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Recession Surfing - How to Ride the Waves

When the economic outlook dims, people start wondering about their job security.   Having just had my 30th Middlebury College Reunion, and with close to 28 years of high tech experience under my belt, I've seen this movie before.  For those of you wondering whether you should hunker down in your current job or get out of Dodge, I offer the following perspective as a survivor of 30 years of business cycles.

Don't jump too soon:

  • All industries and the companies within them are prone to ups and downs.  If your company provides a viable product or service and is one of the top providers in your industry, then it will probably recover from cyclical economic downturns.  If your product/service is not well established or well differentiated in your industry, then that's a different story
  • Layoffs aren't necessarily the tip off to a long downward spiral.  Healthy companies will eliminate jobs in parts of the business that aren't growing or profitable in order to invest in those that are.  This is cold consolation for those affected,  but doesn't automatically mean that you're next.
  • Likewise, space consolidation may be a natural outcome of the trend toward telecommuting. 
  • Ask management about business conditions if you're worried.  You may not always get a completely transparent answer, but it's better than relying on the gossip of the semi-informed.
  • Economic downturns can provide unique opportunities for employees to acquire new responsibilities as the company may take a chance on you vs. going to the outside to hire.  Look for those opportunities.  One of the best learning and growth experiences of my career was during my last 2 years at Wang Laboratories.  As the workforce reduced from 35,000 to 6,000, there was a never ending stream of work to be done that allowed me to keep raising my hand and acquiring new skills.

Recession proof yourself:

Long before it's time to jump ship, you need to optimize your chances that there'll be someplace to jump to:

  • Network - inside and outside of the company.  Make sure people know who you are and what you're capable of accomplishing.  Keep your profile current on  LinkedIn, Facebook, ZoomInfo, and other sources that recruiters use to scout for talent.
  • Establish your reputation as a "keeper" by making commitments and delivering on them.  Unfortunately, effort isn't what gets rewarded, results are.  Remove "I tried" or "such and such was out of my control" from your vocabulary.  When it's time to make cuts, management will seek to keep those who were able to drive results under the most trying circumstances.
  • Your mother was right.  As long as you are employed, put aside part of that paycheck for a rainy day.  No matter how hard you work and how effective you are, stuff happens.

 When should you make the move to go?

  • If yours is an unprofitable part of the business, and has been for a while, you should evaluate other options within and outside of the company.  The exception is in start up operations where a period of unprofitability is part of the plan.
  • If there are drastic changes in expense approval authority.  This can be a  sign that management is doing more than the normal belt tightening.
  • If voluntary severance is offered, keep in mind that prudent companies don't tend to offer voluntary severance to people they want to retain.  Severance packages will inevitably become less generous as time goes on. 
  • If you have stock options that will only have value if there is a liquidity event, try to evaluate the likelihood that such an event might be imminent before you leave.  If your company's asking price is down, then buyers may move in.  Depending on the strike price of your options, it may be worth toughing it out.  On the other hand, information about such transactions is held very close to the vest until the deal is done.  Don't pass on real current opportunities when you don't know what the future holds.
  • If a gloomy climate at work is making you miserable to the point that you can't get out of bed in the morning; i.e. trust your gut.  If it's not a temporary boss or project issue, then there may be something to those gut feelings.

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