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Seven Signs Your Time Is Up

In this excerpt from her new book, Suddenly in Charge! Managing Up, Managing Down, Succeeding All Around, author Roberta Chinsky Matuson looks at the indicators in the workplace that can help you know when it’s time to go.

Suddenly in Charge

Why is it easy to see when someone around us is about to be fired, yet we don’t recognize those signs when it happens to us? Perhaps you were too busy looking in front of you to notice the waves of layoffs, one of which eventually took you out. Or maybe you were hoping to turn around a situation that had gone bad. Years of experience have taught me there are almost always warning signs that indicate a shift is about to happen. Here are seven of the most common signs your time is quickly coming to an end.

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SIGN NUMBER 1: YOU ARE NO LONGER IN THE LOOP

This scene may play out in different ways, but the ending is always the same. You used to be invited to participate in closed-door meetings where highly confidential matters were discussed. Lately, you notice the blinds are closed in the conference room, yet you are noting this from the outside of the room.

I remember this happening to me when I experienced my first layoff. Working in human resources, I was privy to all the comings and goings of the organization. Then one day I no longer had access to this information. Meetings that I normally attended went on without me. In retrospect, I should have realized that something was going on, but instead I chose to go about my business as if nothing had changed. Two weeks later, the bottom of my world fell out when I received my pink slip.

When Tracy O’Connell, associate professor of marketing communications
at the University of Wisconsin-River Falls, worked in the corporate world, she went from a prized performer (based on bosses’ comments and personnel reviews, promotions, and such) to someone who was apparently on the way out. She began to realize she was no longer in the loop when meetings with the boss were cancelled, phone calls or e-mails were not returned, and the boss was generally unavailable
to her. “I sat outside the door, hoping for a chance to ask maybe just one question, to move ahead on one thing. It was like paparazzi stalking a celebrity,” states O’Connell.

If your gut tells you something has changed and your mind tries to convince you it’s all in your head, then it’s worth further exploration.
In my experience, when it comes to matters like this, your gut is usually right. That explains why we often hear people say, “I knew it! I felt like this was coming,” as they are doing the perp walk out the door, escorted by security.

SIGN NUMBER 2: YOUR BOSS ASKS YOU TO TRAIN A “BACKUP”

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At work, we often hear, “We need someone trained in case you get hit by a bus,” even though we rarely hear about people actually getting taken out by a bus gone wild. This is frequently code for, “You’re on your way out, pal. I need to make sure someone else can do your job before I fire you.” If you are in this situation, you have several choices. You can do as requested without asking any questions, or you can put together a strategy for approaching the boss and learning more about why he is making this request. In most situations, people will go with option one, as this avoids conflict, even though option two is clearly the better choice.

Here’s why you should talk honestly with your boss. Suppose you approached your boss in a nonconfrontational way and shared your concerns with him. This might open up a dialogue in which you learn more about areas you can quickly turn around to prevent receiving an early checkout notice. Or you may be able to negotiate a win-win deal. I’ve done this and it works really well, when executed properly.

Most bosses will do anything to avoid firing people. It’s unpleasant
and it doesn’t exactly present your boss in the best light to his peers, staff, or, in some cases, the board. So if you look at this situation from your boss’s point of view, you are actually doing him a favor by presenting him with a win-win situation.

It’s much more difficult to fill a job when the person in the job has not been informed that her time is up. You might suggest to your boss that over the next three months (or whatever time you anticipate you will need) you will continue to perform your job while assembling a detailed procedures manual or training guide for your replacement. Offer to stay and help train your replacement. (Never mind that he may prefer you don’t.) In return, ask for permission to tender your resignation, time off to interview, and whatever other terms you can negotiate, such as the bonus that is due to be paid out next month. Now, doesn’t this feel more empowering than pretending there may indeed be a surge in the number of buses wiping out mid-level managers
over the next six months?

SIGN NUMBER 3: YOUR COMPANY IS TANKING

Has the owner of the company recently placed a guard on the office thermostat to save money on heating and cooling bills? Do you now have to steal office supplies from home in order to fill the supply cupboards
at work? Or even worse, is the manufacturing plant standing idle while everyone waits for a miracle? Is your company losing contracts
that used to be a slam dunk? These are all signs that the glory days of the company may well be behind you.

