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Layoffs are a fact of life in our profession. One facet of
serving on the board of a local AIGA chapter is that I come across a lot of
people at various transition points in their careers. And one of the more acute
situations in which some of our members inevitably find themselves is that they
have been laid off. When I’ve tried to help such a colleague land on their feet and move
forward, it often becomes very apparent—in hindsight—that warning signs had
been staring them in the face.
I’ve put together this shortlist of 13 key warning signs, collected
from a variety of friends, acquaintances and colleagues over the years. A
couple of these warning signs I’ve experienced firsthand, and only through the
mindful examination and reexamination of what I did, didn’t do or could have
done differently in the situation did this list really start to take shape.
With unemployment at 7.7 percent nationally
(and much higher for recent grads), and with firms learning to operate leaner
in order to remain competitive in a very crowded market, my hope is that this
list might offer advance warning to some designers out there, and a pathway to a more favorable outcome. I’ve ordered the warning signs
from most remote (meaning a relatively low risk that you will be laid off at
that moment) to imminent (time is of the essence), concluding with “Game Over”
This list isn’t meant to scare you. We face difficult economic
times, and it’s my hope that this information will empower you in whatever
professional challenges you face.
Every business goes through busy periods and slow periods. If
your firm has a slow month, it’s usually nothing to worry about. But, if it’s
slow for two months or your studio has a bad quarter, it might be wise to go on
“yellow alert” and see what you can do to help drum up more business or drive
more opportunities for your agency. It could be something as simple as good
press, or recognition from industry publications, or landing some new projects
or accounts to help bridge the gap. Also, take the opportunity to identify
relevant and current projects for your portfolio and make sure that your resume
is up to date.
Winning and losing accounts is all part of the game, but if your
company loses a major bread-and-butter account, lean times are probably in the
cards for your agency. At times like this, see what you can do to be an asset
to your company and pick up the slack where humanly possible. Senior management
will probably be preoccupied with figuring out how to keep the lights on, and
accounting will be taking an inventory of where all the dollars and cents are
going. Don’t be that guy surfing the sneaker blog every morning.
In the event that the lost account represents more than 25 percent of the
firm’s revenue, start updating your LinkedIn profile, and score some face time
with your professional network. You will want these channels warmed up well in
When times are good and revenue is rolling in, most companies
are usually a bit lax with the official rules in the employee handbook—as long
as you perform your duties and projects are successfully completed, most bosses
will turn a blind eye to strong performers coming in late, taking long lunches
or leaving early. When times are bad, however, a lot of places will go into
lockdown mode as senior management will want to run a tighter ship. Usually
this means that rules and regulations will be strictly enforced and repeat
offenders run the risk of being disciplined by HR and/or senior management.
When infractions are being scrutinized, take heart. It’s quite possible that
senior management is making a list of those people who can follow the rules,
and those who can’t or won’t.
If you’re usually included in key meetings with your firm and
its decision makers but find yourself sitting at your desk during the usual
Tuesday 10:30 a.m. status meeting, be on alert. In cases like this, it could
potentially mean that your viewpoint is no longer aligned with senior
management and they don’t want you privy to the firm’s long-term planning.
Ask for a heart-to-heart with your immediate supervisor to see
what’s up. At the end of the day, everyone is human and chances are they’ll
level with you and either provide guidance on what you can do to salvage your
situation or provide a timeframe to ease the transition. If your supervisor is
standoffish or suddenly becomes cold and distant, take notice; that usually
signals that there’s not much they can do and they don’t want to become too
emotionally invested in your future. Reconnect with past mentors and colleagues to gain a fresh
perspective and find people who can put out feelers for you in the hidden job
If you’ve been at a firm for years and have regularly
scheduled performance reviews during which past performance is assessed and
goals are set—and suddenly it’s been postponed—this could be a potential
warning sign. First, try to find out the reason. If layoffs are in the works,
HR will be very reluctant to process unnecessary pay increases. Also, business
owners may find themselves in an awkward spot if they have to lay off someone
who just received a glowing performance review a couple of months earlier.
If possible, try to push for a review anyway, even if the
financial climate at the firm isn’t looking too great. Forego the annual
request for a pay raise and show that you are committed to the future financial
health of your firm. Additionally, you’ll want to get the feedback and
goal-setting down on paper so that you have realistic goals to work toward during
the tough times ahead.
Most firms and agencies operate like small families or
tribes, and you have to develop a sense of rhythm for everyone’s schedules and meeting habits.
If your boss is suddenly always locked away behind closed doors meeting with
HR, or if all of the partners are at an offsite meeting, usually this means
that big changes are in the works. Probably not good.
