How to Stay Off the Layoff List

🚀 Are you valuable enough to retain? - Issue #163

Every manager has one, whether they admit it or not, the dreaded “layoff list” of employees that they would be willing to let go.

Sometimes this list has already been created and shared with upper management and HR. Sometimes it is a fuzzy one that managers maintain in their heads.

At one company, we referred to it as the “lifeboat exercise.” If your ship was sinking and you could only take 80% of your staff, who are the most valuable people you would put in the lifeboat? Who gets to keep their jobs?

At another company, we had to stack rank our employees and cut the bottom 10% every year. Luckily, this practice is falling out of favor, since it never worked that well anyway.

Even if your company hasn’t regularly conducted layoffs, the current economic climate may force it to do so. In the U.S. alone, jobless claims have skyrocketed in the past month. Approximately 17 million people have filed for unemployment in the last three weeks!

If you haven’t already lost your job or been forced to shut down your small business, I’m going to assume that you’d like to keep your current position and ride out this storm. It would be a risky move to dive into this insane market if it isn’t necessary.

So, how do you keep your name off of that layoff list?


10 ways to stay off that list

I’ve been an employee, manager, leader, and business owner over the past 20 years of my career. I’ve been involved in all aspects of the layoff process.

  • I was at IBM as a young employee when it conducted its first layoffs in the history of the company (I kept my job).

  • I was at Apple as a junior designer during multiple rounds of layoffs and learned why I was spared when more experienced employees were let go.

  • I worked at a startup that was acquired (😁 Yay!), but then the parent company eliminated all of our jobs (😢 Boo).

  • Unfortunately, I had to conduct my own layoffs when I was leading teams at Yahoo. That sucked.

So, who tends to stay off the list? How did I determine who would remain? Managers like to keep people who fit into one or more of these ten categories.

  1. Employees performing in the top 20%

  2. Employees in critical roles working on strategic projects

  3. People with the knowledge, skills, and experience for the company’s future

  4. Employees who keep essential products and services running

  5. Those few employees whom the boss can’t live without

  6. Employees who bring in more revenue

  7. Those who consistently save the company money

  8. People who reliably add value to the organization

  9. Those employees with a highly positive benefit-cost ratio

  10. People who aren’t a pain in the ass to manage


1. Be damn good at what you do

I’ve never witnessed managers put people on their layoff lists if they were high performers in the top 20% of the organization. Those employees were simply too valuable to lose.

How do you become a high performer?

  • Always deliver results with high quality and on time.

  • Get things done with minimal oversight.

  • Understand the big picture.

  • Go above and beyond.

  • Ask to take on more responsibility.

  • Be a great team player when required.

  • Help everyone get better at their jobs.

  • Engage in continuous learning and improvement.


2. Work on strategic projects

It can be fun to work on exciting and quirky projects. We all want some time for our pet projects too.

However, it is risky to be assigned to nonessential projects when your manager is creating a layoff list. During a time of economic crisis, entire projects, product lines, and businesses are often eliminated too.

If your project gets killed, your job may disappear along with it. Do everything you can to get assigned to a strategic project that is important to the company.

It is smart to work on strategic projects anyway. Successfully delivering results on a crucial project is also an excellent way to set yourself up for a promotion later.


3. Position yourself for the future

Layoffs occurred a few times while I was at Apple. During one particularly stressful layoff, the managers went door to door to talk with every employee in their offices.

Yes, believe it or not, we had private offices! Crazy, right? That was the last time I had an office during my 20+ year career.

The managers asked us various questions about our past work experience and skills. Little did I know that my familiarity with Unix (thank you, IBM) would save my job that day. It positioned me for working on the new Mac OS X, after Apple’s strategic acquisition of NeXT.

Pay attention to your company’s big plans and business strategy. Make sure that your skillset is well aligned with where the company is going so that your manager sees you as a valuable asset.

I know that sounds cold and calculating. An asset? But, these layoff decisions aren’t warm and fuzzy.


4. Keep the lights on

The company can’t afford to lose the crucial employees who keep their essential products and services up and running. If you want to stick around and can’t get assigned to one of the big strategic projects, then make sure you are working on the essential “bread and butter” projects, services, etc.

