How to Not Get Fired

Read­ing Time: 5 min­utes

Very thin line between arro­gance and confidence…Being hum­ble is that line. No one has ever said that hum­ble guy is real­ly an ass­hole.” ‑Unknown

In busi­ness peo­ple quit, get fired, or oth­er­wise leave a place of employ­ment through attri­tion every day, and for any num­ber of rea­sons. Most of the time it’s an occa­sion­al event, and while we’re often sad to see them go (or not, as the case may be) we don’t have the type of vis­cer­al, empa­thet­ic reac­tion to these one­sie-twosie sit­u­a­tions as we do when a large lay­off hap­pens.

Lay­offs, staff reduc­tions, work­force reduc­tions, right-siz­ing, and oth­er terms-du-jour are all words for the same thing: we’re tak­ing a per­cent­age of the busi­ness’s employ­ees and telling them that they are no longer need­ed. While the rea­sons and terms used may vary, the real­i­ty does not; it is an unpleas­ant expe­ri­ence for every­one involved. Some­one has to decide to neg­a­tive­ly affect some­one else’s life–to hurt their family–in order to keep the busi­ness, and by exten­sion every­one else still work­ing for it, healthy and mak­ing mon­ey.

In 20-plus years of work­ing in the Infor­ma­tion Tech­nol­o­gy field, I have been through a fair num­ber of lay­off cycles. Many were the result of merg­ers and acqui­si­tions, and many the result of a bad out­look for the busi­ness in terms of cap­i­tal, growth, back­log, or fore­cast. In all cas­es I have been lucky enough to sur­vive, though that is always far from a given–no mat­ter who you are.

As the head of an IT depart­ment at a mul­ti-nation­al cor­po­ra­tion, I have respon­si­bil­i­ty for staffing my depart­ment accord­ing to the needs of the busi­ness, and this often includes the unpleas­ant­ness inher­ent in let­ting peo­ple go. How that process hap­pens, and what can change the odds in your favor, are some­times a mys­tery to peo­ple. Some­times you can do things to help your­self, and some­times you draw the short straw. That is the unfor­tu­nate real­i­ty. There are some things you can do to help keep the odds in your favor, how­ev­er, and to the extent that any of these obser­va­tions are use­ful to any­one look­ing to mit­i­gate their own per­son­al risk, here are the things I have observed in my own career:

Don’t be an ass. I know this would seem to be self-evi­dent, but I’m con­stant­ly sur­prised at how often it is not. I think peo­ple get com­fort­able, begin feel­ing like they are indis­pens­able to the com­pa­ny some­how, and let their inner rude­ness come out. It comes out in snip­py mem­os, in meet­ings, in terse respons­es to requests, and in phone calls. This per­son becomes the Nick Burns of your com­pa­ny, no mat­ter the depart­ment they work in. When lay­off time is com­ing around, you’ll be at the top of every­one’s list to go if there is any pos­si­ble way to make it hap­pen. You might sur­vive a round or two, but even­tu­al­ly your time will come up because the pain of keep­ing you around is greater than the pain of clean­ing up your mess. I don’t like fir­ing peo­ple in gen­er­al, for any rea­son, but if you’re an ass it real­ly makes the job eas­i­er.

Diver­si­fy. Too many peo­ple define who they are by a job-title or a set of cri­te­ria and refuse to ever step out of that role. “I am a net­work engi­neer, or a sys­tems admin­is­tra­tor, or a DBA, etc.” These are fine and good macro-lev­el def­i­n­i­tions and help to indi­cate your area of expertise–where you’re most comfortable–or what you con­sid­er your areas of major strength. I get that. Here’s what I don’t get: some­one from account­ing has a prob­lem with their com­put­er and you can’t–or won’t–help them because “that’s not your job”. I don’t get the per­son who refus­es to touch Win­dows machines because “they’re a net­work engi­neer” or “they only use Macs”. Learn some new things, cross-train with peo­ple out­side of your spe­cial­ty, and you will become more valu­able. The more you know, the more weight you can shoul­der if need­ed, which increas­es your val­ue to the com­pa­ny.

Don’t be a pri­ma don­na. This goes back to my point above. I have met peo­ple who are so enam­ored with a piece of tech­nol­o­gy, or a method of doing things, that they either refuse to change or they change but become the dis­rup­tive force in the depart­ment. These peo­ple “only use” Cis­co, or Juniper, or Macs, or a cer­tain type of cable, or wire­less radio, etc. I have enough prob­lems run­ning a world-wide net­work and try­ing to avoid ven­dor lock-in, I don’t need anoth­er ass-hole on my staff who has their own ven­dor lock-in. I also don’t care if you’re a Mac or a PC. You’ll have the same options as the oth­er mem­bers of the team.

Do the unpleas­ant jobs. This has been writ­ten down in many forms, so I’ll just say this: they’re all cor­rect. Do the jobs nobody else wants to do and you’ll do well for your­self. This applies to both depart­men­tal, project-lev­el, and macro-lev­el com­pa­ny goals. Read Creel Price’s take, enti­tled The Best Career Advice You Won’t Want to Hear and Mike Bushon­g’s advice on Out­per­form­ing Your Peers by Man­ag­ing Expec­ta­tions . Actu­al­ly, read all of Mike Bushon­g’s career advice over at the Plexxi site as it’s all dead-on.

Align your goals to the com­pa­ny. You should always align your career goals, and the small­er year-over-year goals, to your com­pa­ny’s goals if you want to get ahead and become tru­ly indis­pens­able. If your goals are aligned with the com­pa­ny’s, then you are a part of the process mov­ing the com­pa­ny for­ward, help­ing it to earn mon­ey, and help­ing your­self in the process. If you are try­ing to move your career in a direc­tion fun­da­men­tal­ly at odds with the com­pa­ny you work for, then I’d sug­gest you should be look­ing for anoth­er place to hang your hat. It’s not a ten­able posi­tion to be fight­ing your own com­pa­ny on career goals and devel­op­ment.

Don’t be a one-trick pony. This kind of dove­tails with a few of the pre­vi­ous points, but it bears repeat­ing more suc­cinct­ly: every­one can be replaced. You might think that your stack of cer­ti­fi­ca­tions, and your deep expe­ri­ence in an area of exper­tise make you invalu­able to the com­pa­ny, but it’s not nec­es­sar­i­ly the case. In fact, if I am forced to down­size my staff, the first peo­ple on my short-list are the one-trick-ponies. The peo­ple who do one or two things at such a deep lev­el that they can re-write a rout­ing pro­to­col from scratch might be great for con­sult­ing, but are not always great for in-house staff. In fact, the deep­er and more spe­cif­ic your knowl­edge becomes, the more like­ly I am to replace you with more of a gen­er­al­ist who can adapt and do a lot more things at an accept­ably high lev­el. I’ll hire a con­sul­tant to do what you do. That’s not an argu­ment against excep­tion­al­ism. Just make cer­tain it is aligned to the needs of your com­pa­ny.

Look, at the end of the day I absolute­ly hate being in a posi­tion to have to let any­one go. I hate see­ing oth­er peo­ple lose their jobs, and I real­ly hate what it does to the moral of those still at the com­pa­ny. Con­trary to pop­u­lar belief, almost nobody wants to go around lay­ing off staff. But if the time comes, and I’m told I have to get rid of one per­son in my depart­ment, traits like the ones I’ve list­ed above play a big fac­tor in my deci­sion.