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Emergency Exit

With a bad economy, an ongoing war, and a daunting unemployment rate, now may seem like the worst possible time to leave a secure job. As it turns out, staying in a safe position may be the riskiest move of all.

When career counselor Kate Wendleton started receiving calls from embattled Andersen employees asking if they should begin looking for new jobs, she knew the psychology of recession had finally taken hold.

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“This is a typical mentality during tough times,” says Wendleton, author of Targeting the Job You Want (Career Press, 2000). Despite imminent downsizing, bankruptcy, and court orders, employees today are slow to leave even the worst jobs, she says. Paralyzed by fear or suffering denial, many professionals are instead hunkering down in their existing positions, opting for job security over satisfaction and hoping the unemployment rate halts at 6%.

Outplacement firm Challenger, Gray & Christmas found that during the first quarter of 2002, only 14% of managers and executives said they would relocate for a new job. That’s the lowest rate recorded since the company started keeping track 15 years ago and a sign that indicates “people seem less inclined to leave their personal and professional safety nets,” says John A. Challenger.

But safety nets provide comfort for only so long; sooner or later, they wear thin.

The “help wanted” section in the newspaper may look skimpy, and headhunters may no longer bombard your voice mail with lucrative offers, but that’s no reason to stay in a dead-end job. Regardless of the economy, people still retire, quit, go back to school, or change careers, leaving real positions open for the right candidates. The trick is luring those candidates out from under their desks.

By the way, here’s what Wendleton told anxious Andersen employees who called seeking career advice earlier this year: “Umm, yeah … you might want to start looking for a new job.”

Can You Afford Not To?

Job security — that regular paycheck and 401(k) contribution — is perhaps the biggest mental roadblock for an unsatisfied employee wrestling with the urge to resign. But job security is hardly scientific or reliable, says Arlene Hirsch, a Chicago career counselor and author of Love Your Work and Success Will Follow (John Wiley & Sons, 1996). Your position — just because it hasn’t yet been cut — can feel secure even when it’s in jeopardy.

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“Many people rationalize to themselves that, because the economy is bad, they may not find anything else, so they stay in a job where they’re unhappy,” she says. “But in the end, they may become so unhappy that they sabotage themselves by not doing a good job, or even by assuming their job is safe when it really isn’t. The question becomes, Can you afford not to take a risk?”

That doesn’t mean the work world should rise up in revolt tomorrow. Before delivering their letters of resignation or complaining to superiors, unhappy employees should update and circulate their résumés to new companies, Hirsch says.

“Revising your résumé and looking for a new job might help you highlight what’s bothering you about the position you’re in,” she says. Until you expose the problem with your current gig, you can’t begin to apply solutions.

“For example, if you’re tired of doing the same old thing, look for ways to reshape your job and learn new skills — whatever will help make your job stimulating again,” she says.

After assessing your current position, stop and ask whether your employer is healthy enough to help you achieve your career goals, Hirsch says. Is this company just going through a rough patch, or will it continue to shrink, like telecom? Can you find a solution internally, or must you leave in order to move ahead?

Don’t Let a Hiring Freeze Deter You

The trickiest thing about finding a new job during a downturn? Knowing where to look.

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“Only 10% of jobs are found through classified ads, and another 10% are found through search firms,” Wendleton rattles off, an indication that she’s cited those statistics quite a few times during the past several months. “The best bet is to contact a company directly.”

More often than not, so-called hiring freezes exist to please Wall Street investors, Wendleton says. “If a company finds the right person, it will hire.”

“Most of the people who are getting jobs these days are getting them at companies that have an ongoing hiring freeze,” says Wendleton, who runs the Five O’Clock Club, a career-coaching firm in New York.

New work, of course, doesn’t always mean a full salary and benefits from day one. An open position may come in the form of a temporary consulting assignment, something Wendleton encourages her job-seeking clients to snatch up if they can.

Temporary consulting contracts offer professionals a chance to network, learn new skills, and earn an income while they continue to search for something permanent. Consulting can also help freelancers get their foot in the door of an attractive company. A contract job can act like an audition of sorts — for an employer as well as for an employee.

Volunteer work also helps job seekers acquire new skills and gain experience that can be parlayed into more financially rewarding work.

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Wendleton tells the story of one client who left her job at a national retailer and began volunteering three or four days a week as chief financial officer of a nonprofit organization. Before long, she had the requisite experience and title on her résumé to land what Wendleton calls “a terrific CFO position.”

Ryan Underwood (runderwood@fastcompany.com) works on the Fast Company Web team.