Predicting Your Pink Slip

Any time a firm needs to save money, high-salaried executives are targets

Sander A. Flaum
Sander A. Flaum

It's not always easy to tell.  Of course, if you're the manager of a sports team with a 0-11 record, you might want to  be checking out Help Wanted ads. Or if you're a TV anchor whose ratings are lower than Weather Channel re-runs, you might consider looking for a box to hold your Emmy awards as you're escorted out the door.

For many people, the axe, pink slip­—name your euphemism—comes as a surprise.  Joann Lublin recently wrote a great article in the Wall Street Journal on the subject: “Six Subtle Signs You're About to Lose Your Job.”  Some were blunt—you discover headhunters are recruiting for a job that sounds suspiciously like yours. Others are less obvious—you're assigned an executive coach (it might sound flattering, but it's not.)  

I highly recommend Joann's article. As a long-time member of the pharma world, I'd like to supplement her list with four more danger signs of my own.

Your company is undergoing a merger or acquisition. This is great news for stockholders; but grim for jobholders. When two companies hook up, there's usually one main objective—saving money by eliminating jobs. As anyone who works at Valeant, Allergan, Merck or Microsoft can tell you, thousands of jobs can vanish overnight. Even if your boss takes you aside and says “Don't worry, your job is safe,” you need to be concerned.

I know of situations where everyone was promised their job was secure, just to avoid a wave of premature departures. When the layoffs were announced, the unlucky ones were told, “Things changed, what can I say?”

Business is slow.  Any time a firm needs to save money, high-salaried executives are targets for belt-tightening. In my consulting practice, I see this all the time. Unless you're a proven rainmaker, your position could be eliminated. What many people don't realize is that seniority is not a defense here—in fact, too much history can make you even more vulnerable as senior management tries to re-energize the organization.

Your mentor or guru retires or takes another job. Unless you're the one in line to replace her or him, this may spell trouble. Some workers panic and approach the successor, seeking a commitment that they'll have a job in any new regime. This is a terrible idea. Besides showing disrespect for your long-time supporter and a shriveling of your own confidence, it ignores the fact that the new person quite possibly already has a team. Your first step needs to be to ensure that your relationship with your mentor lasts beyond his or her departure. No one will think the less of you for your loyalty, just as no one will respect you for setting an Olympic speed record in switching alliances.

Somehow, you've become a lightning rod for criticism. Maybe you're attracting heat from higher up, or maybe a major client has drawn a bead on you. Or maybe you've become a media item. When your boss says, “Relax, I've got your back,” it's time to be nervous. Ask Cathie Black how long Mayor Bloomberg stood behind her after he appointed her School Chancellor. Ask the founders of Men's Wearhouse and American Apparel about their supportive boards of directors. Unless you own the company, you're expendable.

But even if the worst happens, you can bounce back. Most of my colleagues have. However, that's a subject for another column.  


Sander A. Flaum, MBA, is principal, Flaum Navigators, and executive-in-residence and chairman, Fordham Leadership Forum, Fordham University Graduate School of Business Administration

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