As we continue to struggle with this beast of an economy, companies and organizations are still facing hiring’s and layoffs.  The results can often create a kind of paranoia, and that can cloud our judgment.  Let me present you with a classic case of the reason why, when we worry about layoffs, we might not make the best career decisions.  Given the times, our instincts might mislead us if we’re not careful.  While in New York, I sat and listened very carefully to the following story…


It was about a young woman who graduated from college in May and found a wonderful job with a major newspaper.  As with most entry-level type jobs, she was placed in a pool of new hires.  She joined a group of new hires and “left-behinds” who, for lack of a better term, could not seem to extract themselves from this initial pool of grunt work activities for the paper.  But our young lady worked hard, harder than her peers.  She took on every assignment thrown her way without incident or question.  No matter what they threw at her, she not only did it to the best of her ability, but she also did it with a can-do attitude.


Not surprisingly, this type of hard work, attitude, and versatility caught the eye of management.   After only three months, she was promoted out of this first rung of the ladder, and moved to a writing pool of about three dozen writers.  This new pool consists of a collection of veteran and grizzled writers, almost all of whom have specific writing beats, or areas of specialty.  As the newest writer in the pool, it is not surprising that our young writer was not given a specific beat.  Rather, she was told to fill in where she was needed.


Fast-forward to this week, and our young writer hears that potential lay-offs may be looming.   Given the lack of seniority within her new position and the lack of a specific writing beat or specialty in her job description, she feels very vulnerable.  Her instincts are to try and protect herself by “marching into the boss’s office and plead for a specific beat.”  This is a classic instinct, but a dangerous one.


Many people believe that, when a company contracts or goes through layoffs, the decisions are always based first on seniority.  I’m guessing that this is a result of the high-level layoffs we often hear about in the news.  In those cases, such as with airline pilots or assembly line workers, it is the high-profile unions that are driving the information and impacting the layoff criteria. But the quiet little secret in the rest of corporate America is that seniority has a lot less to do with layoffs then most people think.


I’ve gone through my share of layoffs with major corporations such as Computer Sciences Corporation, Battelle Memorial Institute, and Xerox, and I’ve never seen a layoff determined solely by seniority.  I’m not even sure it even made the top three criteria.  In fact, the decision is often put in a manager’s hands, and not surprisingly, the criteria is actually quite simple:


  1. Hard Work.  Companies want people who are willing to work, and work hard.  Layoffs often mean that the workload is about to be increased for those who stay, and a history of working hard is a tremendous ally.
  2. Attitude.  Companies want to keep employees that not only work well with each other, but who also get along well with the boss.  A history of showing up with a smile on your face, and eagerly doing what you’re told, is a tremendous ally.
  3. Versatility.  Companies want to keep the employees who have the flexibility to do the most.  Contraction can often means filling the holes of those let go, and more versatility means more protection.  A history of being able to take whatever is thrown at you, and figuring out a way to do it well, is a tremendous ally.

You see, the answer for our young friend is to do quite the opposite of what she thought she should do.  She should not run into the boss’s office and plead for a specific beat.  She hasn’t earned that yet, and rather than protect her, it could very well contribute to her downfall.  The answer is simply to do exactly what she has been doing – work hard, never complain, and have a great attitude.  This has obviously been working very well because it has brought her to current level of success.


If the antiquated notion of seniority is truly a major criterion for a layoff, it’s out of your hands anyway.  So, if you ever find yourself in this position, why not try to avoid the paranoia, and continue to focus on what you can control, and what has made you successful?


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