Sunday, January 13, 2008

Pay Attention! Don't get caught off guard at work.

I recently met with someone who had been laid-off after working for roughly 15 years with the same employer. His job search is moving slower than he anticipated, mainly because his skills and experience are fairly specialized, primarily specific to the organization he worked for. He’s now at a point where he’s anxious about his prospects, and feels he may now need to take any job that will accept him, versus pursue an opportunity that suits his career goals.

In expressing empathy for his situation, I commented that I understood his angst, disillusionment, and frustration, at being thrown into this situation so suddenly after providing his organization with 15 years of good work. His response to my comment surprised me. He said that he actually “saw his lay-off coming a year-and-a-half ago.”

He worked at a divisional office for a national firm, so about a-year-and-a-half ago he started to see corporate enact policies that decreased the autonomy of is local branch. He saw reorganizations reduce his staff and scope of responsibility. He began to see closed door meetings that he wasn’t invited to. Finally, he witnessed his biggest advocates in the organization be forced out. All the signs were in front of him, that his job was in danger, yet he didn’t act.

Over the years, I’ve heard of many situations similar to this one. I’ve seen people read the signs and act, and I’ve seen many do nothing. I believe the reason people often choose not to take action, even though they’re sensing trouble, is because change is stressful. Most people find change of any sort unpleasant, especially when it’s as emotionally taxing as job change. Thus, even when one’s work situation becomes uncomfortable and seems to be deteriorating for the worst, they may carry on and simply hope things change for the best. Sometimes they do. But, if they don’t, one can quickly find themselves in a difficult job search situation -- especially as the economy slows.

To avoid this situation, the first step is to pay attention. When you see signs that indicate things are going in a negative direction, take steps to ensure that you’re not caught off guard. What could those sign look like? Perhaps you see reorganizations that keep decreasing your responsibility and importance to the organization. Maybe your relationship with your boss has become strained, and instead of improving, it’s getting worse. Have you been passed over for promotion on more than one occasion? Have you become a “lame duck” within your organization? Do people care about what you think? Are you not being invited to key meetings that effect your department? A big distress sign is when you see people coming and going on interviews within your department, and you’re not being told what position they are interviewing for.

Also pay attention to signs that indicate larger scale organizational instability: decreasing revenue, or funding; reorganizations and lay-offs in other departments; heavy consolidations, mergers and acquisitions within your industry; an economic climate that adversely impacts your industry.

At the same time, I’m not suggesting that one should “jump ship” at the first sign of adversity. I believe it’s commendable to stick with an organization, especially one that has taken care of you, through difficult times. Taking action to protect your career doesn’t necessarily mean starting a full blown job search. If one is sensing trouble at work, there are things one can do to prepare for the worst case scenario, while still doing good work and investing in your company’s future.

Here are examples of proactive activities one can do, before it’s necessary to take extreme action: update your resume; network with peers and professionals outside your organization; make sure you’re aware of what skills and experience are currently in demand within your professional space; become aware of who is hiring within your industry; gather information, talk with recruiters, but make sure you’re comfortable with their commitment to your confidentiality.

-Steve Hernandez

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