How to Keep Your Job in a Slowdown

Hard work, fresh thinking, and avoiding becoming a company scapegoat can all help.

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If your office chair was on fire, would you sit down and brood about it? Probably not. Well, if your company is in trouble, and it's possible that jobs will be cut, this is an equally poor time to sulk. Vulnerable workers can take steps to secure their positions, but it requires real footwork. Here is job-keeping advice for workers in four groups, each of which has unique assets and potential liabilities.

If you're in charge (and the numbers aren't pretty): It's lonely at the top. And lately it's something of a revolving door. CEO turnover rose 58 percent in January, according to outplacement consultancy Challenger, Gray & Christmas. John Challenger, a CEO himself, says executives are going to be under a microscope as economic growth softens, slows, or recedes. So when the buck stops, how can a leader manage to stick around?

Make your case to whoever's in charge—the board, the owners, a more senior executive. If poor results are pinned on you, "you cannot let it go unchallenged," Challenger says. "You don't want to be scapegoated with them." Leaders need to publicize their past efforts and future plans and need to make it clear if a problem is industrywide. They also should take care not to align themselves too closely with a recently fired executive, so they're seen as part of a solution, rather than part of the "old guard" problem. There's a strong case to be made, too, for deep knowledge of the organization and thorough understanding of its current situation. Both can be posited as major advantages over a new hire.

If you're new to the company: Come in early. Stay late. Don't take long breaks. Dot your i's. Cross your t's. Be the workhorse, the person who doesn't complain, the employee who gets loads of work done and doesn't have conflicts with other employees or a reputation for gossip. These are the basic tenets of job security for newbies, says Bruce Tulgan, founder of the New Haven, Conn., management consulting firm RainmakerThinking and author of Managing Generation X and It's Okay to Be the Boss. While there's strong demand for young accountants, engineers, and computer technologists, employers in those industries still want hard workers. "Nobody's hiring warm bodies," Tulgan says.

Newer employees should keep a pad and pen in hand and be prepared to listen and watch. They should date and time-stamp their notes, and then study them. "You've got to be a learning machine," says Tulgan, who consults with companies on managing younger workers. That doesn't mean asking a million questions. That means biting your tongue a bit and adding some context to your enthusiasm. (You're brand new. Nobody wants to hear all that's wrong with the company's website on your first day.)

If you're an institution at the company: Older workers often fight the notion that they're not pulling their weight. They're equally challenged by the expectation that they may be retiring soon. But they've got a trump card. In times of economic instability, longer-tenured workers should take advantage of the dense network of relationships they've created inside the company and begin reviving those bonds and building advocates, Challenger says.

This is the time to wave the company flag to show your allegiance and take coworkers out for coffee. Executives find it harder to fire people they know well, Challenger says. When choosing between equally productive workers, they may select the employee they'll have the easiest time facing with bad news.

If you're working in a troubled industry: Scott Little recruits for management-level positions—publishers, sales managers, ad directors—at Media Recruiters in Chico, Calif. He knows these are tough times for the newspaper business. Combined print and online ad revenue fell 7.4 percent in the third quarter of 2007, according to the Newspaper Association of America. Little's advice for workers is a little bit old-fashioned—"work hard and be productive"—and a good deal progressive. Ailing industries need fresh ideas, and Little says executives have to keep pace with the changes. In the newspaper business, that means embracing new media and thinking interactively.