Laid-Off Life

Five Signs Layoffs Are Imminent

Follow the Money and Pay Attention to Euphemisms

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NEW YORK ( -- Sadly, the layoff memo has become somewhat required reading of late, as budget shearing descends over large agencies' corporate headquarters and boutique shops alike.

The question for some of those who are still in work, however, is how do you know if you are next? Before you start walking around in a perpetual state of paranoia, gradually emptying your desk, clearing hard drives and generally avoiding eye contact, remember that layoffs aren't necessarily an entirely nebulous entity. Ad Age checked in with some career gurus and employment strategists for five of the most common cues of an imminent round of cuts.

1. You're attached to a piece of business that is not generating revenue.
"When budgets are slashed, priority is given to employees who are inextricably attached to profit-producing accounts," Sally Hogshead, a creative director and author of Radical Careering, wrote in an e-mail to Ad Age. "HR takes a less-auspicious eye toward those working on long-term investments or without immediate revenue, such as pro bono accounts or unprofitable 'marquee' accounts. Be a bottom-line necessity."

Added Brad Karsh, a former executive at Leo Burnett and current president of the career-counseling company JobBound: "If you were working on an account that just got dropped, that's something I might be a little concerned about." He noted, "Now is certainly not a good time to be unassigned."

2. You don't have tight relationships with clients or with those who control the purse strings.
"I'm not a huge fan of spending time on the golf course with clients as a long-term career strategy," said Ms. Hogshead. "However, the reality is that client relationships often determine who goes and who stays. The goal is to keep a client happy, and a sense of stability (however false) is part of that."

Similarly, another thing to watch is if your brands are being de-funded. "Look, you have to, have to, have to keep an eye on your brands and what your client is doing with them, or what his boss is doing with them," said Martin Bihl, creative director for 7419. "If they decide that the pieces of business you work on aren't worth supporting, or are going to be discontinued because of the economy, look out. Because while your agency may love you, the odds that they will love you enough to keep you around while they look for something that will actually pay for your salary is highly unlikely. I mean, your own mother probably doesn't love you that much."

3. There's an uncharacteristically high number of memos going out. And they're dripping with euphemism.
According to Mr. Karsh, a deluge of information can be as terrifying as a drought of it. "Phrases like 'reorganization,' 'leaner and meaner,' 'driving the processes better.' That would be a sign."

Of course, "guys with white folders plucking people from the aisles like the Grim Reaper" -- an experience he had at Burnett -- might be bad news too.

4. You've stopped receiving new assignments or stopped getting "buy-in" on your current assignments.
Or as Mr. Karsh puts it, "you're not being given the meaty projects ... you're getting transactional work." Be forewarned if "things seem to have slowed," echoed Ms. Hogshead. "There is little momentum happening around you. The air seems still."

Alternatively, said Mr. Bihl, "You find yourself being asked to do stuff that you don't normally do." Of course that cuts two ways. "You can tell yourself at the time that this is a great opportunity," he said. "That they're relying on you for your ability to do what others can't, and that this kind of forward-thinking, out-of-the-box-ness is just what the new, smarter, leaner company is going to need. And you may be right. On the other hand, they may just not know what to do with you and haven't gotten around to telling you that they don't need you any more."

5. Your supervisors have become universally unreachable.
"I'd like to say that we all have great bosses, but the fact is that the exact opposite is usually true, and bad bosses invariably prefer to avoid difficult situations as long as possible," said Mr. Bihl. His example: You've finally drummed up enough courage to actually ask your boss to discuss if your job is in jeopardy, and "suddenly he's too busy for you -- but not necessarily for the other things he normally does."

His caveat: "It's possible your boss just up to his ass in work, what with the downsizing and layoffs and all. Or he could be in meetings trying to save your ass ... though probably not."

And therein lies the catch. While there are five signs to look out for, none of them is a hard and fast rule. So perhaps the best advice is this: Work hard, and don't read too much into anything.
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