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Hit The Ground Running

How To Use A Mass Exodus At Your Company To Advance Your Career

Here's how to use a round of layoffs or a lot of people quitting to your career advantage.

How To Use A Mass Exodus At Your Company To Advance Your Career
[Photo: Flickr user James Cridland]

Six of your colleagues just quit in the past three weeks. Or maybe they were fired. What’s going on—and are you next?

The uncomfortable truth is that teams and companies go through shaky periods where, for one reason or another (and often for several), there’s a mass exodus of employees that leaves you nervously eyeing the door, too.

That’s a normal reaction, but it may not be the most strategic one. Just because your company makes a round of layoffs or a handful of people jump ship doesn’t mean the whole organization is about to go down in flames and take you with it.

In fact, you can sometimes turn this type of situation to your advantage. Here are three steps to take to make that happen.

1. Don’t Panic

Most people react to mass departures with understandable anxiety. Our self-preservation instincts kick in.

Hallie Crawford is a career coach, and she’s seen that happen often enough. "People tend to go into fear right away," she says, but "what you want to do is take a step back and detach yourself from the emotional reaction."

Sounds simple enough, but how? Many of us rush to figure out what’s going on: Was half the marketing team fired? Did they all decide to quit at the same time? Is it just a freak coincidence? But scrambling to piece together the story while you’re feeling frightened for yourself will probably only leave you with a distorted version of it.

"Don’t make any assumptions about anything," Crawford advises. "Your job might be fine. It might be secure in the long run. Try not to jump to conclusions." Instead, go to a reliable source, whether that’s your boss or a trusted colleague who’s in a position to know, and "ask the questions that you need to ask to find out exactly what is going on."

Just try not to gossip. Keep in mind that you’re only after information that has a bearing on your own role—how it may or may not be changing, your job security, and plans for filling the newly vacated positions.

2. Find Out What You’re Worth

Next, Crawford suggests, "Take a look at yourself—your position, its value in the organization—get a sense of that." She adds that people usually have a sense of that already; our gut instincts about how well we’re valued at work tend to have a pretty solid basis. So the goal is to check that impression against the available evidence.

She suggests asking yourself, "Okay, what’s my skill set? What do I bring to the table?" Without actually launching a full-blown job search, it’s smart to act as though you’re about to. The point isn’t to set up a Plan B and start scheduling interviews—it’s to take an inventory of your strengths and accomplishments.

"Do some research on your value in the marketplace just to be safe," says Crawford. Pull up your resume at the time you applied for your current role (because chances are you haven’t updated it since then) and take note of the ways it’s now outdated. "Think about your past successes over the past year and write that down so you can make a case for yourself if you need to," Crawford advises.

You’re essentially building a case for your value—which you can take either to your current boss or a hiring manager, depending on how things play out.

Once you’ve nailed down how you’ve grown within your organization, zoom out and consider your competitors in the job market. Crawford points out that this is easier than you might think, and it doesn’t have to involve checking Glassdoor for average salary data, which tells you how your peers are compensated without telling you why.

Instead, Crawford recommends just searching LinkedIn for your current role in your industry, taking an assessment of what you see: "Are there skills other people have that you’ve missed? Across the board, what do people [in equivalent positions] have, and what are they working on?"

For instance, skills your peers have scored a lot of endorsements for probably won’t give you an edge in the job market. But those that stick out and seem a little more sophisticated might be areas worth developing.

3. Look For Opportunities

Now that you’ve asked the right questions and researched your own standing, you’ve got something to work with. But Crawford is quick to emphasize that "you want to be careful with this, because it could always backfire." When you approach your boss about any new opportunities to take on in the midst of a mass exodus, she says, "I wouldn’t say go in there with guns blazing [or] with a full litany of ways you want your job to change."

After all, this is probably a pretty stressful time for your boss, too, so getting a careful read of your relationship and the general atmosphere is essential. "It is so situational," Crawford cautions. But once you’ve done that, here are a few things you may want to propose:

Taking on new or more challenging work. "If there are projects you would like to pitch in on because it would be rewarding or enhance your skill set, this could be a time to do that," she says. And now you can make a strong case for why you’re up for the task.

After all, you may have some more leverage than you did beforehand—at least of a certain sort. "If people are leaving," Crawford says, "they kind of need all hands on deck. That would be one more positive way to get your fingers in more areas you may not have otherwise."

Changing how things are done or getting help to do them. It’s normal to worry that you’ll have to assume more work when your coworkers leave en masse, but that fear won’t help you much. Maybe even before the round of departures, Crawford adds, "You’ve been thinking you’ve needed assistance in these areas those other people weren’t filling. So you can say, ‘We need to look for X, Y, Z instead of A, B, C" when the company starts to fill those newly empty roles.

Now is also a great time to think about ways to change your own role, she says, by suggesting new processes or procedures you hadn’t had a chance to put in place "and maybe getting some additional assistance."

A promotion—maybe. Crawford doesn’t mince words on this one: "It’s not necessarily the best time to go in and say, ‘I want a promotion,’ but it is a time to get a lay of the land."

And maybe after you do that, and it still seems like you actually do have a viable shot? "If it’s been kind of a long time coming, and you deserve it, and you’ve got a great argument for it, and you know that they’ve been considering you, but it hasn’t happened," Crawford says—ticking off all the necessary criteria—"then it could be an okay time."

But you may want to wait until the dust is starting to settle. All other factors notwithstanding, you need to make your boss feels like promoting you is good for them, too. Whatever you do, Crawford adds, "don’t put more on their plate."

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