Earlier this week, I received this letter from a reader of this column that I am absolutely not making up:
I live in the constant fear that I may be fired any day. The uncertainty is terrible. How can an employee tell if his job is on the line? My email stopped working last night and my office cellphone suddenly has no signal. Should I be afraid?
Also please tell your editors that they should give you a raise and even a promotion when you are up for appraisal later this month. It may be difficult to honestly ask for these things in the current climate. So I thought I’ll do it for you. Also this letter is 100% authentic and NOT written by the columnist himself.
As the writer of the letter has pointed out, the economic downturn can wreak havoc with one’s wits. Especially when, in a few weeks’ time, many of us will go through the nerve-jangling process of performance appraisals.
Most of us will be lucky to get away with our current salaries, some will get token raises and fewer still will get promoted. (Unless of course you are lucky enough to work for a bailed out international insurer that I will only refer to as “Bonuses R Us”.)
But the sad truth is that some of us are, alas, going to lose our jobs. So while our performance appraisals may start out superbly—“You are a real asset to this company. We’ve been lucky to have an employee like you.”—by the end we are going to be left crushed—“This is not a reflection on your abilities. I tried everything I could to keep you. But I had to choose between you and that new management trainee…who was a model in college.”
But does downsizing really have to come as a surprise? Surely there are ways and means of sensing when our name edges its way into the leadership committee’s death list?
The answer is a resounding yes.
Through astute observation, all of us can easily prepare for the worst. And then when the news is gently broken to us in the privacy of a conference room we are ready. We react in a suitably mature and restrained way. This is because we are well prepared, having already claimed every rupee in medical reimbursements, LTA expenses, petrol charges, cellphone allowance and also having taken home many boxes of office consumables such as post-it notes, writable DVDs and bags of coffee machine cappuccino pre-mix.
Let me explain how to do this with inputs from people who have experienced lay offs in their careers.
One of the most important indicators of imminent firing is when quietly and without warning your perks begin to get withdrawn. Of course, the obvious perks such as phones or car are never touched. Instead keep tabs on the more important ones, especially anything involving a lease or a contract.
A couple of years ago I met a chief executive who came to know of his outplacement weeks before the board of directors told him. The gentleman was sitting at home one evening chilling with the family when his landlord dropped in. He wanted to know why the CEO’s office had refused to renew the flat’s lease that was expiring soon.
The puzzled CEO called up his admin staff. They told him that the directive had come from the board of directors itself. After some gentle persuading with the business end of an industrial-size stapler the VP HR conceded that the board had begun looking for a replacement.
In another sad incident, an engineer in Dubai kept trying to organize a party at his home for his colleagues but “they’d always make some reason or the other to not come”. Eventually he discovered that, somewhat like Manoj Night Shyamalan, everyone around him but himself knew that his professional end was nigh. “They didn’t want to socialize with me knowing that I was days away from being fired.” The lesson: watch out for any drastic drop in office social life.
Another sure-fire indicator is unexplained improvement in work-life balance. A software developer in Bangalore suddenly found his boss telling him to lay off his deliverables and not take on any more projects: “I was very happy till I realized that they were making sure I didn’t start any new projects. A month later I was chilling at home 24x7.” Tip: Beware of gentle nudging out of projects.
Of course, this does not mean that you should get paranoid. There is no point in seeing a threat where there is none.
So any prolonged outages in email, especially on a BlackBerry, are often just technical glitches or service provider goof-ups. No need to panic. But again if nobody in IT or admin seems to care about the problem, and nobody emails you anymore anyway, then don’t hesitate. It is always wise to casually chat with your boss or HR executive over a coffee and a large stapler or letter opener.
Cubiclenama takes a fortnightly look at the pleasures and perils of corporate life. Your comments are welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org