Worried your employer might cut your position in a downturn? Fortune's Anne Fisher offers tips to help you avoid the ax, and how to keep your career afloat if you don't.
(Fortune) -- First, let's not panic. True, payrolls shrunk by 17,000 in January. But at the same time, the Labor Department adjusted December's numbers upward, reporting that 82,000 new jobs were created that month - a far larger figure than the government's initial estimate of 18,000. Unemployment, now at 4.9%, is just 0.9% higher than the 4% level that economists consider "full employment" (meaning that everyone who wants a job has one).
Still, with the ripple effect of the mortgage mess still spreading, consumer spending in a sulk, and companies like Citigroup (C, Fortune 500) and Sprint Nextel (S, Fortune 500) announcing big layoffs, you'd be smart to start thinking about recession-proofing your job - or, failing that - devising a plan for landing on your feet somewhere else. Here's how:
Think of ways to generate revenues or cut costs. That brilliant idea you had that would open whole new markets for the company, but require substantial spending to get started? Scrap it for now. Concentrate instead on finding places to pinch pennies, or identifying cheap new sources of revenue. Or both.
Be visible. "This isn't the moment to take an extended vacation. Your position could be eliminated while you're gone," says Dale Winston, CEO of New York City-based executive recruiters Battalia Winston (www.battaliawinston.com). "It's also not the time to come rolling in at ten o'clock." If you possibly can, figure out a way to stand out and distinguish yourself. She adds: "If you're in sales, get your numbers up. Nobody will be laying off star salespeople."
Talk up your contributions. "Make sure you're adding value at work by going above and beyond your basic job responsibilities," says Christine Price, principal at staffing firm Ready to Hire (www.readytohire.com) "Then make sure your boss knows it, without being obnoxious."
Keep a broad perspective. "Don't get a reputation as someone who only does what he or she is told to do," advises Richard Bayer, chief operating officer of career counseling network The Five O'Clock Club (www.fiveoclockclub.com). "Pick your head up, look around, and get in on the action. Volunteer for crucial responsibilities, including tasks for which your boss is responsible."
Just doing your job well isn't enough. "The question is," says Bayer, "when your organization is making a list of who has crucial skills, will you be on it?" If you suspect not, now's the time to hustle.
Get your skills up to date. "Companies get rid of people whose skills are obsolete and replace them with people who are already trained," Bayer says. "Take classes, join trade organizations, and prove you're plugged in." Christine Price adds: "Consider going back to school, to show your employer you're serious about your career and your performance."
No whining allowed. Attitude does count - a lot. "Management wants people who can boost morale during tough times," observes Dale Winston. Not only that, says Christine Price, but happy workers are less likely to get laid off than people who seem to dislike what they do. After all, the reasoning goes, if you grumble about your job all the time, then maybe giving you the sack would really be doing you a favor. Gulp.
Never stop networking. Of course, the day you get a pink slip is not the day you want to start calling old colleagues, asking former bosses out to lunch, and getting in touch to say hello to all the interesting people you've known over the years. No, the time to start doing that is now. Whether or not you move seamlessly (and relatively painlessly) into a new job after a layoff often depends on how consistently you've contacted - and maybe even helped - lots of people when you didn't need them.
Update your resume, return headhunters' phone calls, and start picturing where else you might like to work - just in case. If you're mentally prepared for a move, you'll make a wiser one than if you wait until you're desperate (read canned).
One more thought: If we really are in, or headed for, a recession - and economists can't even agree on whether or not we are - it may not be so bad. Every downturn is different. So who knows? If you're not a mortgage banker or a home builder, maybe your current position is perfectly "safe." But think about it for a while and you may find yourself wondering: Is "safe" good enough? Maybe it's time to change jobs anyway -- and heed the immortal words of Keith Richards, "I'm gonna leave while it's still fun/ I'm gonna walk before they make me run."