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Reinforce Your Career

Batten down the hatches — we’re not through this storm yet. Learn how to buttress your job and fortify your career during tough times. Lesson #1: Negotiate for tomorrow.

The R word is penetrating America’s breakfast tables and nightly news. (And, no, I’m not talking about “resolutions.”) The unemployment rate — 5.8% and creeping higher — has reached a six-year high with more than 1.2 million jobs lost since March 2001. While pundits in the financial press ponder whether the recovery will be V, W, or L shaped, households across the United States are sweating more personal questions: How long can I hold up doing the work of two people? How can I jump off the 24-7 merry-go-round when pink slips are stacking up around me? How long before I’m caught in the next wave of downsizing? Will I be able to find a new job? In short: What can I do to keep my career on track during this downturn? A lot, actually.

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During an end-of-year interview on Nightly Business Report, former General Electric chairman Jack Welch outlined a clear choice for companies that holds true for individuals as well: Hunker down under a rock like a wimp, or position yourself for the future.

The events of September 11 forced Americans to question what matters most. A downturn, especially one coupled with a national tragedy, should not send us scrambling for bomb shelters and safety blankets. It should be viewed as an opportunity — a time to rethink priorities and draft a new game plan.

Marian Wright Edelman, founder and president of the Children’s Defense Fund, unearthed some pithy advice from an 18th-century woman writer: “Sojourner Truth declared that enough fleas biting strategically can make even the biggest dogs move.” Imagine that the dog was your career and that the biting fleas were an economic recession, a terrorist act, and an overseas war effort. Looks as if it’s time to get moving — fast.

The most difficult step is often the first, especially when you feel mired in work. While pundits lament the economy’s slowdown, more people are feeling more frazzled than ever. During the 2001 cost-cutting frenzy, managers trimmed head counts but maintained high expectations for output. That means corporate survivors are working double duty — assuming more responsibility and collecting fewer rewards. So, do you just grin, bear it, and hope the hiring will start soon? No way.

Uncertainty paralyzes. It undermines all sense of volition and direction. While some events are outside anyone’s control, your career projection isn’t one of them. Take charge of what you can do. The following steps not only position you psychologically in the present; they fix you strategically for the future.

Negotiate for tomorrow. Management may be unable to reward your contributions in a financial way right now, but that doesn’t mean you can’t begin preparing for a turnaround. Negotiate conditional compensation and benefits — rewards that are contingent upon predefined benchmarks as the company’s bottom line improves.

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Build coalitions. New responsibilities and streamlined operations often mean working daily with people from other functional areas in the business. Enlist them as future allies.

Create opportunities. As your company reassesses its core business strategies, do your own appraisal. Think about processes or adaptations that could solve problems in the present, and propose them. Look for future growth opportunities, and make sure that you’re also positioned for them.

Maintain your balance. Women, in particular, often spend years trying to strike a positive balance between work and family. September 11 brought those issues to the fore for everyone. Make that experience work for you and your company.

Fear immobilizes. Fight it. Worrying about when you might receive a pink slip or land your next gig just fosters depression. It doesn’t accomplish anything. These four steps, however, provide real goals beyond just networking.

Take inventory. Think broadly about skill sets, regardless of whether you use those talents at work, at home, or on the soccer field. The particular environment is irrelevant. Many skills are easily transferable to industries that are under comparably less economic pressure. Before you can secure your job or get another one, you have to know exactly what you bring to the table.

Develop options. Now, which table will you join? Even if you decide to stay put, researching and exploring other industries and job titles often brings clarity to your reasoning. You won’t be held hostage by a take-it-or-leave-it proposal or tempted to take the path of least resistance.

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Get creative. Companies spend a lot of time and money developing talent. Despite bottom-line pressure, they don’t like losing good people. If you smell another round of layoffs, propose a job share. You may work fewer hours, but the situation will be temporary, and management will get to keep two good people. Talk about a win-win scenario.

Seek more training. If you find yourself employed but working shorter hours, think about attending night school for more training. If you’re unemployed and can afford a year or two without salary, consider enrolling full-time. Those credentials will put you ahead of the pack when the economy turns around. And the time off may provide a much-needed breather — a sabbatical for evaluating where you want to go next.

Deborah M. Kolb, Carol Frohlinger, and Judith Williams contributed to The Shadow Negotiation: How Women Can Master the Hidden Agendas That Determine Bargaining Success (Simon & Schuster, 2000). Learn more about The Shadow Negotiation Series on the Web.

Copyright © 2002 The Shadow Negotiation LLC.

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