5 ways to fireproof your job

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For most workers, maintaining employed status is a priority — if, that is, they want to continue decadently enjoying a roof over their heads and free-flowing electricity.

Unfortunately, there’s no inoculation that will permanently render one immune against the threat of downsizing. Short of owning the company, there’s really nothing that guarantees continued employment, save for maybe digging up some dirt on the boss.

With blackmail off the table for logistical and ethical reasons, fireproofing your job can be a Sisyphean battle — especially in uncertain economic times.

In fact, some employers are seizing the occasion of uncertainty to lay off unwanted workers. Recently, Plansponsor.com, a benefits adviser Web site to human resources professionals, took an informal survey of its newsletter readers and learned that 30 percent of the respondents’ companies had used the recession as an excuse to trim off dead weight.

The survey results jibe with the observations of Dan Kilgore, a principal with Riviera Advisors, a human resources consulting firm.

“During good times when companies downsize, it’s very visible, whereas now if you’re not downsizing, you’re looked at as kind of off. Some companies are very brazen about aggressively managing performance and continually manage poor performance out. Most are not — they wait for a down time and lop off the bottom-performing 10 (percent) or 15 percent,” he says.

Fireproof your job:
  1. Work hard
  2. Don’t be Chicken Little
  3. Cut costs
  4. Stay current in education and training
  5. Avoid not-my-job syndrome

When it’s every business for itself, paring down the work force to the leanest and meanest could be the key to survival. That said, you can take some proactive measures to keep your career on track and your head off the chopping block when everyone else is losing theirs.

Work hard

It may seem obvious, but when rumors of impending doom are spreading around the cube farm, it may not be the best time to be the office slacker.

Whether one’s style of lagging productivity entails online shopping, leisurely reading the newspaper or just staring off into space, now is not a good time to waste time.

Putting in a couple of extra hours per week wouldn’t hurt, either.

“If someone is a salaried employee, I would counsel them to work extra hours. Don’t be clocking in and out on the hour,” says Eric Winegardner, vice president of client adoption with the job site Monster.com. “If you are an hourly employee, you want to make sure that you are effectively using every hour that you are on the clock. Now is not the time to be killing time. Now is the time to be saying, ‘What else can I help you with?’

“If people get that into their vocabulary and their routine, they may be surprised by the answer. A simple question could land you an amazing project right now, expand your responsibilities and, therefore, your importance in the organization,” he says.

Don’t be Chicken Little

There are at least a half-dozen ways you can sabotage your career and one is to spread negativity. “There’s always the person around the water cooler who can’t stop talking about how terrible everything is and criticizing everything that management does,” says Riviera Advisors’ Dan Kilgore.

“When you’re in the emergency ward and someone is running around with a can of salt and throwing it all over the place, that is not a popular person and not someone that people want to keep around,” he says.

Conversely, being likable can go a long way. You don’t have to skip into work Monday mornings whistling and carrying a basket of muffins, but avoid doom and gloom.

Instead, stay positive and upbeat — at least until the sky really is falling.

Cut costs

Money is the lifeblood of any business, and employees are a costly asset. When other money-saving options are exhausted, layoffs are the answer to keep costs down.

“Sometimes you hear about rare companies that want to protect their assets — their employees — and they do unusual things to that end, but most of the time, companies, they don’t really care about the employees. All they care about is what they’re being forced to care about, and that is the bottom line,” says Scott Kane, co-founder of Gray Hair Management, a career coaching and job-search networking company.

Therefore, sniffing out cost-cutting opportunities should be every employee’s priority.

“People should never underestimate their individual role in identifying the cost-cutting measures for their employer. I have 1,000 workers here and if everyone saves just $100, we just saved two jobs, or one job, or five jobs, whatever we’re looking at,” says Eric Winegardner of Monster.com.

“It can be as simple as controlling office supplies or as complex as a process improvement that eliminates an entire vendor cost stream,” he says.

Everyone should have the courage to speak up. Take a moment to go to the boss and talk about your money-saving ideas. You never know where it could get you.

Stay current in education, skills and training

Scott Vest, vice president of human resources at NexeoHR.com, recommends that workers try to gain as much leadership experience as possible plus as much education and training as they can get.

“Companies are always searching for good leaders to motivate others and keep the organization’s goals and objectives at the forefront. Companies also recognize individuals who have advanced education or training and are willing to compensate them as such,” he says.

In the long run, staying up to date in your field will serve your career well and keep your skills from being eclipsed by the whippersnappers flooding out of college.

Everything has changed at such a rapid pace that workers in technical fields such as health care and information technology quickly find themselves as out of date as a circa 1980s Commodore 64 at a LAN party — unless they continue their training and education.

“They say now, with technology today, the knowledge that college students have learned in engineering is in obsolescence by the beginning of their sophomore year. So that by the time they graduate, virtually the only thing of value is what they have picked up in the past 18 months,” says Riviera Advisors’ Dan Kilgore.

Some companies will even pay for the training or send you back to school if it’s in your field. Not keeping ahead of the knowledge curve can put you way behind it, and that sends the wrong message to your employer.

Avoid not-my-job syndrome

To paraphrase President John F. Kennedy, ask not what your company can do for you, ask what you can do for your company.

Every job comes with some “scut,” or menial, work — even more so if the business is hemorrhaging employees. There’s likely the same amount of work but fewer people manning the stations.

No one enjoys it, and most likely everyone has some scut work to do. Instead of griping, just remember that anything you can do to make your boss happy — and look good — is a positive.

“Everyone you work with should share your common goal of making the company thrive during these times. Right now, it’s not about us as individuals. It’s about us as organizations,” says Monster.com’s Eric Winegardner.

To survive in today’s employment morass, it wouldn’t hurt if you bled the company colors and were as pro-organization as any face-painting football fan.

“Be proactive. The company needs to know that you care about them. This isn’t about you, the employee. This is about the company,” says Scott Kane of Gray Hair Management.

Beyond working as productively as possible to safeguard your job, be positive and genuinely interested in the opinions of your boss and the people you work with — and get to work.

You really can’t do much more than that, except keep up your networking and make sure your resume is up to date — just in case.