I talked to a corporate-lifer friend last night about the layoffs coming to the tech company she works for. She’s been through the wringer before, so it’s no biggie to her, but her co-workers are a different story. They’re mostly younger—some are at their first real job—and seem oblivious to the warning signs of imminent “corporate restructuring,” even when they’re staring them in the face.
Occasional layoffs are much a part of a corporate life as coffee pods and surly IT departments. No matter what a cubicle drone does, they’ll likely be on the chopping block at some point in their career, probably more than once. There’s likely nothing you can do to prevent being laid off, but you can usually see the signs that it’s coming.
The larger economy starts looking shaky
Unemployment is currently hovering at a historically low 3.6%, but other economic indicators, from the stock market to inflation, are less promising. Whether the current economic uncertainly will eventually lead to a prolonged recession and mass layoffs remains to be seen, but it shouldn’t surprise anyone if it does. So in a sense, we all need to be prepared.
Your company is losing money
Your employer losing money or (failing to make as much money as it once did) is a strong indicator that layoffs are possible. But it’s not a definite sign: some firms lay off employees even when they’re making a lot of money, and some keep people on while they’re hemorrhaging cash. Still, it’s a compelling early warning of future layoffs.
People in upper management start leaving
The people at the top of your company have a much clearer view of what’s likely to happen to your company than you do, so if your boss’s boss’s boss and their colleagues start jumping ship, it’s a sign that lower-level employees better watch their backs .
Your company brings in consultants
In the corporate satire officespace, the harbingers of layoffs at Initech were “The Bobs,” a couple of consultants brought in to ask employees “what exactly do you do here?” It’s a realistic scenario. This isn’t to say the arrival of consultants always lead to layoffs—there are lots of reasons a company might bring in outside consultants—but a visit from your own personal The Bobs should make your ears perk up at the very least.
Things start feeling “off”
It’s hard to define, but when companies are heading toward layoffs, there’s often a vague tension in the air. Your supervisor might learn they will have to choose half of their staff to let go in a month, so they’re going to be in a shitty or giddy mood, depending on their personality. Things are going to feel weird either way, even if the boss (and their assistant) keep it secret. They’ll avoid making eye contact, call fewer all-hands meetings, speak to people more formally, etc. All of these could be signs of a layoff—or you could be paranoid. Consider it as a single data point instead of conclusive evidence.
People use the words “restructuring” or mention “cost-cutting”
These terms might come up in general conversation or emails in the weeks or months before a layoff. If you start hearing them a lot around your office, mentally translate these terms to “layoffs.” Chances are very good that the money saved through “cost-cutting” isn’t coming from the CEO’s yearly bonus, and that “restructuring” doesn’t mean giving everyone an assistant to lessen the workload.
Longer terms plans are discussed less and less
If you notice a lack of official discussions of projects that extend into the next fiscal quarter or beyond, you should update your LinkedIn. Your bosses will probably know about layoffs way before you, and they’re much more likely to cancel planning meetings instead of holding them with people who won’t be around.
You’re asked to define your role
Whether it’s the aforementioned outside consultants or someone from HR, if you’re suddenly asked to define your role at the company, or document what you do on a day-to-day basis, it could be because there is a plan to run the company without you being there.
There are layoffs in other departments
Larger companies are especially likely to shed employees in waves, rather than bringing the ax down on everyone at once. So if half of accounts payable walks out carrying cardboard boxes one Friday, it will probably spread to other departments soon, especially if no one seems willing to explain what’s going on. Be particularly wary around the end of the fiscal quarter, when most layoffs happen.
All the conference rooms are booked on a Friday
If some of these other signs have already happened and human resources has booked all the conference rooms on a Friday afternoon, steel yourself. It’s happening.
You receive official notice
In some states, companies are legally obligated to give advanced written notification to employees if layoffs are imminent—California’s WARN act, for instance, requires 60 day notice if certain conditions are met. If this ever happens to you, pack up your action figures: You’re definitely being laid off. Whether they’ll expect you to stick around for those 60 days depends, but if you do, go ahead and take a long lunch. What are they gonna do, fire ya?
How to handle an impending layoff
If you think you see the layoff ship in the distance sailing ominously towards your department, handle yourself professionally. Look at the situation realistically, and don’t panic: Layoffs are not fun, but they’re not the end of the world. The most important thing to remember is that it isn’t your fault. Cutting costs through reducing employees is a decision usually made dispassionately by people who have never met you. Whether you get focused or spared will likely have more to do with your role within the company or your salary than your performance as an employee.
So don’t beg and don’t despair. Fix up your resume, figure out what your severance will be, research how to collect unemployment, and wait to see if you are indeed one of the unlucky ones. You might make it through, and survive until the next round of layoffs. If you don’t, look at it as an opportunity to collect unemployment for a few months, reflect, and play video games in your underwear—until you start frantically looking for a new gig.