It’s often during these meetings that the company is deciding
how much payroll and overhead they need to shave off and identifying the
marginal employees versus the performing assets. Take the time to solicit realtime feedback, track and document your projects’ progress and update your
portfolio to showcase your most recent accomplishments and accolades.
If a project manager asks what projects you are working on, this
usually isn’t that big of a deal. If a second or third project manager asks
that same question and wants you to expand the answer to include all active projects and
job duties, this is usually a major red flag. For all intents and purposes,
your job is under a microscope. At this point, your professional network should
be working on your behalf to identify new opportunities that would be a good
fit for your experience and skillsets.
If all the top creatives and top talent are jumping ship, it’s
usually because they know something that you don’t. People who’ve been around
the block a few times can develop a “spider sense” in terms of when a firm is
entering a period of decline or is irrevocably on its way down. This may be due
to shifting business conditions, emerging technologies or methodologies that
become dominant or simply years of mismanagement. If your firm is experiencing
a brain drain, try to find out the reason why. In some cases, it may prove to
be an unexpected opportunity for creatives who can effect a turnaround.
This one I experienced firsthand very early in my career. We
were having our usual Tuesday status report meeting and I noticed that a
half-dozen projects that were supposed to keep me busy for the next two months
had suddenly disappeared from my job list and had been reassigned to two other
designers who, at the time, seemed to have full plates. What was
left on my job list? Design projects that were essentially still at the printer
plus a couple of other odds and ends. Needless to say, I was cleaning out my
desk by week’s end.
If you find yourself in a similar situation, make sure all of
your personal files are off of the firm’s computers and make backups of all
files and projects you feel most proud of—projects that best represent your
tenure at the company. Many laid-off designers find themselves scrambling to
assemble a complete portfolio of projects. Also, if you have a
lot of your own design books at the office, start transferring them back to
your home studio. Two banker boxes won’t hold the dozens of heavy Taschen books
or design annuals that you’ve accumulated.
In most studios, everyone cultivates a role or niche that they
think will grant them job security. Usually this is a false sense of security.
If you’re suddenly asked to cross-train someone in your specific skillsets,
this is usually the most obvious sign that your job at the firm is near its
end. If you’re asked to identify passwords, client and vendor contact
information and the location of all your project files, it’s usually a giveaway
that this person will be taking over your job duties ASAP.
Unfortunately, at this point, there isn’t a whole lot that can
be done. Still, how you exit a firm and transition to the next phase of your career will
leave a lasting impression on your former colleagues. You should make every
effort to be courteous and professional. In many instances, your colleagues
have had little responsibility in the layoff and many will be an asset or
resource for your future job hunt.
They want to make sure your final paycheck and W2 lands in the
right place. If you’re still on the payroll and have vacation time accrued,
Pretty self-explanatory. They want to remove your bio from the
agency website as soon as possible, so that the next search engine index crawl
captures an accurate picture of the firm’s current roster. If you have sick
days, take them. If you’re due for a physical or need some dental work done,
schedule the appointment. COBRA insurance is crazy expensive.
This last one is also pretty self-explanatory. If your email
accounts and admin access are no longer working on your iPhone and iPad, they’re
effectively cutting the digital cord. Remove all personal files from your
devices (or migrate them to a Dropbox account) and disconnect all profiles and
apps that were purchased from your personal iTunes account. Note that firms
using Microsoft Exchange Server have the ability to remote-wipe any smart phone
or tablet that’s connected to that server. If you find your iPhone has been
mysteriously reset to its default factory setting, this might be the reason.
At the end of the day, layoffs are responses to economic
conditions that are usually beyond an employer’s control. They’re about
cleaning house and getting rid of marginal employees so that the firm may live
to see another quarter—with a leaner team. Ultimately, there’s usually nothing
personal in these decisions; it’s just an unfortunate aspect of business life.
My primary goal with this post is to share some patterns that
have been relayed to me over the years that might better inform designers faced
with potential layoffs. By no means is this list complete. If you’ve been laid off and
recognized some warning signs after the fact, please share them in the comments
At Axiom, John works with clients to develop product branding, advertising and integrated screen and print communication programs with an emphasis on creative solutions for energy-focused companies.
Utilizing a multidisciplinary approach, he fuses marketing strategy with compelling creative to solve business problems and drive opportunities for clients worldwide. John graduated from the University of Houston with a Bachelor of Fine Arts in Graphic Communications.
As AIGA Houston Communications Director, John oversees all communications of AIGA programs/events/issues relevant to our profession and works closely with the chapter President & Programming Director to manage communication of the Chapter’s calendar.
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