It was a straight commission job. I didn’t mind too much because, well, to be brutally honest, I was the top sales guy. The owners of the company decided to bring in a new sales manager. I had been there years he had been there months. Then Bam! As a friend of mine says when he talks about getting fired, I got a bullet in the head. I was gone. I was still early in my career and very immature at the time so I don’t know if I had left a sour taste in the owner’s mouth and he hired the new manager as a hatchet man or if they were giving the new sales manager the latitude to create the department in his own image. I think it was the latter because within six months of me departing the new sales manager was walked out the door for things not working out as intended. Unfortunately the damage was done at least as far as I was concerned.
I have a friend who was was a manager at an auditing firm who specialized in auditing complex contracts. My friend was really good at their job. There was money to be had and the company was doing well. My friend got along very well with the people they were auditing, I.e. in addition to doing a good technical job they provided great customer service. Then one day, BAM, they walked my friend out the door. Management had decided that they weren’t a good fit for the corporate culture. Sometimes these types of firings make perfect sense. If you’re a large publicly traded organization there is usually an annual culling as part of the process to trim additional financial weight from the books. These can be especially grievous times when a new senior management team takes over as they want to start with a big initial impact. This happened recently with Microsoft with the ascension of Satya Nadella to be the third CEO of that company. It was reported in the news about the layoffs that there was no rhyme or reason to the quality of programmer who was let go. Good people and bad people got the axe equally. BAM BAM BAM!
Most recently I have a friend who was hired on to a new company. They didn’t have experience let alone expertise in the job. The hiring manager promised that there would be a long on-ramp and lots of training and supportive resources. The company was making significant investments in the new project and they wanted to bring on people who they felt would be there for the long haul. Guess what happened? BAM! It was 30 days later she was walked out the door as they changed their mind and decided that they wanted experience on board rather than develop the talent internally.
A job loss is always understandable when there are obvious reasons. For example, their could be a substantial business climate change. It could be location, profitability, or any number of complex issues that arise in our hyper reactive corporate reality. Another example of an obvious job loss may not be the organization at all. For example, an employee’s productivity can change for reasons like drugs, family issues, etc.. but this article is not about the obvious separation. The commonality in all of these scenarios is that the individual who was let go, lost their job, lost their income and lost their benefits like health insurance, did nothing wrong. They were great employees who were doing what they were told and sometimes, as in my case, were very successful at it. In none of these instances was it because the company was bleeding money and about to go out of business. The personnel changes were about a management change of direction.
This involuntary instability unfortunately is universal across the professional workforce in the modern economy. There was a time when longevity was highly valued and there were systems in place like the pension plan and tenure which were designed to keep people at the organization during good and bad times. The bosses wanted to keep their own jobs as much as wanting to keep their people around. The process of the business generally was to target stability and long term profitability, so the jobs at all levels were stable and long term by necessity. Change or aberration slowed the process down so it was avoided.
It’s a different world today. All management is driven by productivity. There is typically unrealistic expectations on every department, in every industry. Shareholders demand a rainmaker in profit or productivity. The problem is that if they are going to saddle the person in charge with unrealistic expectations you can’t tell them to do it without making changes. Therefore the bosses are all expected to make changes and some of those changes are always in personnel. This, simply, is why there will always be a bullet in our modern organizations.
What are your options?
Option 1: Credential + credential + credential. I think the first option is to become a hyper specialized and extensive credential holder. I know one nationwide organization with revenues in the hundreds of millions and more than a thousand employees that has a horrible engineer. This engineer works with a large variety of different projects and is nearly guaranteed to be late on every one of them. To make matters worse the engineer doesn’t ‘play nice’ with others and in fact causes tremendous stress with teammates resulting from the engineer’s lack of timeliness in submitting their part of the projects. Yet, the engineer gets to keep their job. Why is that? Shockingly this engineer holds several industry credentials that no one else in the company has. Obviously being the core credential holder of a specialized degree or industry certification isn’t a guarantee of bullet avoidance but it’s very helpful, especially in a world where the credential is needed to bid on some types of business.
Another option peripherally related to credential holding is to maintain a super stable backup career option. Usually these come with credentials but not always. Right now the biggies are registered nurse, special ed teacher, industrial maintenance or welding. All of these jobs are guaranteed paychecks above the median income for the country. There are other trades that are in demand such as electrician and plumber. A manager of a facility may get the bullet when corporate decides that they want one manager to cover three or four facilities, but if they can always fall back on being an electrician then they don’t have to worry about the potential bullet. I know a teacher who went into social work with a non-profit, when the non-profit got some pressure they let the teacher go. The teacher could be employed the next day if they wanted.
Another option is maintaining a massive financial buffer. This means keeping two years income cash in bank and playing financial defense to the tune of no mortgage, no debt payments, etc.. It’s not as crazy as it sounds. You may have to drive a beater and live in a used and leaking single wide trailer for a decade when everyone else you know drives cars less than three years old and lives in beautiful suburban homes where the payment is 25% to 33% of their income but it can be done. It’ll take 10-20 years, but at some point, you’ll be living in a relatively nice house with no payments and 2x your annual income in cash. At this point does it really matter if you get the bullet with your professional job?
What doesn’t work?
Doing a good job. It is sad to say but working hard, working late and being creative is no guarantee of keeping your job. It helps in most cases but the job loss bullet can be completely unexpected and can hit you anytime.
Self Employment. The problem with this is that when you are in business for yourself, you can lose customers, important vendors or entire industries can up and leave. The very first business I seriously considered buying was built on the premise of selling CD based software. This was when CD’s first came out in the age of floppy disks. I am pretty sure that business doesn’t exist anymore as software isn’t sold on CD’s, heck most software isn’t sold at all, it’s all a service these days. I also know of a business with several partners. A few of them got together and decided one of the partners wasn’t pulling their weight. Guess what happened to that partner?
The rule of thumb here is never get complacent. Unless your dad is your boss or runs the company (and I’ve seen one instance where even this didn’t work and a friend got laid off) you are always in a position where you can be let go no matter how good you are or how long you have been there. You always need to have a plan. Your plan can be a portfolio of in-demand credentials, a massive financial buffer or it can be living a lifestyle that can be supported on 20 hours of pay from Wal-Mart but you must have one. There are too many bullets flying around these days. Sooner or later one of them will hit you. The sooner you have that plan in place you’ll have a measure of safety. That plan is a bit like getting shot while wearing a bulletproof vest. It’ll still hurt, but won’t cause nearly as much damage as if you didn’t have the protection.
Dedicated to a friend who died of a heart attack two days after being let go unexpectedly from a job she was great at, where she was well liked, and where there was no true financial need to eliminate her position.
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