How to prepare for a layoff-heavy 2009

The holidays have come and gone, and unfortunately, there's one gift that few of us received -- job security. That's right. With jobless claims at a 26-year high and the unemployment rate relentlessly climbing, many Americans will enter 2009 with jobs that may not exist two, four, or six months down the line. What's worse, no matter how many hours you log at the office, you can't shake that feeling that you're working on borrowed time. That's the bad news. But according to Dr. Richard Bayer, the good news is there are things you can do right now to help you keep your job and prepare for the worst in case your fate ends in a layoff.

"Many people are returning to work after the holidays to companies that are in limbo," says Bayer, Chief Operating Officer of The Five O'Clock Club, the nation's premier career coaching network, and author of The Good Person Guidebook: Transforming Your Personal Life. "They're doing everything they can to survive the recession, and layoffs may be part of the equation. If you think your company might go this route, you do have options: work hard and prepare for the just-in-case scenario of being forced into the job market."

As COO of The Five O'Clock Club, Bayer knows all about helping people deal with job loss and changing careers. The Club is the only career program in which members meet with professional coaches and peers on a weekly basis in a friendly, club-type format. It offers small group career coaching across the U.S. and Canada.

"The Boy Scouts motto, 'Be Prepared,' should be your motto as well in this difficult economic period," says Bayer. "Whatever you decide, whether you want to wait things out at your current job or search for greener pastures, you can't be complacent. You should either be looking for opportunities to stand out at your current job or searching for another job that provides you with more job security. Knowing that you are prepared for whatever happens should give you some comfort moving forward."

Bayer offers some "act now" tips that will help neutralize some of your layoff fears and prepare for the uncertain employment future:

Get your ducks in a row. People who have not yet been laid off should start testing their market with a preliminary job search, advises Bayer. It shouldn't be an aggressive job search, but you need to go through all of the initial steps. And this is especially important if your company has just downsized -- after all, just because you were spared the ax this go-round doesn't mean you will be next time.

"Go ahead and take a look at the opportunities in your area and industry," he says. "Update your résumé. And keep an open ear regarding your company's future plans. True, all of this may be for naught if your company doesn't have any more layoffs, but just knowing in the back of your mind what your options are will help you focus on your current work—which in turn helps you stay in the good graces of your higher-ups."

Link yourself into important projects. (And remember, this is no time for false modesty!) The best way to protect yourself at your current job is to take assignments that are important to the future of the company. These projects will help you boost your status at the company and stay in front of those who hold your job's fate in their hands. That said, don't just quietly do the work—make sure higher-ups know you're doing it.

"Don't be afraid to talk up your hard work," says Bayer. "When you run into your boss's boss in the elevator, and he says, 'John, how are you doing?' the correct answer is not, 'Fine. How are you?' Instead, say, 'Terrific. We've been working 70 hours a week on the ABC deal and it's going great!' Not only will you remind the big boss of your importance at the company, the news will likely draw him into a conversation with you. In one elevator ride or quick stop in the hallway, you've taken the opportunity to leave a good impression and you've separated yourself from the pack."

Shine a glaring spotlight on customer satisfaction. Seems obvious, but it's worth repeating: If you have a job that puts you directly in front of customers, do everything you can to make them happy. Ask them to take customer surveys so that you know where you and the company can improve your service. If a customer seems particularly pleased, ask if she wouldn't mind putting in a good word for you with your boss. Go the extra mile to handle customers' concerns or complaints and stay informed about what is going on in their worlds. Ask them how their businesses are doing and find out if there is anything your company can do to ease their burdens.

"Providing this kind of excellent customer service will not only please your customers, it will encourage them to spread the word about how great your company is," notes Bayer. "They'll likely refer any interested parties to you, and your client base will grow at the company, making you ever more important in your boss's eyes."

