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Don’t ignore these five signs of impending layoffs

About the author

Elizabeth is a freelance writer in California and a former Career Q&A columnist for the Wall Street Journal.

  • An 'extremely traumatic' experience

    Damian Birkel knows what it means to get the axe. In his lifetime, Birkel, 58, has been fired five times and survived four corporate reorganizations.

    "Losing one's job is extremely traumatic," said Birkel, the author of The Job Search Checklist and founder of Professionals in Transition, a North Carolina-based non-profit, job-search organization. "It is the most debilitating, humiliating situation."

    It is a reality that many people have faced. In 2012 alone, there were nearly 20.6 million layoffs and discharges in the US alone, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics' JOLTS report. But before layoffs happen, there are usually signs, some more obvious than the others. We share five here - and what the experts say you can do about them. (All photos: Thinkstock)

  • Key meetings and/or decisions are happening without you

    Are you no longer being invited to be part of ad hoc committees, tactical teams formed to solve key business issues or small meetings to make key decisions? If you inquire, your boss may say something like, "You had a lot on your plate so we decided just to move this one ahead without you" or "We didn't need to bother you with this," according to Pennell Locey, a vice president with Keystone Associates, a Boston-based career management firm. Rarely is it as obvious as not getting invited to meetings you once regularly attended, said Locey.

    Addressing these signs quickly and professionally is key. One approach would be to schedule a sit-down with your boss and raise your concerns as non-defensively as possible, said Locey, who suggests saying something along the lines of: "I wanted to talk with you because I am concerned that you may have lost trust in my leadership or performance. I've noticed that over the last few weeks/months, you are no longer including me in decisions/initiatives you might have previously that are critical to my role. So I am wondering what has changed and what I can do to correct it."

    If you have heard rumors about changes taking place, you could also mention those and that you are wondering if your role in the company is going to be affected.

    Best-case scenario: your boss gives it to you straight and you find out what is going on. Even if you don't get all the answers, you'll still be in a better position "to judge whether there might be a chance to save things or at least get an early heads up that a search is in order," Locey said.

  • Everyone is getting laid off around you

    The writing was on the wall for Barbara Persson, a quality assurance engineer with Motorola Inc in Portland, Oregon. She just read it the wrong way.

    "I had survived eight rounds of layoffs, so I think I thought I was safe," she said. But it only meant the cuts hadn't reached her yet. When the day finally came, her boss's boss arrived and shut down the whole office. "A few people got offered a 'work from home' option, but my job was shipped to India." Today, Persson runs her own dog training business.

    For Persson, there wasn't much she could do about her impending layoff. But that isn't always the case, according to John Challenger, chief executive officer of Chicago-headquartered global outplacement consultancy Challenger, Gray & Christmas Inc.

    "It's true that when you watch your co-workers get pink-slipped one after the other, it takes a huge hit to your confidence and career security. [But] it does not necessarily mean you're next, especially if you can demonstrate to your company you understand their goals and are working hard to meet them."

    Still, Challenger recommends getting your resume or CV in order, applying for jobs and lining up meetings with your network. He also suggests joining professional trade organizations or networking groups and calling former co-workers just to chat. "If you make it known you're looking, it's more likely someone will think of you when they hear of something," he said.

  • Your boss has gone silent and won't look you in the eye

    You've always had an open and communicative relationship and then everything changes and your boss clams up. Before you panic, remember there are a number of reasons this could happen and not all of them are related to your job security - or lack of it, according to Dave Sanford, executive vice president of client relations for WinterWyman, a Waltham, Massachusetts-based executive recruiting firm.

    "Maybe she is looking for a new job herself or maybe there are other things on her mind, like too much headcount in your department," he said. "If your boss isn't talking, find out why."

    The easiest way to find out: just ask, said Sanford. Two things could happen. You will get a direct answer to your questions or you'll learn that something is amiss because the answers are evasive or less than satisfactory. "Either way, you will have more information after leaving the discussion, so ask the question," he said.

    Another option is to observe the body language of your boss, according to Birkel. "Watch them while they walk through the building, watch them when you approach them, watch the look on their face when you talk about the next year." How they act and react will give you a good indication of what might be coming next.

  • An invite to an unexpected meeting with your boss and HR

    "This is frequently the way that many of my clients receive the news that they face redundancy," said Sally Walker, a United Kingdom-based career coach.

    Leading up to the meeting, often a manager is suddenly evasive or physically avoiding any interactions. But once the meeting is called, it's usually too late to avert the news of a layoff or restructuring, Walker said.

    At that point, it's time to prepare yourself for the emotions of the "change curve," which can be shock, denial, anger, and loss of confidence.

    "Endeavour to gain as much concrete information about the forthcoming change as possible," Walker said. "If [clients feel] the changes proposed don't make logical business sense then I do encourage [them] to talk with a senior manager to better understand the decision and share their concerns, even if [they are] unable to actually change anything." By doing this, you'll at least feel like you've "had your say."

    It's also important going forward to be able to talk positively and professionally about your former company - no matter how uncomfortable the separation was, according to Walker. Instead, focus on what you accomplished while you were there and how you can use it to your advantage in your job search.

  • You are asked to train someone else for your job

    Being given this responsibility doesn't always spell impending doom, according to Challenger. Maybe you've been asked to train someone in order to have a back-up person when you take a vacation so that the department runs more efficiently. Or your boss could want to increase your responsibilities and have you manage subordinates.

    But if it turns out that the training does mean your job is coming to end, it's probably not the healthiest workplace. "Employers with any sense of teambuilding or office unity won't generally ask their employee to train his replacement without the employee's knowledge," Challenger said.

    Either way, your best course is to be thorough and professional. "Remain positive," Challenger said. "If the company feels your job is crucial and you clearly have a handle on how to do it, they may keep you around."

    Then you can start looking around for another position on your own terms - and while you're still employed. "Depending on the relationship you have built with your boss, you might even ask 'Should I be looking for a new job?' said Jorg Stegemann, a Paris-based headhunter and certified coach.

  • Plan ahead no matter what

    Don't wait until the pink slip hits to start preparing for your next move, Birkel said. If you have any inkling your job is at risk, start planning your exit strategy before it is too late. This includes documenting your work and taking it home.

    "That way, you won't have to reconstruct the wheel [when applying for a new job]," Birkel said. "You have tangible and measurable assets that you brought to the company."

    You'll also want to take a list of all your contacts home. Pull all of your company reviews as well as retirement information from when you started. Again, you'll want copies of all of these. Bring home any company awards you've won. By doing all of this, "you'll have the knowledge that everything you need to job search is at home," said Birkel, who has seen countless clients locked out of their computers even before they received the official news that they were being let go. For them, it was too late to gather what they needed.

    "Cradle to the grave job security went out with the DeLorean. It doesn't exist," Birkel said. "You need to be prepared."

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