Avoid Being RIF’ed – Five Effective Strategies

When the Music Stops at the Office, Will You Have a “Musical Chair?”

ACTUAL CASE HISTORY: Following the merger of her New York-based regional bank with another bank based in the Midwest, Rhonda felt herself on “very thin ice.” She’d been the Director of Branch Placement for eight years, with a staff of sixteen reporting to her, and a challenging position she loved. Prior to this job, she worked as an accountant for a mid-sized real estate firm. From there, she’d been recruited into her current position, which combined her abilities in data assembly and analysis with her literal enjoyment of the field of real estate, from branch location identification, to lease negotiation, to strategic acquisition and renovation. She’d also made a name for herself: everyone at the bank considered Rhonda a rising star. Until, that is, the merger.

After the merger, Rhonda seemed to have two pressing problems: first, she made over $150,000, an apparent “sin” at the dominant merger partner. There were rumors that the cost-consciousness of the new Midwestern managers held anyone making that much money in deep disfavor. Second, her roots and relations were entirely within the New York-based bank. In every instance of overlap of personnel, the Midwesterners always seemed to win the inevitable turf battle. Though Rhonda had no exact counterpart at the Midwestern bank, as the merger/reorganization evolved, she seemed increasingly left out of the loop on new matters, new meetings, and new decisions. And, gradually, members of her team were being reassigned to others. Rhonda seemed to be sliding down a slippery slope to position elimination, probably to take place in the next Reduction in Force (commonly called a “RIF”).

 Increasingly concerned, Rhonda sought guidance and reassurance from her boss. Not surprisingly, she found him to be in a near-panic over his own predicament. She then sought information from Human Resources, who told her she had nothing to worry about. Rhonda tried valiantly to keep her chin up, and perform as usual, but it sure wasn’t easy. She couldn’t think of anything she could do to help herself in the situation. She couldn’t figure out where to begin.

Though it took five months, Rhonda was eventually called into HR, and given the “unfortunate news” of her “position elimination.” With the standard severance package of two weeks salary per year of service, she was let go. After eight months of search, she found a new position with a regional franchisor of sandwich shops. Her salary, benefits and position were all at a much lower level; there wasn’t even a savings or 401k plan. Her new job was also really two jobs that had been combined, and required her to travel at least half time. Over time many of her former colleagues left the bank, too, but she did notice that a good number of her former colleagues somehow managed to stay on. In a consultation with us regarding her unhappiness in her new job, she raised the question, “Was there anything I could have done to stay in my old job?”

LESSON TO LEARN: These days, no one’s job is secure. No one’s, and everybody knows it. Whether as part of a merger, or in a cost cutting campaign, or following a change in the “palace guard” after a new CEO arrives, the reduction in force, or “RIF” has become a common experience. Some companies seem to go through a RIF every year, for one reason or another. It’s almost becoming the “new normal.” Though you should accept the inevitability of periodic RIFs at work, there’s no reason to accept that you will inevitably suffer as a result. There are effective strategies that will – at the very least – increase your odds of surviving a “RIF.” Few things in life are guaranteed. It’s near certain, though, that you can help yourself survive a RIF, if you try.

The central tenet of SkloverWorkingWisdom™ is this: no longer can you simply “do” your job, and based on your good efforts alone, expect to keep it. While it used to be that doing a good job was sufficient to make sure you kept your job, those days are gone. Instead, today you must “do your job . . . and navigate yourself to job security. . . both at the same time.” You cannot expect to maintain a stable income and career stability without some negotiation and navigation. And that applies 100% to Reductions in Force, or “RIFs.”

WHAT YOU CAN DO: When confronted by circumstances that suggest that your employer may be ripe for a RIF, consider these Five Strategies to Avoid Being RIF’ed. While nothing you do can guarantee 100% job security, each of these strategies will increase the chances, by matters of degree, of your enjoying far more job stability than most of your colleagues:

1. Watch Carefully for Changes in the Identity of Your “PPOPPs”: SkloverWorkingWisdom™ reminds us that we don’t work for one, monolithic employer anymore, because today’s large companies are no longer one, single entity that breathes, thinks, and acts as a single being. Instead, each company may be better understood to be like a galaxy, composed of many solar systems, each with planets and moons circling in orbit. Somehow, they work together, although sometimes they collide. You work for one of those “solar systems” or orbiting planets, what we call “Persons or Pockets of Power or Profit,” or “PPOPPs” for short.

You work for one PPOPP, or perhaps two or three. At all times, and especially in times of corporate change, watch closely for changes in your own PPOPP’ behavior and circumstances. Try to discern whose personal and political “stock” seems to be rising, or falling, who’s in favor, and who seems to be out of favor. This will give you a good idea of who will be making the important decisions about your future, including retention, promotion, bonus, reassignment or layoff.

By keeping close watch on changes in your PPOPPs behavior and circumstances, you can better focus your efforts on keeping employed. You will be better able to adjust your efforts, your priorities, your self-promotion, and the identify of those to whom you seek to project your own perception of value. You’ll be better able to choose who you should “navigate” to and “negotiate” with. Simply, you’ll be better able to affect the decision that will be made regarding your being RIFed, or kept in your job, perhaps even promoted following the RIF.

