Although 2008 and the Great Recession are far behind us, the media industry is still dealing with its fair share of layoffs. Just a few months ago The Detroit News, Gannett, USA Today, and Bloomberg announced layoffs. More recently the Associated Press let 25 of it’s employees go, Medium cut its staff by a third and The Seattle Times laid off two dozen employees.
Sometimes the axe can drop quickly, but like hurricanes, layoffs don’t typically come out of nowhere. The warning signs can slowly swirl around the office for weeks, causing panic and a somber work environment, before the boom is finally lowered.
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I’ve been laid off three times during my editorial career, and although the companies were different, the warning signs were all very similar. Here are a few of the top indicators that I (as well as many of my friends who’ve been let go over the years) observed:
Freelancers Aren’t Getting Paid
This symptom occurred at two publication companies (one print; one digital) where I once worked. They were both start-ups, and the angry messages from freelancer writers and web designers who had not been paid for their services began to hit my inbox and voice mail shortly just a few weeks to a few months after my start date.
I took the messages to my managers who then paid out only a handful of invoices, and I was instructed to tell the rest of the freelancers that their payments were “coming soon.” In both cases the companies became defunct within a few months and several dozen freelancers were never paid.
Susan Peppercorn, career coach with Positive Workplace Partners, believes that this is a move that companies make in order to conserve cash. But freelancers are specifically targeted because contract workers are usually not as critical to the overall operation as full-time employees, who may be responsible for multiple programs and projects.
Hand Over Your Laptop…and Passwords and Notes
If there’s nothing wrong with your company-issued laptop you might want to think long and hard about why your boss is suddenly asking you to hand it over and remove any personal photos you may have on it—oh, and don’t forget to hand over your passwords, too.
“Unless equipment or assets are being replaced, refurbished or recalled due to misuse, there is no reason to confiscate [these items] unless [your bosses] are planning to get rid of [you],” says Janine Truitt, owner of Talent Think Innovations, a business strategy consulting firm.
Vicki Salemi, career expert for Monster.com, notes that being asked to return company property should raise a red flag because it’s outside the scope of your everyday responsibilities. Plus, it indicates that the company is taking stock of what they own.
But laptops aren’t the only thing that your boss can ask you to return before sending you straight out the door. A few weeks after returning from an overseas business trip, my manager asked me to turn over all of the business cards from the contacts that I had made during my trip. She also wanted all of the notes that I had taken during a number of seminars, and she wanted everything NOW!
I was laid off about a week later and the company officially folded shortly thereafter.
You’re Not Needed in This Meeting
Overtly being omitted from meetings, internal communications and events is usually a sign that your job is in jeopardy, says Truitt. And it’s the abruptness factor that makes it such a telltale sign.
She notes that if your bosses were planning on keeping you on board they would address any problems that they were having with you rather than immediately shutting you out altogether.
Sometimes this hint of things to come can happen uncomfortably close to the dismissal date—so close that you may feel blindsided. “I was told I didn’t need to attend a business development meeting (which was out of the norm) and I got laid off the next day,” says a former marketing manager of a now defunct law firm. “The next thing I knew I was packing up my office.”
Mike Rivers, a former tech employee, lost his job after a product launch went south. Although the company was expecting to move millions of units, it received fewer than 50 orders after the product was offered on the Home Shopping Network. “Less than a month later, most of us were laid off…the company folded a few months later,” said Rivers.
And while no one can foresee how much product your company will sell or if advertising sales revenues will be down next quarter, what you can do is keep your eyes and ears open for any information about your employer’s business status.
“If it’s a public company, watch the news around earnings results for hints,” says Fred Goff, CEO of Jobcase. He also recommends setting up a Google alert for any information that pops up online about your company. This will help keep you from being blindsided internally by something that is common knowledge externally, he says. If things are looking bad it might be a sign that a round of layoffs is in your future.
If you’re lucky enough to see the warning signs far enough down the road, you might have just enough time to hit the job boards and make a fast exit before you’re asked to clear out your cubicle. And this is an excellent place to start.