Just Ask Arlen Specter: Your Job is Not as Safe as You Think

Last Updated May 19, 2010 8:00 AM EDT

Since I packed up my bags and moved across an ocean, I've been watching the American political scene with a sense of amusement. (I don't know why it's started to amuse instead of frighten me--we will eventually move back, and we still have to pay US taxes, so I truly am affected by the goings on.) This morning I pulled up the NY times on my laptop and was greeted with this headline: Specter Loses Pennsylvania Senate Seat.

Coming from Pennsylvania, I've watched Specter for many years. He's been in the senate since 1980, for goodness sakes. It's true he got a little panicky when he switched parties last year, but I'm sure he felt that he was secure. After all, he'd won numerous elections in the past. Right?

While past performance is the biggest indicator of future performance (and why job interviewers frequently ask about what you have done, rather then what you will do), sometimes we rely too much on the past and not in the future. Specter obviously didn't realize that the Republicans he abandoned wouldn't switch parties to support him in a Democratic primary. Heck, I'm sure he figured no one of consequence would run against him because he's Arlen Specter and of course he'll win again. Well, he was wrong.

I've recently had people brag to me that they could never be fired from their jobs because their jobs are safe. When pressed as to what makes their job so safe I've gotten answers like, "Oh, I'm the only minority/women/person over 40 in the department, so they won't fire me." Or, "No one knows this piece of software as well as I do." Or, "I've got too much dirt on my manager/my manager loves me." Or, "I won the salesperson of the year award in 2008."

These people should probably stay away from me, as I tend to snort when I hear those things. As someone who has been involved in the layoff of literally thousands of people, I have seen people in every single one of those situations be shown the door.

Here's what's wrong with the thought process in all of these.

  • Being in a "protected class" doesn't protect you. A protected class means you cannot be discriminated against because of your race, age, national origin or other quality. It doesn't mean that you can't be terminated for other reasons.
  • A particular skill won't save you. Skills are good. Honest. Gain some. Some skills are harder to gain, and are, therefore, more valuable. But, for most of us mere mortals, if we've gained a skill, there's a good chance our co-workers can gain the same skill if they just try. When companies need to cut heads, they are going to look at more than just who can do what, right now. They will look at who could do what in the future. Good managers know that they can much more easily train someone to run software system then they can train someone to come up with innovative solutions to problems.
  • Your manager may not be making the decision. First of all, just because you know something bad about your boss doesn't mean it's a real secret that will destroy his/her career. Your boss's boss probably already knows anyway, or it's inconsequential. Second, just because your boss loves you and thinks you are fabulous doesn't mean your position won't be selected for elimination. And furthermore, the decision on who to terminate may actually come from 3 levels up, which means that your personal relationship with your boss will not be considered in the decision calculus. Some large layoffs are actually done by computer: The powers-that-be select criteria, plug that into a computer program and the computer then spits out the names of the unlucky few.
  • Past performance is not always what decisions are based on. Companies look towards the future. You may have been a whiz at selling product Q to customers X, Y, and Z, but if the company is planning to pull product Q, you may be out of luck. Make sure you can transfer your skills around the company.
So, what do you do to make your job more "safe"? The key thing is to always look toward what you can do in the future. You need to be able to demonstrate what you will be able to do, not just what you have done. If you are the key person on a particular piece of software, you better be able to show that you could transfer these skills to another piece of software and that you can solve problems, train others, and do presentations on it as well. If you are relying on your manger's good favor, you need to be in the good graces of your manager's manager as well. Work on increasing your visibility across the organization, not just in your own department.

And that other piece of advice, that the soon to be former Senator Specter should have picked up on? Sometimes when you rely too much on politics and not enough on performance, you'll find your own head handed to you on a platter.

Photo by ProgressOhio, Flickr cc 2.0