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Leave now - or risk getting laid off?

Once a company has announced plans to cut its headcount, employees face a tricky choice. Here's how to protect yourself.

By Anne Fisher, senior writer
September 30, 2008: 8:46 AM ET

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NEW YORK (Fortune) -- Dear Annie: I work for Hewlett-Packard (HPQ, Fortune 500), which, as you probably know, is planning to lay off more than 24,000 people worldwide over the next three years. It seems that most of those on the chopping block are employees who came along with HP's acquisition of EDS. Since I happen to be in that group, I wonder if I should leave now, or wait and see what happens. On the one hand, I like it here, and my immediate boss has told me that he sees a great future for me at HP, so I should "just sit tight." On the other hand, I have two other job offers, one that came from a recruiter, and another from a former EDS colleague who left before the merger. Any advice on what to do? -Dangling Man

Dear Dangling: "Even when you see it coming way in advance, getting laid off is a terrible kick in the gut," says Susan Joyce, who runs employment portal Job-Hunt.org (http://www.job-hunt.org/), and who is herself a layoff survivor. "You're far better off leaving on your own terms."

It's nice that your boss believes you'll be spared the ax but, says Joyce, "I wouldn't depend on that reassurance. Often bosses, with the best will in the world, encourage people to stick around. But things change."

Indeed they do, especially over the course of three years. Joyce's erstwhile employer, Digital Equipment Corp., was once the world's No. 2 computer company. (DEC was later bought by Compaq, which has since been absorbed by - that's right - Hewlett-Packard.) DEC started running into trouble in the late '80s and began letting people go in 1991. Joyce didn't get the sack until 1994, and now wishes she had left sooner.

"When you stay until the bitter end, potential employers think you are 'damaged goods,' in other words, that you stuck around because you couldn't find anywhere else to go," she notes. "Besides, while you're being loyal to your current employer, you'll end up getting stuck with all the work the laid-off people would have been doing."

Moreover, you're fortunate enough to have two other offers already. Let's say you take your boss at his word and stay - and, a year or two from now, he gets laid off and so do you. Are the two other jobs you're mulling now likely still to be available?

For anyone who faces this dilemma without any job offers in hand, Joyce has written a handy (and free) e-book, Job-Hunt's 15 Minute Guide to Layoff Self-Defense: Six Steps to Protect Yourself and Your Income. "Once your employer has stated that people will be laid off, your first priority has to be to protect yourself and your future," Joyce says. "Start figuring out your next move right away." A few tips on how to get started:

Set up your own private channels of communication. Try to keep your job search as quiet as you can, or you may end up getting fired before the layoffs even start. "Employers don't like, or trust, job seekers on staff," observes Joyce.

You need your own personal e-mail account and cellphone - not the ones issued to you by your current employer - so other employers, and networking contacts, can reach you privately. Also, do bring your resume up to date - but do it at home, not on your employer's computer. Sounds obvious, but you'd be surprised.

Have business cards printed with your private contact information on them, with no mention of where you work now. Instead of including your home address, use a generic regional description like "Boston, MA area." Hand out these cards to co-workers and ask them for their private contact information as well, so you can stay in touch once the layoffs get underway -- but don't disclose details of your job search.

Expand your online presence, cautiously. Register your name as a domain name (including your maiden name if you are a woman using a married name). This could be an important part of your online branding, and it only costs $9.95 at GoDaddy.com. Set up a LinkedIn, ZoomInfo, or Ziggs profile, or all three.

"LinkedIn is particularly good for collecting recommendations, and writing them for others," says Joyce. "However, be careful about selecting 'Career opportunities' in your contact preferences." Likewise, don't post your resume on job boards unless you've cloaked it to conceal your identity.

Network, network, network. "Check in with your college, grad school, or even high-school career center to see what services they offer," suggests Joyce. "Often, free or low-cost assistance includes career counseling and resume help. You should also ask for an alumni directory and a schedule of alumni events."

At the same time, use Google and social networking sites like LinkedIn and Facebook to track down former colleagues from previous jobs. Job-Hunt.org features a large directory of corporate "alumni" groups that may be helpful, at www.job-hunt.org/employer_alumni_networking.shtml.

"Go to professional organization meetings and events, including college reunions," says Joyce. "If anyone at work asks why you're suddenly getting more active in this regard, say that it's good for business - that is, your current employer's business." (Well, it really is, so that's no lie. What else it may be good for is no one else's beeswax.)

"The importance of networking outside your company can't be overstated," says Joyce. "One of the mistakes many of us made at DEC was, we did a lot of internal networking with people in marketing, manufacturing, consulting, all over the company. That was great for getting our jobs done, but we neglected the external networking we should have been doing. So when we got laid off, we didn't know anybody except each other - and we were all in the same boat."

Readers, what do you say? What should employees facing a layoff threat do and what should they avoid at all costs? Ever jumped ship in advance of a layoff - or stayed on board too long? Post your thoughts on the Ask Annie blog. To top of page

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