Get your résumé in order. The easiest thing you can do to get prepared for a possible layoff is to update your résumé. Be sure to include very specific information about the projects you've worked on. Remember, you need to know your résumé like the back of your hand. The best job applicants also have a great ability for talking about themselves.

"Once you've updated your résumé, start practicing what you would say about each experience listed," advises Bayer. "Think about how you can articulate your importance in each project, and if possible, sit down with a friend to do a mock interview. Having a strong familiarity with your résumé will be a great bonus for you in the future whether you use that knowledge as the result of a layoff or whether you use it because you want to make a career change."

Don't actually look for a job, but do make some "practice runs." Make an extensive list of the companies where you would want to work. Put together a list of contacts and start making some cold calls. Start with the companies you are the least interested in so you'll have a chance to practice your elevator speech before you get to your favorites. Say something like, "I am safe where I am, but a sensible person has to know what's going on in the marketplace. I have been interested in hearing more about your organization and wanted to make sure they know who I am." Ask if you can set up a time to ask them a few questions and tell them you just want 20 minutes of their time.

"Remember, you are not job hunting," says Bayer. "You are just exploring the market. If they ask why you are leaving your present employer, your answer is, 'I may not leave at all. I may stay there forever. I just thought it would be a good idea for us to meet.' You can then contact companies you are more interested in and tell them you are not really looking but thought you ought to touch base with them just to be sensible given the current market. Who knows? These contacts may lead to great job offers that you don't want to turn down!"

Keep in touch with your newfound contacts. After your initial meeting or phone call with these companies, stay in front of them. Give your contacts there a call every six to eight weeks. Let them know how you're doing and how much you enjoyed your meeting them. These follow-up calls are also a great opportunity to remind them of your credentials.

"Tell them that you're still not actively job hunting but you think it's a good idea to stay in touch with top employers," says Bayer. "These will be valuable contacts to have when and if you do start actively looking for a new job."

Network, network, network. (Did we mention network?) In addition to your "possible employers" list, keep building and nurturing your list of other business contacts. Go to trade association meetings to keep up with changes in your industry. Join social networks like LinkedIn to cast a wide net for contacts. In fact, says Bayer, you may even want to put together a luncheon or business dinner for people at your level or higher in companies in your industry or industries that interest you.

"These events are relatively easy to organize," he explains. "And doing so puts you in a prominent position and ensures that many more people will remember you and want to stay in touch with you. Building a strong network is a great asset whether you're trying to build your client base or whether you're thinking about entering the job market."

Master the Job Offer Juggle. First, try to get three offers from organizations on your C list. Keep those offers going while you quickly contact organizations on your B list. Tell those companies that you already have three offers but didn't want to accept any of them until you first spoke with them. Then start contacting the companies on your A list. Tell them you have received X number of offers but did not want to accept any of them until you had the chance to talk with them.

"This is an amazingly powerful technique that helps you up your status in the eyes of your potential employers," says Bayer. "It's human nature to want what someone else wants—and to want what looks hard to attain. The Job Offer Juggle lets you use this reality to your advantage."

Consider doing freelance work. If you're worried about losing your job, doing some freelance work—writing, graphic design, accounting, or any other project-based business—is a great way to build your contact list, bring in extra income, and provide you with a safety net if you lose your job.

"This extra business will help you keep your skills sharp and provide great references when and if you enter the job market whether you are forced into it or decide to enter it on your own," says Bayer.

Sound like a lot of work? It is, admits Bayer. But not only will this plan help you avoid the layoff list—or, at the very least, prepare you for

the job market if you're forced into it—it will act like rocket fuel on your career.

"It is never a bad thing to create a strong foothold within your industry," he adds. "Having a name and face that industry colleagues recognize will help you propel yourself forward regardless of the state of the economy. And if you've found yourself losing interest in what you do for a living, these steps will reinvigorate you. Even if you end up staying at your current job, you may well find yourself filled with new enthusiasm for your work. For that reason alone, the plan is worth setting into motion."

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