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Dear CertMag: There have been a lot of layoffs in IT recently, with thousands of employees losing their jobs, even at some of the largest tech companies in the world. I know everyone’s individual situation is different, and I don’t think there’s any immediate danger of my own job getting zotzed. (I’m a programmer working in data storage.) I do sometimes find myself feeling a little jumpy, though. Are there any general strategies that a regular old cog in the machine like me can follow to keep from getting caught up in a layoff? — Seth, Phoenix, Ariz.
The fear and challenge of layoffs in the IT industry has been a very real fear for nearly as long as computer related companies have employed large numbers of people. Today’s fears are largely driven by unstable earnings growth in IT combined with the trends of cloud hosting and outsourcing squeezing on-shore roles.
Fundamentally, the key is to focus on making yourself invaluable, so when trouble arrives, you are in a role that is critical enough to the business that they are not comfortable replacing it. As with many things in life, the real challenge is in figuring out how to do that!
Key outsourcing areas susceptible to layoffs include even the most “commodity” functions in the IT space. Is your programming specialized, or are there a lot of people who can do it? Are you extended into the business, or are you just someone who writes code? A key litmus question: how long would it take someone to be hired to replace your role? Be honest. Sure, they won’t have your experience or know what you know about the way the company works, but how long to replace the raw skills and “fill the title?”
If the answer is a few months or less, then you may want to look at strategies to build your value to the company. Build relationships with business unit owners and managers. If they know that “Seth” is the guy who worked with them on some new application initiative, or supported a new product rollout, they may be more inclined to feel the pinch somewhere else in order to keep you. Also, focus on skills which are difficult to replace. Are you working with information architecture? If you know the roadmap for the company is to make big investments in a technology in 6 to 12 months, are you ready to code for it yet?
There are also some key practices to avoid. First, don’t be negative. It sounds easy but when we are worried about our job, or the frustrations of how our business works (and we all have them) creep up, others start to notice. Especially if those feelings are not handled well. Are you asking questions that broadcast an intent to get information, or to help do something?
Our business has indicated we are adjusting the way that Application X will work next quarter. How are we changing to support this new direction?
That sort of questions is perceived a lot differently than:
Beth in finance told me that we had to drop 10 percent from the team budget. Where is that coming from?
The other thing that I would pass along is that you should focus on what you can control. This doesn’t mean that you hoard information or impede projects — that will be a fast way to someone’s future bad list! — but rather that you put yourself in a position to feel more secure. Do you have adequate financial reserves? Have you been continuously updating your skills? Do you update your resume and your job board listings / LinkedIn profile periodically? A layoff can be a much more intimidating prospect when you have not even considered how you would look for a job in 2 years, or 5 years, or whatever that time frame is.
Focus on integrating into the business (and outside of technology), build a positive reputation, avoid being branded paranoid, and build your own personal security. No one is layoff-proof, but we can all be better positioned when the company trimming happens!