
"Stay plugged in to what's going on and look more interested in what's going on," Kennedy said. "You don't have to work out every lunch hour."
Perform, perform, perform and look like you're working hard, because perception is a part of performance reviews, too.
"Companies don't tend to let their top people go," said Steve Werner, a management professor at the University of Houston. "You should be a good employee. In some industries that means being a team player. In some industries that doesn't matter; it means getting all the sales you can."
Make you and your boss look good by regularly drawing attention to your achievements.
"People assume that other people are aware of the contributions they're making, but your manager may have other things on his mind, especially right now," Dixson said. "It's not about bragging or being a suck-up. It's becoming comfortable with making others aware of your contribution. Couch it in terms of making your boss look good."
Be careful to ensure your self-promotion is matched by performance, otherwise it will fall on deaf ears.
"It's hard to get people to change their mind once they've made a decision about you," Werner said.
Don't whine about an increased workload. Take your planned vacation time but don't complain if you're asked to occasionally come in early or stay late and take on more responsibilities in a slimmed-down workplace. "This is not a good time to be thinking of work-life balance," Kennedy said. "This is all hands on deck; let's bail the boat."
Document what you do and how successful you are at it, for your current employer and any potential future ones.
Network internally and externally, but do it carefully. Discretion is key.
Don't put your résumé on job-board Web sites because you never know who might run across it — your supervisor, for example. Don't use your blog or Facebook page to trash your company, but do use social media to promote yourself and raise your visibility by discussing what you're working on.
If you didn't attend a holiday event sponsored by your professional organization, go to the next monthly meeting. It's a good chance to see what opportunities may be opening up at other companies.
"The worst time to start and cultivate your network is when you're out of a job," Dixson said. "Do it double-time now."
Be prepared for the what-ifs. Update your résumé but don't use the company computer because if a layoff occurs, you may not have a chance to retrieve it.
Thinking about changing jobs? Think hard before you make a move; low seniority and performance are the two most common reasons people are laid off.
"What does that mean for you? You need to realize that if you change jobs now, if that company has a layoff, you may be the first to go," Werner said.
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