Dodging the Downsizing Bullet

Her first merger was nerve-wracking, recalls Carolyn Nannaman, a Los Angeles administrative manager.

“We’d heard rumors for months. Everyone was afraid of what was coming. Then one day there was a big meeting, and we learned the company had been sold to a competitor and about half of us were going to be laid off,” Nannaman says.

But she kept her job, survived and even thrived – only to be plunged into merger madness again, less than two years later, when another competitor swallowed her employer. This time, the bottom fell out.

“One Friday a few months after the merger, we were called in, one by one,” she says. “They gave me a paper to sign and a check for two months of pay. It took ten minutes, and I came out and cleared out my desk. I was back home by 3:00.”

In the modern workplace, it’s likely you will experience the uncertainty of a merger or downsizing campaign. But if you’re able to anticipate the downsizing bullet, it’ll be that much easier to dodge.

Sniffing Out A Merger

There are three easy-to-spot indicators that your employer may soon be shopping for a partner or considering offers from another company:

1) Your industry is consolidating. Big companies are eating little companies, and medium-sized companies are teaming up. You notice job shrinkage among competitors. More hints come from TV news, industry newsletters and scuttlebutt on the Web.

2) Your company holds a valuable niche position in the industry – such as being the only profitable copper producer in the West, for instance, or a small but cost-efficient home-health agency in a town dominated by a major healthcare chain.

3) Unusual events collide, such as a surge of employee resignations occurring around the same time as an unexpected inventory of all company equipment and office furniture. Interpretation: savvy workers jump ship before layoffs, and the inventory is part of valuing the company for sale.

If any of the three indicators apply, be aware that a merger is a definite possibility. That means two companies will become one. The merged company, now with more customers, may not lay off the equivalent of a whole staff. But it’s also likely that the new company doesn’t need everybody. For instance, the merged company only needs one human resources chief, but has two; so one person is cut. The bigger company will have more employees to manage, though, so perhaps three-fourths of the human resource clerks from the combined staffs will stay.

Try to figure out which positions will be duplicated if your employer merges with suitors A, B or C. Not sure who the suitors are, or which companies your employer might be eyeing? Again, tap into industry buzz. Stock market analysts and talking heads are always yapping about possible matings. It’s good to know what the potential pairings are, because each merger will shake out differently.

You can’t anticipate every possible scenario, though, as merger fallout also will vary by geography, timing, and external factors. When a giant Colorado-based utility company merged with a Texas utility several years ago, few field jobs (installers, repair personnel) were cut because each company still had a huge territory to cover. But two toy manufacturers in the same state won’t need separate distribution networks after joining, so an entire department of jobs will go.

But if toy company A bought toy company B – which happened to be the maker of this year’s version of the monstrously popular Frozen Snow Glow Elsa – as it was geared up for the holiday rush, workers might be added, not shed. If the same merger happened on the eve of the economic recession, layoffs would have been more likely.

Protect Your Job

While some layoffs are sweeping department-wide executions that don’t take personal achievement or connections into consideration, in many cases your professional reputation can save you a spot in the unemployment line, says employment consultant and author William Charland.

What would your boss say if asked, “Is there anyone especially worthwhile that we want to preserve from this department?” Would your name be the first one mentioned? You can make that more likely by taking steps now, Charland adds.

First, build or re-activate a network of peers and management. Ask people to lunch and talk shop, or chat about mutual interests – but don’t indulge in malicious gossip. Volunteer to help plan the annual office picnic or sign up for the company-sponsored walk-a-thon. Outside of work, read industry magazines, listen to business podcasts, and join a professional organization to make contacts among competitors.

“Choose people who are knowledgeable in your organization or field, and to whom you pose no threat,” he suggests. “Concentrate on those sympathetic to you, and inform yourself about what is going on.”

