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Don’t wait to be downsized!

by Geoff Hart

Previously published, in a different form, as: Hart, G.J. 1999. Don't wait to be downsized! Intercom, July/August:60.

Sure, the economy’s booming now, but as the Asian crisis becomes the North American crisis, it pays to remember Newton’s famous law of gravity: what goes up must come down again. And, of course, when the economy comes down and pension fund managers start asking those awkward questions about why they should remain invested in your company’s stock, managers have a lemming-like tendency to trim staff to make room for short-term profits and long-term plausible deniability. As a technical communicator, you’re obviously well up on the hit list, which some might see as a bad thing—but there’s a silver lining to every cloud (or, in our case, a copper lining; they don’t pay us well enough for silver). In fact, the good news is that it’s easy to ensure you’re the first one fired, so you can leave before the job becomes mundane without looking like a quitter. Then there are all those perquisites (severance pay, a little downtime)...

Here’s my top-10 list of ways to ensure you’re not the one they retain when the budget axe falls:

  1. Don’t get too friendly with your managers and coworkers, lest they form undesirable attachments to you that limit your expendability. Hollywood managers notwithstanding, there are still a lot of caring humans in management, and caring humans just hate to lay off people they know and like.
  2. Avoid opportunities to learn new skills. If you start doing more than the work they hired you for, there’s a serious risk of becoming indispensible. The problem with being indispensible is that there will be many others who want to keep you around, and that’s a problem if you’ve got the wanderlust.
  3. Keep yourself out of the loop. If you keep your finger on the pulse of the company, you may learn of impending downsizing long before it happens, and given the instinctual tendency to fear change, that leaves far too much time for you to get cold feet and do something about it.
  4. Pretend ignorance of your true value to the company. What you don’t know, you can’t explain to others. However, don’t be truly ignorant; you do want to be rehired by someone else eventually, and you’ll have to convince them of your worth.
  5. Ignore opportunities to save money or work more efficiently. If you’re not a big target on the balance sheet, you’re easy to overlook when it comes time to trim. Fortunately, managers examine the balance sheet and not the details that underlie it, so even if you’re doing a good job, it’s the expenditures they’ll notice.
  6. Learn one tool and learn it really well, to the point that you really don’t need to upgrade—ever. People who practice this “lifetime learning” thing generally violate recommendations 1, 2, and 5, making it that much harder to become expendable.
  7. Stand out in a crowd, but for all the wrong reasons. North American culture leans towards the notion that “the squeaky wheel gets the grease”, but one of many things we’ve learned from the Japanese, who are much wiser in these things, is that “the nail that stands up gets hammered down”.
  8. Embrace the “Peter principle” fully and strive to rise above the level of your competence. Anyone who learns from their mistakes and grows content with what they’ve already got has a seriously limited career path, and a greatly reduced chance of unanticipated, externally imposed career change. Besides, the severance packages are so much better when you’re higher up the food chain.
  9. Use deadlines as a guideline, not a religion, by becoming an advocate of the “just-in-time school of workflow management”. After all, if you’re not planning to be with the company for any great length of time, why subject yourself to the stress of regularly meeting deadlines and unnecessarily raising management expectations?
  10. Adopt the humble doctrine that perfection is not for mere mortals to attain, and that striving for perfection represents dangerous hubris. Try to make enough visible mistakes that you’re seen as eminently mortal, tenure-wise.

With the rate of change in modern society, we’re constantly being advised to embrace change rather than fight it, and what better way than through downsizing? Job security has traditionally been a source of fear and stress, but with practice, you should be able to embrace this particular type of change too. Don’t think of it as a layoff: think of it as a much-sought-after career change opportunity!

(For an alternative viewpoint, see “Jobs of a lifetime” by Barbara Moses, Report on Business Magazine, Dec. 1998, p. 107–112.)


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