By Jacquelyn Smith, Forbes Staff
Most employees are at least a little bit concerned about job security on any given day—but if you ever get that gut feeling that something is really wrong, you hear rumors about financial troubles within your organization, or you’re no longer invited to join important meetings–you should probably be a bit more worried than usual. Why? According to the experts, these are a few signs that your job may be at risk.
“Employees generally have a sense when their jobs are at risk,” says Lynn Taylor, a national workplace expert and author of Tame Your Terrible Office Tyrant; How to Manage Childish Boss Behavior and Thrive in Your Job. “There’s usually a negative change in behavior by their bosses and even others in the know. The problem is discerning whether this change is due to outside influences, or you.”
Ryan Kahn, a career coach, founder of The Hired Group, star of MTV’s Hired, and author of Hired! The Guide for the Recent Grad, says while it may be obvious for some that their job is at risk, it can be less clear for others. “What’s important is to be alert of situations around the office to ensure the security of your position in the company.”
Taylor says companies rarely act quickly when you’re about to be fired – and won’t give you a regular “state of the union” address on your status, unless something egregious has occurred. “It’s a slow, painful process, and as a result, many just hope for the best, living day by day. However, not knowing is often more stressful than being aware of your true fate. It’s better to take action, as having more control in your job and future will immediately allow you to produce better results – and make better long-term choices about your career future.”
Before you make any moves, you’ll want to look out for the tell-tale signs that your job is at risk. Here are 15 of them:
You’re given fewer projects and responsibilities. “Any workplace will have a natural ebb and flow to their work; this is to be expected. But when management plans to fire someone, they certainly aren’t giving them more projects,” says David Parnell, a legal recruiter, communication coach and author of In-House: A Lawyer’s Guide to Getting a Corporate Legal Position. “So when a trend begins to form, you may want to look deeper into the underlying causes.”
You’re no longer invited to important meetings. When the ax is about to fall, managers see little advantage to having you present, Taylor explains. “The more distance, the better–and since they know you’ll soon be gone, they want information to stay proprietary.”
New management/mergers/acquisitions. These situations always bring an air of uncertainty and it’s not uncommon for new managers to clean house, says Amanda Abella, a career coach, speaker and Gen Y lifestyle blogger.
Your relationship with your boss suddenly changes. If your boss virtually disappears—where it seems like a case of “Where’s Waldo?” and you feel stymied in your job because you can’t e-mail, call, text or visit your boss without hitting a barrier or feeling shut out—he or she is probably taking the easy path: avoidance, as conflict is difficult, Taylor says.
If your boss suddenly becomes unfriendly or critical, there’s no interest in small talk, and a smile is as elusive as your last raise, you might want to start freshening up your resume.
Poor feedback and reviews. If your boss sends you regular messages pointing out errors that are causing issues for the company, or if your performance review is continually coming back with reoccurring issues, there’s a good chance you could be losing your job soon, Kahn says.
Taylor agrees. She says if you suddenly get a performance evaluation and/or you’re receiving more criticism than ever, your job may be at risk. “Out of nowhere, you’re being evaluated, and it’s not all rosy. Others may be evaluated, too, but yours is less than stellar,” she says. “You can’t seem to do anything right. You don’t hear anything positive.”
Financial troubles. “If you’re hearing on the news or at board meetings that the company is in financial hot water, it’s a good sign your job is on the line,” Abella says.
Parnell concurs. “A surefire deterrent to job security is unprofitability. Missed budgets, deadlines and an all around lack of revenue generation can and does put positions at risk. So, if your team hasn’t been in the black for a very long time, it may make sense to have some direct conversations with management about your future.”
You’re kept out of the loop. Do you feel out of the loop when talking with coworkers? It might seem as if everyone knows about the latest corporate buzz and projects, but you. Or perhaps you’re kept off an email list; you later see message chains that involved your work, but you were not being copied.
Management is avoiding you. “Have you ever tried to keep an impactful secret from someone you see every day? It is quite difficult, and keeping your interactions consistent with past behavior is even more so,” Parnell says. “Management is no different; they will inherently begin to limit their interactions with you because of the discomfort associated with knowing of your impending professional doom.”
Your colleagues are avoiding you. Much like children avoiding outcasts on the playground, co-workers tend to steer clear of sinking colleagues – who are usually the last to know, Parnell adds. “If you find that your peers and management are increasingly avoiding you, and invitations to professional and social events are trending downward, an inspection of reasons may be in order.”
Mistakes or slacking off no longer matters. “While this minor poor behavior can be looked at under a microscope when you’re about to lose your job, in order to build a paper trail – the opposite extreme can also be a bad sign,” Taylor says. Management might believe that nothing you do, or don’t do, matters any longer, because you’ll soon be leaving.
You’re asked to hand off assignments. If and when you are asked to hand over files and projects that you have been working on to other colleagues, there’s a good chance your job in on the line, Kahn says.
You feel invisible. If you suddenly feel like it wouldn’t matter if you didn’t show up at all; your correspondence goes nowhere; your managers do not recognize your completed projects; or your project status reports are ignored—you should start to worry. “No matter how brilliant your ideas or revelations that will serve the company, they fall on deaf ears,” Taylor says. “You finish a major project that took months and expect some form of recognition, but don’t get it. In fact it seems as if the project became the lowest priority in the company’s history. Or you write a 50-page business plan and watch it fall into the abyss. It just seems that no one wants to hear from you.”
