How to Keep Your Job in a Downturn

Last Updated Oct 31, 2008 10:47 AM EDT

Wall Street has moved seamlessly from greed to fear. Fear is contagious. Fear of being downsized, rightsized, offshored, bestshored, re-engineered, let go or plain fired is on the rise in Main Street as well as on Wall Street. Success is no longer measured in promotions, bonuses and pay rises. Success is called survival.

To survive, you need to make sure that when the cuts come, others are cut before you are. You have to make it hard for your boss to hit the 'delete' button when he sees your name. From previous recessions, four principles quickly separate the survivors from the unemployed.

  • Be positive. In a world where jobs are complex and ambiguous, it is often hard to identify individual performance. Style counts as much as substance.
    • Be positive when everyone else is gloom-mongering.
    • Look for solutions where others find problems.
    • Focus on the future not on the past.
    • Be supportive rather than play the blame game when things go wrong. Your bosses will find it much easier to fire the negative, problem focused people first.
  • Be proactive. This means working harder, which is better than having no work at all. Volunteer for discretionary work, special projects. Make yourself useful to the boss, and make yourself visible to the rest of the organisation. Bosses find it very easy to fire the invisible people: if they can't be seen, they can't be missed.
  • Be professional. You have to deliver on results and on promises.
  • Build your networks inside and outside the organisation. Inside, make sure you have a sponsor at least two levels above you who will look out for you. Make yourself useful to your sponsor. Make sure you are in the grapevine so that you know what opportunities and risks are emerging.
    Externally, manage your network so that you can remain aware of potential openings elsewhere. Help head-hunters if they call. Over 70 per cent of people who find jobs after being let go find them through their personal networks. Your external network is your insurance plan if all goes wrong internally.
There are also two ways of becoming cannon fodder and getting fired.
  • Be unlucky. In the wrong place at the wrong time, even the best people will lose out. But if you are really good, you should at least be able to find work elsewhere.
  • Be disloyal. Surprisingly, most bosses are reasonably forgiving of most failings. They recognise that humans are not perfect. But the one unforgivable sin is disloyalty. Badmouthing the boss around the water cooler, failing to support the boss in a critical meeting, briefing against the boss are great ways to destroy the basis of trust on which all relationships depend.
    Once the trust has gone, there is no way back: you will be the first through the exit door when the time comes.
(Photo: Orangeacid, CC2.0)
  • Jo Owen

    Jo Owen practises what he preaches as a leader. He has worked with over 100 of the best, and a couple of the worst, organisations in the world, has built a business in Japan; started a bank (now HBOS business banking); was a partner at Accenture and brand manager at P&G. He is a serial entrepreneur whose start-ups include top 10 graduate recruiter Teach First and Start Up, which has helped over 250 ex-offenders start their own businesses. He has and has spent seven years researching leadership, strategy and organisation in tribal societies. His books include "Tribal Business School", "How to Lead and How to Manage." He is in demand as a speaker and coach on leadership and change. His websites include Tribal Business School and Leadership Partnership