How to Negotiate Your Way to Job Security

Layoff rumors spread like the flu—and many of you sure are feeling sick.

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Layoff rumors spread like the flu—and many of you sure are feeling sick.

This week's Wall Street Journal article on layoff rumors suggests several things for anxious employees—update your résumé, plan your exit strategy so you can leave with work samples and customer letters, install a business phone line at home, and get your achievements in front of management.

But I wondered about a strategy that involved more of an effort to stick around, so I called Peter Johnston, author of Negotiating With Giants: Get What You Want Against the Odds. I wanted to know: Can savvy negotiation help us fend off job loss? "You don't want to assume that you can't influence your fate in a tough economy," he told me. It was a good start.

Johnston suggests five key actions you can take to improve your situation:

1. Be clear on the value you're supposed to be providing, and provide it. In tough times, employers tend not to value you and your relationship as much as they value the company's bottom line, Johnston says. Suppose you're an administrative assistant—you should be looking at how you can help out with sales and make yourself more valuable to your employer. Consider talking with your boss about moving into a sales role on a part-time basis. In general, look at ways to cut expenses or increase revenue. "Don't wait for someone to ask," Johnston says. "Take the bull by the horns."

2. Network inside your organization to find out what's going on. Talk with colleagues and administrators to find out where the company is headed, so you can head in the same direction, Johnston says. Depending on the direction, it may require that you acquire new skills. Acquire them.

3. If there's uncertainty, look at other jobs. "Always make it clear to your employer that your preference is them," Johnston says. "But keep your eyes open." Interest or offers from other companies emphasize your value as an employee and may give you leverage in negotiating—perhaps for a committed minimum period of employment.

4. Lower the cost related to your employment. Discuss your willingness to work fewer hours or four days a week, even working from home so you don't need an office. "Often it's the person who is the least costly to an employer, who provides the same value as others, who's going to be the last to go," Johnston says.

5. Team up with others. If you're feeling vulnerable, others are too, and if your employer is the sort to play one against another, it may be beneficial to forge a coalition. Johnston points to the cast members of the TV show Friends, who banded together and lobbied for renegotiated contracts. Producers may have felt that one actor or actress was disposable, but not all six. Ultimately, the solidarity among the cast members paid off for their producers—they were able to keep the show together for a decade, which pays off big in syndication. The coalition should essentially be built in such a way that it would be impossible for your employer to fire all of you. But it may be appropriate to have an exit strategy—perhaps you'd all be willing to work together or start a company—if you had to walk away.


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