Questions appear out of nowhere. Managers, peers or outside consultants mysteriously begin to question you in great detail on your projects without giving any feedback, Taylor says. “It appears outwardly that they’re interested in your work, but you feel differently in your gut. They may be deciding exactly how to replace your role.”
A paper trail seems to be in the making. Suddenly, everything from your boss is in writing, and it’s not all positive. “It feels like a case is gradually being made for your ‘demise,’” Taylor says. “Any response or defense you give is not answered.”
What should you do if you believe your job might be at risk?
Abella suggets playing it cool, stepping it up and calmly looking for an exit strategy. “Whatever you do, don’t let paranoia of getting fired get in the way of performing or looking for another job,” she adds. “First, although you may have a feeling that your job is on the line, you don’t actually know for sure–so don’t give them a reason to fire you. Second, because if you go to another interview with an energy of desperation because your current job may be on the line, it may come off the wrong way to the recruiter. In other words, they may think you don’t actually want to work for them, but rather consider them a backup plan and therefore aren’t a serious candidate. Bottom line: play it cool.”
Parnell says, while approaching your boss about the potential issues may be the “right thing to do,” by the time you are sensing that there is an issue, it is usually too late. “Half-hearted attempts at remediation often fail, as relationships and reputations have been sufficiently damaged. So, watching out for number one may be your best move; this includes getting your resume polished, putting out feelers, stirring up your network and any other actions toward finding your new home.”
Kahn believes you should seek out advice from a mentor. “Communication is key,” he says. “Work with your boss on a strategy to overcome challenges and meet with your Human Resources department for their advice and suggestions. Turn challenges into opportunities.”
Taylor offered the following tips on what you should and shouldn’t do when you think your job is at risk:
Show your successes. Certain managers may be unaware of your accomplishments, especially in a matrix organization. Don’t be afraid to fend for yourself. Your boss may even be threatened by you, and at some point you may need to go over her head if you have nothing to lose.
Control your emotions. Don’t let your fears get the best of you. A strategic approach is worth developing, as you won’t be able to have multiple discussions like this with your boss.
Produce stellar work. Put in 110% if you think your job has potential. Get in earlier and stay later to get better results. But don’t overdo it or it will be counterproductive to your performance.
Hang around more. By being around more, you may be able to have more genuine, straightforward conversations with your boss or those in the know. They may be more forthcoming if the atmosphere is more relaxed.
Engage your boss with his special projects. Instead of merely focusing on your tasks, inquire about your boss’s plum projects. Show interest and offer to help. If your boss sees that you’re a resource in advancing his agenda, you might strengthen your position. Being more aligned with senior management’s mission can only help your case.
Be visible and visibly helpful. Contrary to what some believe, hiding is not a good option if you fear a pink slip. Become visible on finding articles of interest to key managers and e-mailing them, find out more about client needs, write articles and blogs through online and social media (which will help your job search if nothing else). Offer to help those in related departments, or other managers – especially if you’re not getting feedback from your boss on your own assignments. All these actions will help your employer see your larger value as a driven contributor and leader.
Take control. Avoid inertia to reduce stress. Take practical and thoughtful actions that help shed light on the situation. You may want to conduct a job search in the meantime, just be discreet.
Collect your kudos. Hopefully you’ve kept copies of company and possible client/vendor commendations, whether e-mails or notes. Begin gathering and organizing them. You might be able to defend yourself if you’re receiving unfair evaluations. In the least, you’ll build a file that can help you in your next job.
Start a discreet job search. Before you search, take stock of what your passion really is, and think about the learning experience from the current job. Then target jobs that advance your career. Watch the reaction you get during the interview process: chemistry counts for a lot; you don’t want to jump from the frying pan into the fire.
Remain confident and professional, as best you can. While this is a certainly a challenge, your confidence, poise and professionalism can be significant. If you can show strength and produce while under duress, it will speak volumes of your value. Remember that you can still get good references if you’re on your best behavior.
Don’t go on the offensive or become overly defensive. These actions will only exacerbate your standing. You want to win over people, not confirm that you lack people skills.
Don’t spread your fears. Don’t chat with coworkers about your fears; keep them to yourself.
Don’t plead for your job. Don’t be a martyr; that won’t make you more desirable as an employee.
Avoid saying any negative things about your boss. Don’t get angry with your boss among your peers. Approach your boss directly, diplomatically and candidly instead.
Don’t pack up and jump ship prematurely, without having other opportunities. The “you’re not firing me, I’m resigning” concept is only a good option if you’ve found a solid job. It’s possible that your fears are unfounded, so it’s worthwhile leaving no stone unturned at first.
Try to see the big picture. Realize that this potential move might ultimately be good for your career. Imagine a position without the level of stress you’re experiencing. Millions of workers today privately thank their former bosses for letting them go – because as one door closed, an incredible new one opened.
“There are few things more unnerving and all consuming that job insecurity, as work is a core part of our lives,” Taylor concludes. “Protracted high unemployment further fuels these fears, and asking your boss for clarity seems too much of a gamble. You don’t want to plant any seeds in management’s head, and know you must display an air of confidence.”