2. Gravitate Toward Revenue: Every corporate survivor will tell you the same thing: “Proximity to revenue enhances security.” Said a bit differently: “If you’re identified as being nothing but overhead, you’re more likely to end up underwater.” Those identified as bringing in important new business, keeping big customers happy, closing important deals, and being important to the continuation of the business’s reputation, have the closest thing to real job security there is.

For those in more administrative areas, “revenue” generation is frequently achieved through productivity measures and cost reduction efforts. One client, a Human Resources Director, is widely known – and highly in demand – due to her unusual success in continually achieving attractive productivity gains without commensurate problems in morale.

Purely administrative duties, no matter how well done, do not naturally lead toward job security. In fact, success at administrative endeavors can be self-defeating, because senior management’s perception of a smoothly running operations may suggest to some that “now we need fewer administrators.” Business is all about increased revenue, greater market share and minimization of cost. Those who are not viewed as being necessary for these activities need to change that perception to the maximum degree possible.

3. Focus Intently on Customers and Their Needs: Every business sells goods or services to others. The customers or clients of your business are those who keep your business in business.

It’s a fundamental principle of negotiation that “in order to get what you want, you must appear able to provide what the other side wants.” In every business, there are customers – both external and internal. Keeping customers happy – and coming back for more – is a primary task.

In times of difficulty, and that includes “pre-RIF” times, plans made regarding redeployment of workforce must take into account the needs of customers, and customers’ perceptions. If you are viewed by your superiors as close to important customers, crucial to maintaining the continued business of customers, and/or important to retain for the continued needs or wants of customers, you are much more likely to be retained, not RIF’ed.

One of the best strategies to survive a RIF is to increase the degree of (a) your communications with customers, (b) your contact with customers, (c) your participation in the satisfaction of customer needs, and (d) your initiatives to increase customer orders. This serves to increase your perception of value to both your customers and your superiors, who are reluctant to alienate customers at any time, and especially at a time of RIF.

4. Increase Your Usual Self-Promotion Efforts: If a RIF seems inevitable or in progress, it’s important to turn up the usual volume of your self-promotional efforts.

If you’re the only person with close relations with the important clients, it important that your PPOPPs – who are making “retain-or-let go” decisions – know it. Likewise, if you’re the only person with experience with the next generation of software scheduled to be installed next year, or the only executive with close contacts at the regulatory agency who is investigating senior management, make sure senior management knows it.

With the utmost of care and discretion, you might even consider having a critical customer or a friendly regulator pass that message on for you.

In times of workforce reduction, amidst the possibility that you may be soon unemployed, you should not be too concerned about appearing “aggressive” in these measures. At difficult times such as these, “friends of important people” are treated better than anyone else. And we all know “important people.”

5. Get Yourself Ahead of the Next Wave: Over time, company strategies adjust to changing business realities. Sometimes business strategies even reverse direction. Sometimes we see a trend to decentralize authority and/or operations, and sometimes we see a company simply reverse course and then recentralize again, only to later again decentralize. Lately, outsourcing has become quite popular, and is almost surely to be followed by a reverse trend to “in-sourcing” once again.

What’s the next “wave” in your department, division or company? That’s probably not an easy question to answer. You can discern certain patterns developing in the direction being taken, or to be taken, in (a) customer focus, (b) operational philosophy, and (c) strategic goals. If your company is losing money every quarter on the sale of casual clothing, but making money on the sale of athletic footwear, chances are that expansion of casual clothing won’t be in your company’s immediate future.

The “next wave” can often be found by a careful review of what your competitors are doing. Look for their innovations in new products, modes of delivery, imaginative markets, available efficiencies, and consider being the advocate of those “next waves” in your own department, division or company.

Try to position yourself, your voice and your visibility ahead of the wave, in the forefront of the trend, and at least slightly ahead of the curve. If you are identified as one of those few people who are knowledgeable, comfortable and adept at the “next big thing,” you’ll be that much more.

These Five Effective Strategies to Avoid Being RIFed℀ have been used by our clients time and again to navigate to a safe harbor in the midst of a coming storm. Should your position be eliminated after you’ve attempted using these strategies, their use should nonetheless provide you with additional leverage with which to negotiate the three critical negotiation areas of severance: its timing; its terms; and its tone.

Always be proactive. Always be creative. And always do what you can do. You owe it to yourself and your family to decrease your odds of being RIFed. And these strategies can help you do just that.

*A note about our Actual Case Histories: In order to preserve client confidences, and protect client identities, we alter certain facts, including the name, age, gender, position, date, geographical location, and industry of our clients. The essential facts, the point illustrated and the lesson to be learned, remain actual.

Please Note: This Newsletter is not legal advice, but only an effort to provide generalized information about important topics related to employment and the law. Legal advice can only be rendered after formal retention of counsel, and must take into account the facts and circumstances of a particular case. Those in need of legal advice, counsel or representation should retain competent legal counsel licensed to practice law in their locale.

© 2011, Alan L. Sklover All Rights Reserved. Commercial Use Prohibited. Attorney Advertisement.