Put Up Your Job Defenses

Don't wait for a downturn. You can protect yourself now.


Are jobs about to get more scarce? Economists are fingering their worry beads. Last month, the economy lost more jobs than it gained for the first time in four years. Falling home sales, $80-per-barrel oil, and flagging consumer confidence all suggest that the odds of a recession are increasing. And if there's a downturn, workers may be the last to know—since unemployment is a "lagging" indicator, the economy might already be in rough shape by the time pink slips go out or salaries get cut.

So in addition to pulling out your fall wardrobe and winterizing your car, it's also a good season to recessionproof your job. Even if the pessimists are wrong and last week's Federal Reserve interest rate cuts help the economy keep growing, these steps can only help your career:

Follow the money. In a recession, the first departments that companies tend to cut are "cost centers" that detract from the top line, such as human resources, customer service, and even marketing. Better to work for a "profit center," like sales or manufacturing, that generates revenue. If you work on the cost side, ask about a transfer.

Solve problems. Many workers, from clerks to CEOs, are most comfortable keeping their noses to the grindstone. But you'll stand out and be more valuable if you're able to solve problems, especially the nagging ones your boss complains about. Be sure to share due credit with the boss.

Work for a star. You can often ride the coattails of a hotshot boss. If you have one in mind but don't already work for him, one way to ease into a transfer is offering to work on a thorny project or other one-time assignment. Once you prove yourself, ask about a permanent transfer.

Learn the right stuff. Develop skills that will be in demand, especially in a downturn; if you're not sure what those are, ask your boss. If you become an expert in online training, for example, it might improve the skills of employees while helping cut costs—just when it's needed. Or, if salespeople are still tracking contacts on index cards, offer to learn software such as Salesforce, which tracks customers from start to finish and can significantly increase sales. Don't know what to learn? Ask cutting-edge people in your professional association.

Get due credit. Even the best product won't sell if it's poorly marketed, and the same is true of you. Without seeming boorish, let people know what you're working on. If you solve a problem, instead of just telling your boss, E-mail it around to staff members, "for input."

Network—before you need to. Don't wait until you're looking for a job to expand your list of contacts and colleagues; it's better to ask for help after you've developed a relationship. Get involved in your professional association by volunteering for a key committee, proposing a talk at an upcoming meeting, or contributing to its website or newsletter. How about writing an article in which you interview bigwigs in your field on a topical issue? You'll gain cachet and make powerful connections, all at once.