Newspaper & Magazine

Published: October 23, 2008

Marcia Finberg's relationship with her boss had been cordial during the three years she worked as vice president of marketing and business development for a Phoenix hospital. Her boss, the CEO, always made small talk and followed up with her on projects. When this rapport suddenly stopped, Ms. Finberg knew something was up. Three months later her job was eliminated.

[Cues to a Lay-off]
Bruce MacPherson

At a time when employers are making more mass layoffs than any time since Sept. 11, reading the cues to your fate is especially important, so you can plan accordingly. When you're in good standing at your company, it usually isn't hard to tell. Promotions, invites to big meetings and attention from your boss are usually good indications. But when you're a target of the layoff list, or feelings about you have changed, the signs are often more subtle.

Nonverbal Cues

Many managers resort to nonverbal cues or passive-aggressive behavior rather than confronting employees directly if they've got bad news or are suddenly dissatisfied with their performance, say many employment experts. This is especially true as reorganizations are planned and layoffs loom. "Bosses are particularly conflict-averse," says Judith Glaser, CEO of Benchmark Communications Inc., a leadership consulting firm based in New York.

One tell-tale sign that your job may be in jeopardy is your supervisor's lack of casual interaction with you. "If you're in good standing with your boss, you should be having frequent informal talks," says Rich Gee, president of Rich Gee Coaching in Stamford, Conn. Of course, there are exceptions. If your boss is generally a quiet person, or preoccupied with a big project, he or she may not approach you very often to shoot the breeze. Compare how your boss interacts with co-workers, and use that as an indicator, says Mr. Gee.

Lynne Sarikas, director of the career center at Northeastern University's College of Business Administration, says changes in the way you're treated can also signal that your job is in danger. For example, if your boss used to respond to your emails in the same day, but it now takes a week, consider it a sign.

Ms. Finberg's boss went from being friendly with her to avoiding her and being curt. She knew the hospital was losing patients to a new medical center in the area and that her employer's financial situation had become precarious. Ms. Finberg says her boss's cold response leading up to her being let go could have been a defense mechanism. "You don't want to admit that under your stewardship the finances were such that you had to let someone from your executive team go," she says.

Some managers say they play "hard to get" with certain employees to communicate their displeasure with performance. Bob Miglani, senior director of external medical affairs for Pfizer Inc., says he has purposely made employees that reported to him feel left out of the loop, by not inviting them to meetings or waiting a long time to answer their emails. He has also declined their meeting requests even if he's able to make the meeting so that the employee will see that he didn't want to attend.

Sensitive Employees

"The whole point is to spur them to ask you what's wrong and take charge," says Mr. Miglani, who says some employees he's managed are too sensitive to handle frank feedback, so he resorted to the subtle cues.

Employers can also take the passive-aggressive route. When John Boyd was chief intellectual-property counsel of a midsize technology company, he says, the CEO and other executives made him feel like he wasn't in the "inner circle." He says he was continually left off of email announcements congratulating teams on projects, when he also participated on those teams. He didn't wait to see what his fate might be; instead, Mr. Boyd left the company.

Paying attention to how projects are doled out can give you a feeling for where you fit in. Are you being passed over on plum projects? Are you given production-oriented tasks instead of strategic projects? If you're repeatedly overlooked for high-profile assignments that you feel capable of handling, Mr. Gee says it's time to ask for one rather than passively waiting.

Otherwise, you might find yourself in the same boat as Lisa LaMunyon. Two months before being laid off, Ms. LaMunyon noticed projects being given to other people in her department, even ones she had started herself. The 42-year-old didn't ask her boss about the changes, but felt ostracized as important conference calls and meetings were held behind her back. When the company downsized, she was laid off.

Don't Wait for Review

When your work gets reassigned, experts say it might be a sign management is trying to prepare for your dismissal. If you suspect something is awry, don't wait for your formal review; approach your boss so you can fix any problems before it's too late. "It's criminal to wait for performance-review time," says Ms. Sarikas. "If there is a problem, it's a whole lot easier to fix sooner rather than later."

Before approaching your manager it's important to substantiate your suspicions. "Maybe your email got lost in the shuffle. You can make an assumption about someone's behavior and turn out to be wrong," says Rachelle J. Canter, president of RJC Associates, a career and leadership consulting firm based in San Francisco. You could also run your thoughts by a trusted colleague who may be able to tell you if you're overreacting.

If you suspect your position might be on the chopping block, don't wait for the ax to fall. Instead, brush off your resume and start networking in the event that your job is eliminated. And even if your job seems safe, if a tense relationship with a manager is thwarting your growth at a company, and you've exhausted every means of making amends, it may be wise to leave, says Ms. Canter.

Write to Dana Mattioli at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

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