If you do have a viable network, you’re not going to be taken by surprise by a merger or downsizing, says John Challenger, head of Challenger, Gray and Christmas Inc., a Chicago outplacement firm. And since managers hire or retain those they feel comfortable with, the more friendly relationships you have, the more likely it is that you will stay employed. But avoid “sucking up” or false cheerfulness, he says.

“And don’t hide. A lot of people think ‘if no one notices me, I will slip through.’ But it’s the opposite,” Challenger continues. “They have to select people to stay. So become super-visible in a positive way.” His suggestions: be extra-productive. Volunteer to help on projects. Find ways to cut costs.

Once a merger is announced, cheer rather than whine, he adds. “Accept the change. Accept the merger. Don’t be negative and vocal behind the scenes, as it will come out.”

Laying Off Stress

Job turmoil makes for hideous stress, making it harder to perform well or feel positive, says Dr. Cathy Quinn, a Beverly Hills psychologist.

Feeling powerless or helpless is often the biggest stressor, she says. “Sitting there helplessly waiting for the ax to fall makes for harmful emotional distress. That’s usually a bigger issue than the actual job loss.”

Quinn suggests that the answer is to take charge of what you can and to explore other options if you feel a lay-off may be close at hand. If you didn’t have this position, what would you like to do? Is this the time to go back to school, waitress your way around the world, or leave the workplace to have a baby?

If you decide to stay put, focus on achieving what Quinn calls “a state of non-anxiety” several times a day. Take a series of 10 deep breaths. Get a mini-massage. Meditate. Go to a support group and vent. Take a rousing walk or pound out a few miles on an exercise bike. Take your headset to work and listen to your favorite music at lunch. Or take a good book and immerse yourself in another world during breaks.

“The goal is to remove yourself from the stress, because prolonged stress leads to breakdown of the immune system, which leads to disease,” she explains. “Re-fortify yourself by escaping. And take care of yourself physically by building muscles, eating properly and getting enough sleep to feel good when you wake up.”

Delve Deeper
Job Loss

Employment consultant William Charland says we react to getting a pink slip by “being pissed off, angry, depressed, fearful, even feeling violated.”

The emotions may blind us at a crucial moment, he adds.

During the exit interview, when you’ve been told your job is eliminated, avoid signing anything, even if told “you have to sign this before I can release your severance check.” Employers may exploit the moment to get your signature on documents that hobble your actions long after you’ve worked for them. Sometimes they leverage your severance amount; other times they dangle continued health benefits to get your signature.

Don’t sign a confidentiality agreement about the terms of your severance package or the lay-off process. Companies sometimes use confidentiality agreements to keep details of the merger from getting into the newspapers. The more exploitative the layoff process, the shyer the employer. But your job was just eliminated; why shouldn’t you talk about it if you want to?

Liability waivers are another form of popular exit interview paperwork. Don’t sign it until your attorney has looked at it and given you the green light. It’s still too early to tell if you were selected for layoff fairly or unfairly, and you don’t want to sign away your right to sue. After all, many of the nation’s largest employers have been dragged into court in recent years, where juries found they focused on above-40 workers, women, or minorities when whittling jobs.

Some employers even try to get laid-off workers to sign “non-competes,” meaning they will not work for a close competitor for a certain period of time after leaving. Others restrict the knowledge you can take with you to another employer.

Instead of signing, say, “I need to take a day to consider this before signing. My lawyer will want to review it with me.”

“Don’t decide on the spot or be intimidated. You take a day to think over a job offer, and you also should take a day to think over any kind of termination agreement you are asked to sign,” says William Charland, employment consultant and author. Take your questions to an attorney who specializes in labor law, not just a friend who’s a lawyer.

What if your employer insists you sign now or lose the opportunity for severance or other benefits?

“Very seldom does this happen, if you request a day to think it over before signing. After all, that is unethical and possibly illegal. Say, ‘I certainly should be able to consult an attorney, even if it’s over the phone.’ Above all, maintain a professional posture.”


(Click on an image to buy or learn more)

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *