Layoff Worries? Five Conversations You Should Have

By Joseph Grenny, co-author of "Crucial Conversations"

As the economy continues to take a downturn, more and more American jobs are at risk. But with all the cutbacks, what's the likelihood that you will face a layoff in the coming months? One study shows that the majority of people fear the worst.

An online poll conducted by VitalSmarts, a Utah-based corporate training company, reveals that three out of four people believe their organization is likely to issue layoffs in the next 12 months. Incidentally, one in three people believe their job is at risk today.

So with the pending threat, what are you doing to either ensure your job is not the next casualty, or reduce the consequences if it is?

As it turns out, people are doing very little to secure their jobs in this weak economy. For example, one of the easiest steps to take is to solicit information from your boss about layoff potential; yet according to the survey, more than one-fourth of respondents fail to take even this simple step.

For those who really want to secure their careers, or at least prepare appropriately for what may come, five simple and straightforward conversations can substantially increase confidence and serenity in these uncertain times.

1. Ask long-timers about past practices -- How have layoffs been handled in the past? Is advance notice given? Are cutbacks across the board or targeted? How are the decisions made?

2. Clarify compensation surprises with HR -- Will the company be paying normal bonuses or annual raises this year?

3. Assess your general risk levels -- How likely is a layoff in your division? Department? Team? Job? If there are open forums with executives or other higher-ups, these are great places to ask these questions.

4. Assess your specific risk level -- Find out where you stand with your supervisor. What skills, job changes, projects or other actions would make you less dispensable?

5. Have a conversation with yourself -- What should you be doing now to prepare yourself to survive a layoff?

Knowing the right conversations is one thing, but actually holding them is another. Here are a few tips on how to hold these conversations effectively:

Motivate yourself to speak up by reversing your thinking.

Most of us decide whether to speak up by considering the risks of doing so. Those who are best at crucial conversations don't think first about the risks of speaking up. They think first about the risks of not speaking up. If you're worried about your job and stay paralyzed in silence rather than speak up about crucial issues, you surrender your ability to control your own destiny. Motivate yourself to speak up by thinking first about the risks of not holding these crucial conversations rather than the discomfort of holding them.

Change your emotions to elicit greater openness.

The primary reason we do poorly in crucial conversations is that we are irritated, angry or disgusted with the other person. When you think your job is in jeopardy you are particularly at risk of coming into a crucial conversation with hostile or defensive emotions. If you approach your boss, HR leaders or others to ask about job security concerns, you need to be sure you don't come across as accusatory or insulting. Assume they are "reasonable, rational, decent people" who also have concerns and challenges. If you approach them respectfully, they're much more likely to sympathize with your questions and be more liberal with information you need.

Make others feel safe.

The unskilled believe that certain topics are destined to make others defensive. The skilled realize people don't become defensive until they feel unsafe. Try starting your next high-stakes conversation by assuring the other person of your positive intentions and your respect for him or her. When others feel respected and trust your motives for speaking to them, they let their guard down and share more openly.

Start sensitive conversations by saying something like, "I know no one can predict the future perfectly, and yet, like you, I have to do my best. Could I talk openly with you for a few minutes about some questions that will help me understand what the next year might hold in our company? I don't want to put you in a position to make inappropriate commitments, but I want to understand as much as I can about what's likely to occur. Would that be okay?"


One of the best ways to help people feel safe disclosing sensitive concerns is by priming the conversation. You do this by saying the tough thing for them and allowing them to confirm, disconfirm or modify what you say. For example, if you're asking your boss for feedback about her real view of your performance and she seems reluctant to open up, you might say, "I know some of my peers have been here a lot longer than I have and have worked for you on a number of teams. If I were you I would probably feel a great sense of loyalty to them. If tough downsizing decisions had to be made, I'd expect you to put some of them higher on the list than some of us newcomers. Is that a reasonable expectation for me to have?" When something might be tough to say, say it for others as a way of demonstrating that it's safe to acknowledge.

Come ready with questions.

These conversations are tough enough to hold even once. Don't make the mistake of coming unprepared then walking out and realizing you failed to ask the most important question. There's nothing wrong with bringing a list of the four or five questions you have and referring to them to ensure you've gathered all the information you want. Do not take notes during the conversation, however. If you do, the other person may feel a need to be on his or her guard for a future legal battle, and you will have cut off your source of information. If you want to confirm something in writing, do it later, perhaps by e-mail, and ask the other person to respond with corrections to your understanding. Only do this if the other person agrees to be "on the record" with his or her comments.

The best way to predict your future is to create it. Those who step up to these five crucial conversations skillfully put themselves in a much better position to create -- and control -- their own destiny.

Next: Tips to Avoid a Layoff >>

Joseph Grenny is the coauthor of three New York Times bestsellers including, "Crucial Conversations: Tools for Talking When Stakes Are High." He is also a sought-after speaker, consultant and co-founder of VitalSmarts, an innovator in corporate training and organizational performance.

Copyright 2008 Joseph Grenny.

Read Full Story