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Coping in Case You're Canned


In these days of mergers, layoffs and corporate musical chairs, knowing how you're protected in the event of layoffs is as important as knowing how to find another job.


Dear Ms. Work Wise: The large company I work for has recently announced a merger with another large firm in the same business, and the top executives have said they will be laying off 1,000 people. The thing is, they aren't saying who will get the ax until next spring. How can I tell if I'm being set up for termination? What can I do to prepare? How much notice must my employer give me?

--Anxious Accountant

Dear Anxious: For workers, waiting for word about pending layoffs is the worst part of a proposed merger or takeover. Federal law only covers large employers who plan substantial work force reductions, and that requires the employer to give workers a 60-day notice. Employees who are covered under a collective bargaining agreement may also be protected by specific notification procedures.

But for the rest of the work force, the law is silent, and employees should consult their company handbooks for guidelines.

Joseph Posner, an Encino lawyer who represents employees, says to pay attention to the grapevine. Watch out if you're "a person who's not invited to meetings, is shunned by people that [you] used to talk with or have lunch with . . . or if criticism stops all of a sudden," he said.

In the meantime, a person can take certain steps to prepare herself.

Check your personnel file--your employer must let you see it--to see what negative comments may be there. You have a right to add something in your defense, legal experts say. When it comes time for your employer to pick likely candidates for the boot, your responses could balance the negative ones.

William McNeill, managing attorney with the Employment Law Center in San Francisco, suggests writing a memo to your boss saying you understand that layoffs are contemplated and asking where you stand. "It may or may not be useful or comforting . . . but this is one of the situations where knowledge is very important," he said. The most vulnerable operations are usually those in headquarters, where functions may duplicate those of the merger partner.

John A. Challenger, an executive with the Chicago outplacement firm of Challenger, Gray & Christmas, advises putting your resume out early. "You might very well say, 'Why should I start looking, I'm going to get a good package, why don't I wait for the shoe to drop?' " But don't let the prospect of a good severance package delay you from moving ahead with your life.


Dear Ms. Work Wise: My boss and I used to have lunch frequently and talk about all sorts of things: how the business is doing, our opinions of co-workers, our families, all "off the record." Lately, with the business in a period of turmoil, my boss has been a little distant, and I'm worried that some of our conversations may come back to haunt me. Do I have any protections?

--Concerned in San Clemente

Dear Concerned: Off-the-record remarks rarely stay that way, employment experts say. "If you say something to your boss, unless you really have a relationship with that person, you've got to assume at some point someone will ask you about it," Posner says.

Given that, experts have this simple advice: Keep what's home home, and what's at work at work. Say you mention in an offhand way that you have a particular medical problem. Though discrimination by employers against workers on the basis of their medical histories is strictly verboten, that doesn't stop an employer from more subtle shifts in behavior, such as withholding plum assignments--or putting those workers at the top of the list when layoffs are planned.

Also be wary of dishing on co-workers. If your remarks get out, they can set you--and the company--up for liability, even slander.

"Personal friendships in the business world are a two-edged sword," McNeill said. "People can advance by them, but also not advance."

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