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Ten keys to keeping yourself off the layoff list

In talking with employers about what they most value in employees right now, it became clear that the key to surviving isn't so much about the skills you have.
Image: Woman sitting at a desk
Show up early, stay late. Everyone notices people who leave on the dot of 5 (or before) or take very long lunches or excessive coffee/smoking breaks. Rob Melnychuk / Rob Melnychuk
/ Source: Business Week

What's triggering fears and sleepless nights for many of us about the unemployment abyss is not the job-loss stats themselves, but the depth of the cuts — and the qualifications of some of the people getting jettisoned. The questions we keep hearing are: Why do highly skilled, seemingly essential people get cut while others don't? Are there patterns? How can I make myself indispensable?

In talking with employers about what they most value in employees right now, it became clear that the key to surviving isn't so much about the skills you have, the awards you've won, or the tasks you perform day in and day out. It's as much about qualities, habits, and capacities.

This is no time to keep plugging along head down, half expecting every meeting invitation you open to be your exit interview. You must take action to embody the qualities of those employees who always get promoted and always avoid the next round of layoffs.

And don't think that just because your company isn't downsizing or has said it has no plans to that you're safe. Things can and do change fast in this environment, so take preventive measures. Plus, the kinds of qualities we're talking about will serve you well when things turn around.

1. Remember: It's not about you right now
Force yourself to focus with laser accuracy on your company's success, not your own. In challenging times, the last thing your employer wants is to cater to you and your fears. They want you to be a selfless, highly collaborative team player who meets and exceeds your commitments. Your presence can't be an energy drain or create work.

2. Become a black belt at change
The most important skill to develop right now is finesse at navigating change. That means flexibility and open-mindedness. Accept whatever management throws your way. If they change direction (again), shuffle the product mix, add new goals, or refine strategy on the fly, say yes to all of it. Resisting change only makes life more difficult for management and for everyone.

This also applies to those things you took for granted. Accept that your expense budget and staff have been cut. Accept that you now have more work on your plate with the same (or fewer) resources than you had a year ago.

3. Everything is your job
Demonstrate your commitment to the overall success of your team and your company by taking on tasks that fall outside your job responsibilities. Pitch in on packing up the trade-show booth. Manage your own schedule/address book/travel plans. Offer to take notes and follow up after every meeting.

Nothing is beneath you. The little things you do above and beyond your job description will serve you well when it's performance appraisal and/or downsizing time. Forget your fancy title, your impressive résumé — and your ego.

4. Walk away from the water cooler
When straits are dire and headlines scary, the last thing your company needs is negative, gossipy employees who polarize colleagues into an us-vs.-them dynamic. Employers value passionate overachievers whose uplifting attitude contributes to a more energizing team culture. Whatever it takes, keep the negative mindset out of the office. This is your mantra: No complaining, no blaming! Dwell on what can be rather than what can't.

5. "Unwritten Rules" are now engraved in stone
Show up early, stay late. Everyone notices people who leave on the dot of 5 (or before) or take very long lunches or excessive coffee/smoking breaks. Don't get a reputation for being one of those people who takes forever to respond to an e-mail, voicemail, or a simple question. Vigilantly follow up on all assigned action items. Management is increasingly scrutinizing your every move.

6. Step up — and wear very big shoes
Don't wait for someone else to solve your problems. Your manager needs to hear how the organization can trim costs, manage the supply chain better, find a new client, improve processes, motivate the workforce, and deliver the next big thing. Observe what your competitors are trying and testing, read everything relentlessly, and ask people how you can improve what you do.

Your goal here is to make sure there'd be a gaping hole if you were no longer around. Make the choice every day to do work that really matters to the success of the team and the company. Put yourself in a position that is crucial to the success of a new initiative, or dig in to solve a vexing, long-neglected problem. Maintain a bias for action in every meeting.

7. Transparency is your new trump card
You must be totally transparent as to what you're working on and how it fits with management objectives. There can be no hiding, and no withholding information. If you don't have enough on your plate, say it. Ask to take on more—or better yet, suggest projects you can spearhead that have killer ROI.

The more honest your superiors believe you are, the more likely they are to trust you and keep you close. Being authentic builds relationships, even more than just hard work. Stop hoping no one finds out who you are or what you really do all day. Let people in … or they'll be showing you the door. Employers are likely to keep you around if they see you as a vital associate.

8. Make friends in new places
Human resources and finance are two departments that can have a significant impact on your career whether you realize it or not. They know a lot about you that can influence how you're perceived. Respect those folks, socialize with them, ask for their advice, and make sure you carefully do a little self-promotion. When cuts need to be made, you won't be an unknown quantity to them.

9. Start Tweeting or start packing
Look at the Millennials and see how they work, how they make decisions, and what technology and tools they use. No time for "I don't do Twitter or Facebook." Acquaint yourself with social networks, mobile applications, and commerce platforms to remain relevant. Let them intimidate you and you give your boss reasons to replace you with someone younger and more in the game. Ask a family member to help, take a course, read a book … and dive in.

10. Fit club
Healthy people tend to have better outlooks and are easier to be around. They take good care of themselves, which in turn earns them the respect of others. Fit people often set high standards for themselves both at work and at play. And they just have more stamina, so they tend not to get tired when on deadline, and they don't call in sick as much. They have incredible endurance when others are reaching for that 10th Coke or itching to make that next trip to Starbucks. They are also calmer and more productive. So get your sleep, eat well, exercise, stay hydrated, and avoid excessive caffeine and alcohol. This is an investment that will pay dividends for you and your employer. And yes, your employer does notice.

Rate yourself. Which of these 10 areas are you excelling in, which are you doing O.K. in, and where do you need to change your behavior? The truth hurts, doesn't it? But take the steps to make sure that it's your career that gets rolling, rather than your head.