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Workers Who Survive Layoffs Often Share Certain Traits

March 04, 2001|SARAH HALE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Am I a keeper or a goner?

That is the question Edward, an engineer for a multibillion-dollar company, asked himself when his employer announced last fall that his close-knit research unit was going to be cut.

He had worked with the manufacturing company for 25 years and was counting on an added pension bonus when he turned 50 in a few years. He didn't want to leave.

Edward and his co-workers began an involuntary, workplace version of "Survivor." Instead of the $1-million jackpot 16 castaways are fighting for on CBS' staged, unscripted series, the prize was a coveted position at another unit of the company.

As the number of layoffs at U.S. companies continues to soar--totaling more than 275,000 jobs since December--many workers are being forced to play this game. In the meantime, a resounding "Do I have what it takes?" lingers in the back of their minds. Who is the best and the brightest?

Layoffs are hitting every segment of the economy, experts say, so no one is safe. Just two weeks ago, Polaroid Corp. and Samsonite Corp. each said they plan to cut several hundred jobs. SCI Systems Inc., an electronics contract manufacturer, said last week that it plans to cut about 3,800 jobs. Even officials at Cisco Systems, a leading technology company, noted that layoffs are possible, an action the company had vowed to avoid. Auto maker DaimlerChrysler, Amazon.com and media giant AOL Time Warner also have announced job cuts in recent months.

Edward, who asked that his full name and company name not be used, was lucky. Because of his experience heading big projects, he was offered a job in a different department in the company. Although Edward recently started his new position, many of his former co-workers are jobless.

"For a long time, we didn't know what was going on," Edward said. "That's what hurt the most."

Edward's ability to use his experience and skills in a new position pushed his name to the top of the list. That kind of flexibility is essential for surviving a downsizing, workplace experts say.

Eric Rolfe Greenberg, director of management studies for the American Management Assn., said mass layoffs--those in which a company fires 50 or more employees--aren't about choosing the good guy over the bad guy.

Layoffs are about finding employees with the skills needed to handle two or three times more work. These employees can easily pick up the extra workload that builds after co-workers leave. Employees who can be described as multi-specialists or as able to multi-task are automatically considered more valuable, Greenberg said.

"These employees are considered gold-collar workers," he said, adding that employees should consider themselves nonstop students, taking advantage of free training programs and seminars.

Bill Price, a spokesman with Lucent Technologies Inc., agreed. Lucent, a communications equipment maker, said a month ago that it plans to cut 10,000 jobs, including about 350 jobs in California. Although the company plans to target certain units, namely those involved with digital messaging, Price said, employees who could easily apply their skills to a more profitable area have the best chance of being retained.

But this version of workplace "Survivor" doesn't give employees a lot of time to evaluate and change their skills. Becoming a key company asset can take months or years of hard work, Greenberg said.

In order to outlast the others, employees should think of a layoff strategically.

"It's a giant game of musical chairs," said John A. Challenger, chief executive of Challenger, Gray & Christmas, an outplacement firm. "There aren't enough seats for everyone."

Employees working in a part of a company that generates high revenue can probably avoid becoming a casualty, he said. Employers also look for people who can generate new ideas and motivate others. Employees who fill leadership roles without being asked also have more favorable odds, he said.

It's important the company know about your accomplishments, Challenger said. "Sit down and talk with your boss over lunch. Don't assume everyone knows what you've done."

Jane Caddell, a former human resources employee with Atlantic Richfield Co.'s Arco Gas division, said that by demonstrating flexibility and leadership skills, she was able to hold on to her job when the company downsized. By indicating her willingness to try new things, work with new people and take on new projects, she stayed with the company longer.

Although Caddell, now a vice president at Employer's Group, a corporate consulting firm, eventually lost her job, she was able to better handle the bad news because that earlier victory had assured her she was a good employee.

"I was confident in my performance," she said. "That's what mattered the most."

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