I remember one layoff discussion with the leaders of the various organizations in the company. Someone mentioned an employee’s name as a potential candidate for the layoff list.

His manager laughed and said, “He’s the only one who understands the code for XYZ. He wrote the whole thing, it’s not documented well, and no one else could keep it running. If we get rid of him, we’re screwed.


5. Be indispensable

There are other ways to become indispensable to an organization too. Make your manager’s life easier. Be that employee that he or she can’t live without.

I remember one employee who always went above and beyond to take work off of his manager’s plate. He intentionally guided the manager to delegate things to him over the years. He made his boss’s life easier.

When that manager had to layoff 20% of the organization, do you think he selected that employee who was taking on so much of his workload? No way.

He knew that all of that work would get dumped back onto him if he lost that employee.


6. Bring in more revenue

Companies are famous for never putting anyone from the Sales organization on a layoff list. I remember a CEO answering a question about that very issue.

Someone asked, “Why didn’t the Sales org have to give up 20% of their team as we did?

The CEO stared at her and said, “Because they bring in revenue. We lose them; we lose revenue. That’s not something we can afford right now.

Demonstrate how you are directly responsible for bringing money into the company. If you are not directly accountable, then you have some homework to do.

Find ways to tie your work and achievements to activities that generate revenue for the business. The product managers I used to work with were very good at this. They would create models and calculate how their enhancements to the product drove improvements in key metrics and how those metrics drove increased revenue.


7. Save more money

If you are consistently finding ways to save the company money, your salary pays for itself many times over. Firing you would mean that the company loses more money than it would save by recovering your position’s compensation.

Again, you may have to get creative with your research and homework to show how your actions result in saving money for the business. Or, you may start looking for ways to cut costs (e.g., more efficient processes, cheaper software licenses, more affordable vendors, etc.).


8. Add more value to the organization

I remember some employees who were retained because they contributed to the company in qualitative ways. They weren’t directly increasing revenue or reducing costs, but everyone knew that the organization would suffer without them.

  • You help keep everyone’s morale up.

  • You’re the one who onboards new employees.

  • You provide training that is crucial for the team.

  • You do research that everyone else needs to perform their jobs.

  • You are always finding ways to improve processes and make things more efficient.

  • You keep everyone aware of the latest industry trends and developments.

Basically, people are glad that you are around, and they can’t imagine the office without you. Losing you would feel like a massive hit to the team’s morale. Your boss couldn’t afford to eliminate your position.


9. Maintain a highly positive benefit-cost ratio

A benefit-cost ratio is used in a cost-benefit analysis to measure the overall relationship between the relative costs and benefits of proposed investments, projects, and initiatives.

Yes, you are an investment for the company (e.g., a $200K/year fully-loaded cost for the average software engineer). They invest money and benefits into you as an employee with the hope that you yield even more value for the company.

Are you consistently delivering much more value than the cost of keeping you? Note, that cost goes beyond your total financial compensation.

We all know that some employees are more “challenging” to work with than others. However, we often put up with their behavior when they are one of the top performers in the company.


10. Don’t be a pain in the ass

Some employees are such a pain to manage that their managers dream about them leaving the company. Those people’s jobs are often hanging by a thread. The employee provides just enough value to make them worth keeping on the team.

However, when managers are required to create a layoff list, guess which names they immediately write down? Yes, the PITA employees.

This may not apply to you, but I know that someone somewhere is a challenging employee to worth with and manage. They frequently complain, make demands, and are generally high maintenance.

You don’t have to be a “Pollyanna,” but you should have a generally positive attitude. Collaborate well with your colleagues, contribute positively to meetings, provide constructive feedback, and be that person that people enjoy working with.


Good luck!

If you are concerned about a layoff, I hope this advice gives you some ideas that will help keep you off that list.

Some of these tips can be put into motion immediately (e.g., don’t be a pain, help everyone get better at their jobs, take on more responsibility).

However, some of the steps take more time, so you should start as soon as possible (e.g., being assigned to strategic projects, getting better at what you do, learning future-proof skills).

That career investment is never wasted energy, though. Not only does it position you as one of the most valuable employees to keep during a layoff, but it also puts you on the promotion path.


Do you have friends who may be worried about a layoff? If so, consider sharing this with them.

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