It starts out as a totally normal day, until there’s an unexpected “important meeting in the conference room.” Some corporate pencil-pusher you barely know starts saying things like, “workforce reductions,” “industry-wide contraction,” and “strategic cutbacks.” Through all of the business buzzwords and irritating euphemisms, it dawns on you … you’re being laid off.
Anyone who’s ever been on the wrong end of a pink slip will affirm that on that first morning post-layoff, it’s tempting to just lay in bed wondering, “Should I have seen this coming?”
Although layoffs always feel shocking and unexpected, they really shouldn’t. In fact, management often sends particular signs—intentional or inadvertent—signifying that “workforce reductions” may be on the horizon. If any of these things happen at your company, better start brushing up your résumé.
1. The Company Isn’t Doing Well
If you’re lucky, the company will come right out and say that it’s in dire straits. They might even be upfront and ask employees to take a pay cut or to pitch in with cutting expenses. But the news that a company is struggling doesn’t usually come in the form of a “Memo to Employees: Start Looking Around.” In large corporations, it comes in the form of a slipping stock price or a pessimistic quarterly report. Even if you’re entry-level, read news coverage about your company and your industry, because even if management puts on a brave face for the employees, reporters may be telling a different story.
2. The Industry Isn’t Doing Well
At any given time, certain industries are bound to be more precarious than others. In the mid-to-late 00s, hundreds of print magazines folded to make way for the Internet. After the housing bubble burst, home builders went out of business. American auto manufacturers have been shedding jobs for decades. If you work in an industry that’s experiencing difficulties, it’s best to stay on guard—even if management assures you that “The downturn hasn’t hit us.” Chances are, the downturn just hasn’t hit yet.
3. The Company Brings in Consultants
Whether they’re called “management consultants” or “efficiency experts,” they specialize in helping struggling businesses operate more efficiently and profitably. They help companies see where they could cut costs, cut corners, and cut redundancy. (Think of the Bobs from Office Space.) When they start asking you exactly what you do and how you spend your day, be worried.
4. The Company Restructures
Suddenly, your entire department falls under the jurisdiction of some new manager you’ve never met. This sign is especially troubling if the company has restructured several times without anything really changing, because it means that those in charge are simply grasping at straws.
5. The Company Starts Outsourcing
Whether they send the jobs to India or just a more business-friendly city, outsourcing is never a good sign. Once the company realizes how much money it can save by outsourcing one department, more is sure to follow. Employees who work in high-cost locations are often first, along with older employees, who often earn higher salaries.
6. The Company Downsizes Offices
Whether you and your co-workers had extravagantly luxurious offices before and moved to something more sensible or you just had tons of extra space and moved to something sized for the team you have, the message is clear—the company doesn’t think that the rent they’re paying is worth it, and they don’t see your team growing anytime soon.
7. The Company Gets Acquired
If a larger company buys your struggling start-up or your small mom-and-pop operation, it already has its own set of employees for functions like human resources, admin help, purchasing, technology, and management. Anyone doing those tasks at your location will probably be too redundant to keep, not to mention that new owners will always want to trim expenses to offset their purchase. And remember that when a company acquires smaller operations, it’s not always to keep running them—sometimes it’s to shut them down and eliminate competition.
8. The Company Starts Slashing Expenses
Although free milk and creamer in the office fridge are important to employees, to upper management they’re just a line item in the budget. Companies in trouble often start looking for opportunities to reduce costs wherever they can. They start buying cheaper office supplies, or stop providing them altogether. They stop buying coffee for the break room. They refuse to pay overtime. They institute hiring freezes and decline to replace employees who voluntarily quit. They slash travel and entertainment budgets.
9. Suddenly, Nothing Gets Done
The most ominous sign of all is a general sense that higher-ups are not willing to commit to or approve much of anything. They may even cancel projects you’ve already committed to, such as hires, expansion plans, bonuses, or even just buying a new microwave for the kitchen. If your company’s management greets every approval request by saying, “We’ll get back to you,” or “That’s pending,” it reveals that they’re not sure whether you’ll be around in a few months.