How to survive at work when everyone else is getting laid off

I wrote — briefly — the other day that the people who are left behind after company layoffs are under their own brand of stress. I was hoping for some individual stories from News Cut readers but, alas, life is full of all sorts of disappointments.

Coincidentally, Fortune Magazine has an article on how to be the person still employed with 10 tips for success.

Here’s the one that seems most controversial to me:


For now, forget about work-life balance. A major preoccupation when the economy was humming along nicely, “having time for outside interests has to go right out the window now,” says Bright. “You need to concentrate on doing whatever it takes to make yourself indispensable.”

Just as we are now being told massive budget deficits aren’t to be worried about, we are finding that we’re now not supposed to give a rip about life outside of work.

Coming in the next issue, perhaps: Ten ways to survive divorce and look for work.

The Web site Lifehacker.com tackles the list and a reader confirms the notion that, at least in his case, getting left behind may be a more miserable outcome than being let go:


I got laid off in November, along with most of my engineering team. My biggest concern (ok, second biggest, I do have kids to feed) was for the engineer that was left behind. My first call was to him, and since I knew his skills well I sent him the offers I spotted that I thought might be a good fit. We all took a break over the holidays, but I’ve got to catch back up with him and do a more focused effort on getting him out of there, he’s miserable.

Let’s hear your story.

(h/t: Julia Schrenkler)

  • krj

    In the past I was in a situation that the company was ‘down-sizing’ and a number of positions were eliminated. On top of the active reductions in work force, the company also did not rehire positions as other people left. My department went from 6 all the way down to 1 person, myself and a contractor. Remaining indispensable was not as much a concern as the stability of the company in general.

    Having the fear day to day that your company will fail grinds on you. The co-workers that left tried to assist me to find something that was a good fit, but it was not easy. I ended up taking a significant pay cut to move to a new company (over 25%), but moved on because I needed to have a job and continue to contribute to my family’s welfare.

    After moving on, I began to realize the toll that not staying took on me. I had several ill effects on my health for staying in the position and remaining behind. It took me the better part of a year to get my heath (physical and mental) back to a better state. For that year, my wife said repeatedly that while we were having a tougher financial situation that she was relieved that I had moved on.

    I know this is not exactly the same as what is happening right now for people, but I also know that the people who remain behind will suffer ill effects from the layoffs. While they may suffer differently, I do not think anyone in a company that is in trouble is OK just by keeping their nose to the grindstone.

  • Alison

    I agree. Being indispensible often makes no difference in surviving the next round of cuts. Companies get rid of those they don’t want in the first round of cuts. And of course if the company eliminates a entire group it doesn’t matter.

  • M

    What rotten advice Fortune Magazine has passed along.

    What makes an employee indispensable? Certainly not the person who stops going to the gym after work, seeing their kids, quits the book club and spends 10-12 hours a day at work making it seems they are indispensable. You know who those people are – they surf the internet, shuffle paper, make up useless meetings. Yacking all the time about how swamped they are and how, oh man, if they let me go they’ll never be able to take care of my workload. These people are certainly not worth the salary companies pay.

    Indispensability is hard to make up at crunch time when layoffs are around the corner. The indispensable ones met with their bosses long ago and are working on efficiency projects, developing new systems to make an ever increasing workload doable with less people and less time. So what if that’s not your job. You’ve had ideas about how to make things better. Who are they going to layoff? If you have a responsible employer then you, the one that saved the company x dollars when you devised a new way to implement work flow, you should stay. You who picked up the extra projects in March and are seeing the end of the tunnel. You should stay too. You, who showed up at work all year and did your job, but never bothered to make the place better… good luck.

    We have layoffs coming up in a few weeks. We’ll see what happens. Of course, they might just pull out middle management and tell us to deal with it – or just pull names out of a hat. It’s all about $. Giving up master’s swim practice to make yourself look more dedicated though? Try again Fortune.

  • Bob

    That “make yourself indispensable” advice is a joke.

    First, there ain’t no such thing. Yes, it’s nice to be as competent and conscientious as you can, but in Dilbert Land — whoops, I mean in the U.S. workplace — typically short-sighted management and the bloodless nature of downsizing pay little or no heed as to whether you’re the most valuable employee in the bunch.

    Second, I haven’t come across too many tombstones that say, “I wish I’d spent more time in the office.”

  • mlb

    I thought about responding on the original “left behind” blog entry – I’m still not sure where to start in describing the situation where I work. The sour economy came after we were purchased by a larger company with a less employee-friendly corporate culture, so morale here is pretty bad.

    People who leave aren’t replaced and management is asked to split time between more than one office. Increased volumes of work are committed to by the sales team, and the incoming projects are not desirable at a time that production facilities can’t afford to turn it away. It’s especially disheartening to feel like there are no other jobs out there to go to when you’re unhappy at your current employment.

  • bird man

    Theory #1:

    Companies that offer buyouts, conduct “downsizing” or just outright layoff employees are acknowleging that the “work” that these people were doing is no longer valueable or that the value is lower than the cost of retaining staff.

    Theory #2:

    Buyouts, and layoffs are a method to rid the company of persons deemed culturally foreign to the current management style.

    Theory #3:

    All the business justification used to build department populations by hiring staff based on business need is a bunch of hot gas. Why have three people doing the work of one?

    Theory #4:

    Downsizing and layoffs are a form of economic terrorism visited upon the unwashed content producers by management which gains even more latitude to dictate terms, working conditions, hours, and other requirements to the workers who are “lucky” enough to keep their jobs.

    Theory #5:

    Layoffs, downsizing, and buyouts give the lie to any and all corporate expressions of charity, family values, and/or community involvement. If the company has enough money to give away why are they getting rid of staff? (see above)

    Theory #6:

    The above theories are just specualtion. Who can know the real reason?

  • Lily

    I do wish that government entities would rid themselves of planning analysts, consultants, and people with no real jobs. I work for the government and their are tons of these people…..

    God forbid that they lay off nurses, police officers, and other folks with real jobs and keep these worthless folks.

  • BJB

    indispensible cuts both ways: never cut and never promoted…

  • http://www.hearthtohearth.org Scot Harvey

    I was working at an electronics company in 2003 when our contract to fix a certain brand of cell phones was lost to Mexico. While they were shutting down the project the HR person would come in every few hours and ask to talk to someone. They would leave the room not to return. After a few days of worrying that I would be next, I was beginning to worry that she would not ask to talk to me. When my turn finally came I was so relieved that I could not hide my excitement. Just to get out and away from the stress of not knowing if and when.