“Very thin line between arrogance and confidence…Being humble is that line. No one has ever said that humble guy is really an asshole.” ‑Unknown
In business people quit, get fired, or otherwise leave a place of employment through attrition every day, and for any number of reasons. Most of the time it’s an occasional event, and while we’re often sad to see them go (or not, as the case may be) we don’t have the type of visceral, empathetic reaction to these onesie-twosie situations as we do when a large layoff happens.
Layoffs, staff reductions, workforce reductions, right-sizing, and other terms-du-jour are all words for the same thing: we’re taking a percentage of the business’s employees and telling them that they are no longer needed. While the reasons and terms used may vary, the reality does not; it is an unpleasant experience for everyone involved. Someone has to decide to negatively affect someone else’s life–to hurt their family–in order to keep the business, and by extension everyone else still working for it, healthy and making money.
In 20-plus years of working in the Information Technology field, I have been through a fair number of layoff cycles. Many were the result of mergers and acquisitions, and many the result of a bad outlook for the business in terms of capital, growth, backlog, or forecast. In all cases I have been lucky enough to survive, though that is always far from a given–no matter who you are.
As the head of an IT department at a multi-national corporation, I have responsibility for staffing my department according to the needs of the business, and this often includes the unpleasantness inherent in letting people go. How that process happens, and what can change the odds in your favor, are sometimes a mystery to people. Sometimes you can do things to help yourself, and sometimes you draw the short straw. That is the unfortunate reality. There are some things you can do to help keep the odds in your favor, however, and to the extent that any of these observations are useful to anyone looking to mitigate their own personal risk, here are the things I have observed in my own career:
Don’t be an ass. I know this would seem to be self-evident, but I’m constantly surprised at how often it is not. I think people get comfortable, begin feeling like they are indispensable to the company somehow, and let their inner rudeness come out. It comes out in snippy memos, in meetings, in terse responses to requests, and in phone calls. This person becomes the Nick Burns of your company, no matter the department they work in. When layoff time is coming around, you’ll be at the top of everyone’s list to go if there is any possible way to make it happen. You might survive a round or two, but eventually your time will come up because the pain of keeping you around is greater than the pain of cleaning up your mess. I don’t like firing people in general, for any reason, but if you’re an ass it really makes the job easier.
Diversify. Too many people define who they are by a job-title or a set of criteria and refuse to ever step out of that role. “I am a network engineer, or a systems administrator, or a DBA, etc.” These are fine and good macro-level definitions and help to indicate your area of expertise–where you’re most comfortable–or what you consider your areas of major strength. I get that. Here’s what I don’t get: someone from accounting has a problem with their computer and you can’t–or won’t–help them because “that’s not your job”. I don’t get the person who refuses to touch Windows machines because “they’re a network engineer” or “they only use Macs”. Learn some new things, cross-train with people outside of your specialty, and you will become more valuable. The more you know, the more weight you can shoulder if needed, which increases your value to the company.
Don’t be a prima donna. This goes back to my point above. I have met people who are so enamored with a piece of technology, or a method of doing things, that they either refuse to change or they change but become the disruptive force in the department. These people “only use” Cisco, or Juniper, or Macs, or a certain type of cable, or wireless radio, etc. I have enough problems running a world-wide network and trying to avoid vendor lock-in, I don’t need another ass-hole on my staff who has their own vendor lock-in. I also don’t care if you’re a Mac or a PC. You’ll have the same options as the other members of the team.
Do the unpleasant jobs. This has been written down in many forms, so I’ll just say this: they’re all correct. Do the jobs nobody else wants to do and you’ll do well for yourself. This applies to both departmental, project-level, and macro-level company goals. Read Creel Price’s take, entitled The Best Career Advice You Won’t Want to Hear and Mike Bushong’s advice on Outperforming Your Peers by Managing Expectations. Actually, read all of Mike Bushong’s career advice over at the Plexxi site as it’s all dead-on.
Align your goals to the company. You should always align your career goals, and the smaller year-over-year goals, to your company’s goals if you want to get ahead and become truly indispensable. If your goals are aligned with the company’s, then you are a part of the process moving the company forward, helping it to earn money, and helping yourself in the process. If you are trying to move your career in a direction fundamentally at odds with the company you work for, then I’d suggest you should be looking for another place to hang your hat. It’s not a tenable position to be fighting your own company on career goals and development.
Don’t be a one-trick pony. This kind of dovetails with a few of the previous points, but it bears repeating more succinctly: everyone can be replaced. You might think that your stack of certifications, and your deep experience in an area of expertise make you invaluable to the company, but it’s not necessarily the case. In fact, if I am forced to downsize my staff, the first people on my short-list are the one-trick-ponies. The people who do one or two things at such a deep level that they can re-write a routing protocol from scratch might be great for consulting, but are not always great for in-house staff. In fact, the deeper and more specific your knowledge becomes, the more likely I am to replace you with more of a generalist who can adapt and do a lot more things at an acceptably high level. I’ll hire a consultant to do what you do. That’s not an argument against exceptionalism. Just make certain it is aligned to the needs of your company.
Look, at the end of the day I absolutely hate being in a position to have to let anyone go. I hate seeing other people lose their jobs, and I really hate what it does to the moral of those still at the company. Contrary to popular belief, almost nobody wants to go around laying off staff. But if the time comes, and I’m told I have to get rid of one person in my department, traits like the ones I’ve listed above play a big factor in my decision.