Who Gets The Ax in a Recession?

Last Updated Apr 16, 2008 10:09 AM EDT

Who Gets The Ax In A Recession?Economy-driven layoffs have already begun, more will follow.

Will you be one of them?

Harvard Business Review editor Diane Coutu believes she has a formula to help you keep your job while others around you are losing theirs. It goes like this:

  • Make yourself indispensable.
  • Be likable.
  • Show initiative and creativity.
  • Be a corporate team player.
In other words, do all those things you should have already been doing to advance your career.

This is particularly important advice these days because some managers see a silver-lining in an economic slowdown -- they have the green light to get rid of all those annoying, unproductive people that hang around the fringes of employability.

The Manager's Perspective I've had one experience at cutting jobs when times were tough, back in the 1980s. Look, it's never easy to let people go -- you understand you are fundamentally changing the life of the employee and the life of their family. But I took necessity as an opportunity to make up for bad hiring decisions in the past, to make my overall team stronger in the long run.

I started with the obvious underperformers, then evaluated the rest of my team with an eye toward creating a cohesive group that could get us through the coming difficult months. Here is who made my termination list:

  • Debbie Downer. She is the staffer with a dour personality that drags down group morale faster than a 20 percent pay cut. As Coutu suggests above, when the going gets tough, you want positive, can-do people in the foxhole next to you.
  • Minimal Mike. You know this guy. He shows up sort of on time, leaves sort of early, does his job barely, and hardly causes the air to move when he walks by. In a recession, you and your team will have to do more with less, be creative in marshaling resources, and see opportunities in misfortune. Minimal Mike doesn't have the energy or commitment to step up to these challenges.
  • Career-Builder Brad. When the chips are down, Brad is looking out for No. 1. Of course, he always has, so no surprise. But in a downturn, these look-at-me guys and gals, even the very talented ones, become much more noxious. You need a team that is committed to making each other successful.
That was my list. Who would you look to let go if you had to? And what's your strategy for remaining employed?

(Chopping block image by Lasse Havelund, CC 2.0)

  • Sean Silverthorne

    Sean Silverthorne is the editor of HBS Working Knowledge, which provides a first look at the research and ideas of Harvard Business School faculty. Working Knowledge, which won a Webby award in 2007, currently records 4 million unique visitors a year. He has been with HBS since 2001.

    Silverthorne has 28 years experience in print and online journalism. Before arriving at HBS, he was a senior editor at CNET and executive editor of ZDNET News. While at At Ziff-Davis, Silverthorne also worked on the daily technology TV show The Site, and was a senior editor at PC Week Inside, which chronicled the business of the technology industry. He has held several reporting and editing roles on a variety of newspapers, and was Investor Business Daily's first journalist based in Silicon Valley.