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It’s unlikely that a company that has fallen on hard financial times will turn around quickly. You may be forced to take action sooner rather than later, especially if you are the primary breadwinner. That’s not exactly a bad thing. Often, being the first to go can be a good strategic
move. You get into the employment market before it is flooded with other candidates from your industry or specialty. However, you do not have to quit in order to explore your options. You can start putting feelers out to see if you get any nibbles. Or you can turn the heat up and do a full-blown job search while continuing to earn a paycheck.

SIGN NUMBER 4: SELF-IMPOSED BARRIERS BOX IN YOUR COMPANY

Product manager Donald Lester describes a no-win situation that is all too common: “Our sales team has been asked to increase sales by more than 25 percent per year. The problem is that our production facility is maxed out, order fulfillment is running way behind, and customers are getting angry and leaving. If your salary or bonus is tied to sales under these circumstances, it is time to leave. It won’t get better because upper management is unwilling to spend the money needed to expand and is instead resorting to gimmicks like putting out memos that everyone needs to work harder. Under this scenario you will never make more money for your hard work in increasing sales. Time to move on.”

Not everyone who is running a company is a scholar, and a number
of today’s leaders have never experienced what it is like to work in a recession. Many are choosing to hold on to cash, without giving enough consideration to what this may mean over the long term. A perfect example of a company that made this mistake is the now-defunct electronics retailer Circuit City. When the economy started slowing down, Circuit City decided to get rid of its 3,400 highest-paid (and almost certainly most effective) sales associates to cut its costs. This opened up the gates for competitors such as Best Buy to hire these exceptional sales people and gain ground. Once the death spiral started, it was impossible to stop.

If you no longer believe in the decisions being made at the top of the organization, then it’s time to find a company where you feel confident the lights will still be on tomorrow.

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SIGN NUMBER 5: YOUR COMPANY IS MERGING OR BEING ACQUIRED

In the case of a merger or acquisition, it seems easy to do the math, yet many miscalculate how things will end. Suppose you are the manager of marketing and the acquired company also happens to have a manager
of marketing. What is the likelihood the organization will need two marketing managers? If I were in Vegas, I’d say the odds are slim to none. Yet people roll the dice every day, thinking they will be the one who survives the transition. These same people are shocked when they find out they weren’t holding the winning hand after all.

Jill Wade, CEO of Axiom Business Advisors, LLC, has seen enough mergers and acquisitions in her lifetime to know that it’s time to look at other options the moment you realize you no longer have clear duties.
“This happens a lot in mergers and acquisitions. You become a spare part,” observes Wade.

The time to begin preparing for a possible exit is when a company
announcement is made regarding a merger or an acquisition. Donald Lester shares a time when he worked for an organization that was going through a corporate merger. Key people flew to his location
and announced everyone’s job was safe. “Within three days of the announcement, you notice several people missing and the cycle repeats. Our campus had over 3,000 employees on it before the mergers started. When I left, I was one of seventy-five people remaining and they were still telling us our jobs were safe.” Use your head. Put the wheels in motion. The worst that will happen is that you’ve got a plan in place that’s ready to go with a moment’s notice.

SIGN NUMBER 6: YOUR BOSS GETS FIRED

Anytime someone above you is fired, there will be some turbulence. Some people do fine and fly right through it, while others feel as if they are going to crash at any moment. If you’ve got the stomach for it, you may choose to stay and ride things out.

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It’s important to be aware of the outside forces that could eventually
take this decision out of your hands. Here is what can happen when the boss is fired: your department may be merged with another department, which might result in your position being eliminated. Or the company may name a new boss, who brings his own people with him. If you are too closely aligned with your boss, you may eventually be asked to leave as well. Or you may wind up staying until you realize that you don’t see eye to eye with the new boss.

SIGN NUMBER 7: THERE IS NO PLACE LEFT TO GO

At some point you may realize you have gone as far as you are going to go with your present company. Most likely this will happen sooner rather than later if you work for a very small firm or a family-owned business (unless, of course, you marry into the family!). Although transitions
can be difficult for some people, most would agree in hindsight that leaving at the right time was one of the best things they could have done for their career.

Reprinted from Suddenly in Charge! Managing Up, Managing Down, Succeeding All Around by Roberta Chinsky Matuson (Nicholas Brealey Publishing). Matuson is the President of Human Resource Solutions.

For an exclusive online chapter click here.