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How to make your job layoff-resistant

Is there a type of employee that is more likely to get axed than their co-workers? According to human-resource managers, the answer is yes.

Thomas, a 60-year old project manager for a construction company, knows there’s a possibility for layoffs at his firm because of the sagging housing market. And Brandon, a customer service representative for a phone company in Oregon that’s about to be bought out by a telecommunication’s giant, fears his days may be numbered.

It’s impossible to know for sure if either man will be fired until they actually get that tap on the shoulder by their manager asking them to come to their office for a chat.

During tough economic times almost everyone wonders if they’ll end up on the chopping block, and we hope the companies we work for make sensible choices when choosing who will stay and who will go.

But alas, sense doesn’t always prevail.

“Employees think bosses fire on a last-in, first-out basis, [and] that firing is somehow based just on performance,” says Stephen Viscusi, author of the forthcoming book, "Bulletproof Your Job: How to Ride Out the Rough Times and Come Out on Top at Work." “It’s not. It is not objective. It is subjective.  Bosses keep the people they like regardless of experience or performance and fire people they don’t like — plain and simple.”

Viscusi says managers disguise their decisions as a business decision when it’s actually “a human and often personal decision. That’s why bosses' and HR’s favorite line is “don’t take it personally.”

So, is there a type of employee that is more likely to get axed than their co-workers? Is there a personality trait or job history that pegs a certain worker as dispensable? Is there an anatomy of a person most likely to get canned?

I decided to ask some of the human resource managers I know at companies around the country if they could pinpoint the employee that’s most likely to get laid off, and I got a range of responses.

One thing I can tell you, based on their feedback: If you’re a loner with no friends at work; make lots of money; and don’t think twice about coming late to the office, you may want to start sprucing up your resume.

"I have worked with some managers whose first words out of their mouths are 'let's get rid of X because we're paying too much for the return we're getting,’" says a human resources manager for a major publishing company.

But, she stresses, HR managers like herself try to coach bosses not to do that and often try to encourage them to base decisions on seniority because it’s easier to defend if a worker comes back with a lawsuit.

When it comes to personality types, says another HR executive who works for a top insurance company, the area where that’s most critical is  “for leadership positions where someone has not built relationships or credibility with a broader array of colleagues.  This can make them an easier target.”

But, he adds,  “performance and contribution tends to trump all in my view.  Relationships and alliances are important in these kind of situations, however, once again the performance has to be there as well.”

This particular HR veteran warned against putting too much emphasis on whether someone gets along with others or not. “I would not consider the layoff process to be like a "Survivor" episode where people are voted off the island based on popularity and alliances.  It's different in that these decisions tend not to be a vote or consensus and a track record of performance is a critical factor.”

As for slackers, there seems to be a consensus. “If you can't make it to work on time,” he says, “then certainly all bets are off.  This would translate to lower performance.”

Another thing to keep in mind is whether or not you toot your own horn, says Cheryl Asher, Assistant Professor of Economics and Statistics at the Villanova School of Business.

If you’re kicking butt but no one knows about it you may end up on the layoff list; and this is particularly a problem for women, who aren’t great on singing their praises at work, Asher notes. (See a past column I wrote on the topic. )

Working in a particular division, or segment, of a company can also make your position more precarious in a down-turning economy.

Jim Lanzalotto, vice president of staffing company Yoh, says workers more likely to get fired are those who “aren’t close to the customer. If you’re working on non-core, or infrastructure projects, or 'nice to have' kind of projects, it’s a tough environment to stay successful now.”

If you’re on the team that’s working on a major company product or service, he says, then you probably have job security, as opposed to support or back office staff.

But, he admits, “A lot of times it comes down to the relationships you have in an organization and the perceived value you bring to the table. It’s not always people who are suck ups, but people who’ve built relationships.”

Their perceived value may be greater than actual value is, he adds but enough people like them and decide they can stay.

So, is it time to take your colleagues out for drinks after work or start learning jokes so you become the worker everyone loves?

Not a bad idea. No one’s going to paint a layoff-target on a worker who everyone loves.

Rich Gee, a career coach, suggests you “stop having lunch by yourself, at your desk.”

“Have strategic lunches once a week — get out of the building, meet a colleague, a friend, or a new acquaintance — get the skinny on what is happening outside of your circle,” he says. “Talk to everyone you meet. Not just exchange pleasantries. Ask them questions, look interested and then ask more questions.”

Here are some more tips from Viscusi’s upcoming book on how to keep your gig:

  • Perfect the art of looking busy — being active makes a great impression.  The boss should never wonder whether you have enough to do… because you should always have things to do.
  • Come in early, stay late.  (Even when there is nothing to do.)  This aggressive stance as a hard-working employee is always remembered when it comes time to decide who will be on the chopping block.
  • Look good — dress for success.  Look the part — neat hair, clothes, and invest in whitening strips for your teeth.  (Yes, whitening strips.)  Be sure to dress appropriately for your work environment.  Be sure to look professional and not stick out.  Stay away from exaggerated colors and styles.
  • Take initiative — volunteer for the hard assignments that no one else wants.  (As long as you are sure that you can accomplish these tasks well.)  Taking on a project that you have no chance of completing successfully can be as damaging as not taking initiative at all.
  • Share credit — this shows a lot about what kind of person you are, and in difficult times, a positive personal trait like that may help you keep your job.

But if you do get that pink slip, remember, don’t take it personally and move on!