The lesser-spotted executive with its head in the sand …

Why do people fail to take action when they see threatening signs in the workplace? One word answer: DENIAL. Denial is one of the key human coping mechanisms; we all go around eating things that are bad for us, smoking, drinking too much or whatever – denying to ourselves the long-term impact of what we are doing. The form of denial we are talking about here is often presented to the world as ‘loyalty.’ “If I am loyal to the organisation and keep my head down, I’ll be fine. They’d be crazy to let me go …”

The only certainties in life used to be death and taxes. Now you can be fairly sure that you will have to change job at some stage in your career. Have to. Even a public service ‘job for life’ is looking a bit shaky these days because a bunch of ministers may want to decentralize key government departments down into their constituencies. [A nice way to stem the economic downturn of the rural to urban migration pattern].

If you get a whiff this sort of thing is coming down the pike; suck it up, be brave and take action. Listen to your gut. More to the point, trust your gut! If it’s a ‘little picture’ problem and you have ANY input or control that may head the issue off at the pass, take control and do it. If it’s a ‘big picture’ problem and the SEC have carted the CEO off in handcuffs, you need to be getting your lifeboat ready. Stock your lifeboat with:
  • A polished, up to the minute CV.
  • In-depth knowledge of your sector – who is up/down? Who is hiring/firing? Who is expanding/merging/hostile-takeovering?
  • You may wish to ‘liberate’ copies of the latest research and reports on your sector. Be very careful how you do this – companies are [rightly] very protective of research data and customer information.
  • A (resurrected) network – the number one tool to keep you abreast of movement and opportunities in your arena.
It may be just your job that is under threat. A new boss who can’t stand you? A change in standards and you are not coming up to speed quickly enough? An actual cataclysmic screw-up on your part? In this case, you have to decide (a) do I want to save my job and (b) is it actually salvageable? I would start low-key, confidential and off the record:
  • First and over-ridingly, make sure you are seen to be committed, enthusiastic and contributing. Don’t expect people to notice your successes, you need to develop a framework so that you can get the good news out there.
  • If your skills have been sliding, you need to get serious about keeping them current. Talk to your boss, HR and T&D. Do some computer based training (CBT) or home study to kick you off; but stay current.
  • Try and get yourself on to a key project – something that the company isn’t going to walk away from. Volunteer for the nightmare (but very important) organisational transformation jobbie. The one you KNOW is going to last 12-18 months and they can’t afford to dump anyone involved in it.

If all that fails and the axe seems imminent …

  • Review your personnel file (you are entitled to do this at any time).
  • Have a quiet chat with your union. If you are not unionised, have an initial conversation with a legal expert.
  • Close friends or collegues who have moved on – get them onside and try to lay out a balanced picture so they can give you objective advice.
  • See if it is possible to have a frank, off-the-record discussion with the ultimate decision maker.
NB: I have many friend and clients who are HR professionals and I love them dearly, but please, please, please remember the HR Department is not your friend; they will ALWAYS report back to your boss. If your company has an Employee Assistance Programme, they may be able to offer confidentiality – check. If you are not 100% sure, talk to a career management specialist, a total outsider.

If the reasons for letting you go are legitimate, you need to negotiate the ‘exit story’ and the subsequent reference. If they are not legitimate, you need to decide can you afford to take on the fight – with all the financial, psychological wellbeing, and career implications.

Or you can get to like the taste of sand …