In a Recession, Being Great at Your Job Is Job One

by David Bach

In early April, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that 80,000 jobs were lost in March -- and almost a quarter of a million since the beginning of the year. Many analysts are predicting that net job losses are likely to continue at least through August.

This news may be causing you to feel fearful for your own job, particularly if you work for a large corporation. That's understandable. But now isn't the time to panic. Instead, take action to avoid becoming a statistic.

The Good, the Bad, and the Great

So when the workforce reduction ax swings in your company, who will it hit? Bad employees? Sure, if any are still around. Good employees? Yes, those too.

Good employees are the single biggest problem a boss faces. When you talk to truly successful business owners or managers, they'll tell you it's not the bad employees who concern them -- they'll ultimately quit or get fired. It's the ones who do what it takes to be OK, but never enough to be great. So if you're merely good, you may be vulnerable. So be great.

The skeptics out there will argue that when jobs are cut, it doesn't really matter who you are -- that no one's safe. Trust me, those skeptics will be the ones who lose their jobs first. Let them be skeptical, and wish them well. You need your own game plan.

How do you get one? I suggest you start by asking yourself the following six questions. If you can answer each with a "yes," you're on the right track to job security:

1. Would you hire you?

I've asked this question hundreds of times in my seminars, and it almost always gets a big laugh. Why? Because people always laugh at truths -- particularly uncomfortable ones. And people seem to think the idea of hiring themselves is really funny.

But in all seriousness, if you can't answer a resounding yes to this question, you've got some work to do. Read on for how you can turn this around.

2. Are you focused?

Many things drive bosses crazy. I know because I run my own company, and because I spend a lot of time with other entrepreneurs. At the heart of what drives bosses crazy is employees who don't focus on doing their job well. Worse, many simply don't do their job at all.

A 2007 survey by found that over 63 percent of respondents admitted to wasting an average of 1.7 hours out of a typical 8.5-hour day -- and it's costing companies billions of dollars.

The leading time-wasting activities are personal Internet use, socializing with coworkers, and conducting personal business. Many people -- and you know some at your job -- spend their day pretending to work. Others buckle down and actually work. They don't spend time doing personal chores, chit-chatting, instant-messaging, going to lunch, making dinner plans, and so on. They work. If you're not this type, now's the time to change.

3. Do you have a positive, can-do attitude?

Nothing takes more air out of an organization than employee negativity. People who whine, complain, or are just plain indifferent are disliked by bosses and create a lousy work environment as they drag others down with them.

Recessions are a great time for what I call "pity parties," where coworkers join together to gripe and whine. These people also get fired first in a recession -- if the boss is smart.

Great employees treat everyone in the organization -- bosses, peers, and subordinates -- like valued customers. They're about what they can do for the company, not what they can get from it. They're pleasant to be around, and their positive energy gives life to an organization.

If being positive doesn't come easy to you, get some coaching to help; it's a skill that can be taught. Read up on it, or even consider taking a course. Motivational-movement icon Dale Carnegie believed that maintaining a positive attitude can actually unlock your true potential.

4. Are you indispensable?

Do you have skills or experiences that other employees don't have? Computer skills? Foreign-language skills? Can you do a lot of different jobs in the organization, or are you limited?

Companies are littered with employees who only know the inside of their company. Do you know about the industry at large? About competitors and the big picture? How many industry websites or trade journals have you read recently? Do you know what the keynote speaker said at the last industry trade show?

Become the go-to person for your boss and organization. Mark Jaffe, president of retained search firm Wyatt & Jaffe, suggests that you "do something no one else can, no one else wants to do, and do it well." In sports, certain athletes can be counted on to deliver in a pinch, thanks to their remarkable skills and know-how. When the game is on the line, the ball will be given to the guy or gal who can make the play.

So become an expert. What skills could you learn today that would make you a valuable asset at work? Take classes. Join organizations that can help you learn more about the industry you're in. Read more. Get involved.

5. Are you visible?

Do you show up for work on time -- or better yet, early? When your boss comes in at 9 a.m., are you already there getting a head start on the workday?

Your achievements need to be visible as you are. Discuss with your boss how best you can keep him or her updated on the work you're doing. This may mean a daily or weekly summary that highlights your achievements, not your to-do list. Don't hesitate to toot your own horn a little. Take pride in your accomplishments.

And for those of you who have the luxury of telecommuting, working from home is a nice perk, but don't let your boss and coworkers forget who you are. Stay on the radar by showing up on a regular basis -- especially on days when your boss is in the office. If you telecommute full time, be sure to touch base daily, not only by email but by phone, too.

Finally, make sure you aren't visible in a negative way. I recently hired a woman who had been referred by friends. She interviewed multiple times for the job and truly impressed me through the rounds of interviews. Then she showed up late to work her first week -- three days in a row. On the first day I reminded her that the team starts before 9 a.m. On the second day I warned her. On the third day I fired her. If you're visible in a similarly negative way, someone's working on a plan to get you out the door.

6. Are you a leader?

Leaders don't wait to be told what to do. They look to expand their role in ways that benefit the company, not just themselves. They take on responsibilities that no one else wants, and do them well.

To paraphrase renowned training company Franklin Covey, no organization has ever become great without leaders who can connect the efforts of their teams to the critical objectives of the organization; tap the full potential of each individual on their teams; align systems and clarify purposes; and inspire trust.

Great employees are great leaders. If you're not a natural-born leader, you can learn leadership skills. Again, read up on it or take a training class.

How to Sleep Well at Night

Even as you achieve greatness in your job, if the thought of layoffs still keeps you awake at night, build yourself a cushion. Spend less. Save more. Be conservative. Update that résumé (on your own time, of course), and network.

Being prepared should ease the burden of worry. Recessions are a back-to-basics time, because the basics in life and work... genuinely work.


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