Sunday, April 27, 2008

Should You Take a Job With a Company That's Laying People Off?

I have to hand it to my dad. By and large he gave me some very good advice over the years – much of which I resolutely ignored. Among his favorite topics: Stop thinking about boys, start paying attention to the headlines. Learn how to touch type. Don’t write things out first, get in the habit of composing as you type (which I’m doing this very minute, thanks Dad). Don’t smoke (check). Don’t eat at your desk, you don’t want to develop that hand-to-mouth creativity crutch (sorry, Dad, I goofed on that one). “At your age the men you should be looking for are….” Funny how the phrase “at your age” totally changes its meaning over the years, replacing one category of guy with another. Unfortunately, according to him, we’re now down to widowers who really loved their dearly departeds v1.0. Sheesh.

(Pretty good advice though; I just need a little time to warm up to that one.)

Another piece of advice unfortunately backfired on him. “Get a job that’s recession-proof,” he advised in the late 70s, which rang like a living death knell to my writer’s ears. If we were living in Southern California, like The Graduate, that would have spelled P-L-A-S-T-I-C-S. But we were living in Washington DC and so his advice spelled G-O-V-E-R-N-M-E-N-T. Just like the career path he chose. The government gig was one of those secure-for-life deals. The Feds never lay people off, or so the thinking was in those days.

Now my dad loved his work. No…he craved his work. And I couldn’t complain, his job took him all over the world, and most of the time we got to go with him – Berlin, Munich, Vienna, Madrid, Brussels, Miami (if you paid attention in history class, you’ll get the drift of what he did for a living. Hint: Matt Damon). But we weren’t with him in the fall 1977, when he was in Mexico City giving a lecture to a classroom of students, and a rap on the glass panel of the classroom door netted an unceremoniously delivered pink slip. Adios,muchacho, or Mr. Feingold, as he was cooperatively called by his students, who pretty much knew otherwise.

All of which is to say that you can be really smart about your career path, totally dedicated to your work, get knock-out performance ratings (you can even save the planet from instant, nuclear annihilation), and still get the dreaded pink slip. You can even think you’re making a savvy choice based on all the prognosticating reports in the weekly newsmagazines about what the hot careers will be in the near future. And still find yourself out on your, well, laptop.

So how smart is it to take a job with a company that’s laying people off? Could be very smart, depending on what you want, who you are, where you are in your career, and whether the company knows what it’s doing. It seems counterintuitive to see job listings placed by companies who have announced massive layoffs. I mean, why would anyone want to take a job there? Here are some things to consider:

Good reasons to take the job:

You’re just starting your career and the company is filling its new-hire pipeline with high potential newbies. Some companies have the foresight to know that their future depends on grooming a wealth of early careerists who might be around for a while. You know that this company at least has the long-term perspective to believe that it will survive the current crisis and will need people just like you in the long run. There’s at least some kind of talent management plan in place. It might not be so apparent to the people boxing up the contents of their desks, but at least you can get started in your career there. Even if you do get laid off three years down the road (remember, no promises), three years at that company are better than three years saving yourself for a non-existent promise and killing afternoons watching Dr. Phil.

The company is changing strategy and the job you’re applying for directly serves that strategy. No matter what kind of work you want to pursue in the corporate world, you can find a company that regards your interests and skills as an essential piece of their revenue-generating machine. “How does this position fit your strategy moving forward?” would be a very smart question to ask the interview. A clear response will tell you that, for the time being, your job is relatively secure.

The company would look great on your resume. So what if it turns out you’re only there for a couple of years? If the company is top notch, the training, exposure, insights you get could be like an MBA course in a A Player graduate school.

You need the skills and experience that this job will give you. Certain career paths require certain tickets to be punched. And depending on where you are in your life and career, your career path ticket may be more important than job security or the prospect of having to explain to people why you’re in the job market again a few years down the road.

Signs that the job might not be the best choice:

The hiring manager sends off angry or distracted vibes. Listen to your instincts. In a company that’s laying off dozens, hundreds or thousands of people, you’re going to be walking past empty desks and bummed out people. That’s natural. Tragic, but to be expected. However, if the person interviewing you for the job – especially if the person would be your supervisor – is giving you the impression that “this place is a pit,” go with that. There are way too many stories of people quitting perfectly good jobs to take on a better-paying position elsewhere, only to find themselves canned along with the rest of their new department before they have even received their new business cards.

Your interviewer can’t clearly paint the picture for you as to how this position directly serves the company strategy. Can you understand and explain in one simple, easy sentence how this job is essential to the company’s direction? No? Call it a day.

The job isn’t exactly a new one and the person you’re replacing isn’t exactly a young one. Take a look around the prospective new department or company. Anyone over the age of, say, 45? No? Better find out why not. If the company itself is young or in a cutting edge business, like fashion or video games, perhaps there’s a good reason why all the employees are young. Or perhaps the downsizing company handed out absolutely irresistible early (and totally voluntary) early retirement packages. Check it out before making any assumptions – or talking yourself out of an instinctual gut feeling. A company without laugh lines could be a company without integrity.

You need some sign of stability on your resume. This isn’t about the company, it’s about you. If you are a job hopper, and you have a track record of being in one job for only a year or so, you might want to mix it up a little bit and find a company where you can be reasonably sure that you’ll be staying for a while. Happily, job-hopping doesn’t have the stigma it used to have, as long as you can clearly tell a story of how each position has built your skills, knowledge, growth and maturity – all of which tells an employer good things about you. But, even in fast-moving economic times, it’s smart to pepper your resume with a little longevity every now and then. If this is the time to do that, make very sure that this employer won’t be taking the hatchet to your department or position any time soon.

So that’s my advice, for what it’s worth. And just think: I wrote the whole thing without going to the kitchen once. Thanks, Dad.

A special note from Martha: If you’re a manager, your company is counting on you to be an engaging leader. But what exactly does that mean? And how do you do engagement? Just because you’re brilliant at your technical skills, that doesn’t mean that you’re a natural at people skills. New managers need a book that can help them figure it out in simple, straightforward ideas.

That’s why I wrote The Truth About Getting the Best From People. It’s a book made up of 49 short, simple truths designed to help new managers understand how their beliefs and behaviors directly impact their employees’ passion factor on the job.

Click on the title and check it out! I hope you’ll enjoy it!

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