Heads Will Roll: 17 Signs of Impending Layoffs

Updated: June 17, 2009

As Bob Dylan once sang, "You don't need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows." And while that adage can be applied to any number of situations, it can be especially true when it comes to job cuts, layoffs and corporate restructuring.

Although most layoffs are preceded by office rumors and gossip, by that point it is usually too late to polish your résumé, search recruitment sites for jobs and stick it to the man before he sticks it to you. But if you keep your eyes peeled and your ear to the ground, you can often surmise that layoffs are coming before the air is abuzz with rumors and management busts out the chopping block. While any of the following 17 layoff signs may be an unhappy coincidence or an otherwise innocent occurrence by itself, a combination of several should raise a serious red flag. Escape with your dignity and professional reputation by watching for the following warning signs and planning accordingly. Keep in mind, however, that sticking it to the man may not always leave your credibility intact.

1. Your company gets acquired. More often that not, corporate acquisitions mean that some employees are going to be sent packing due to redundancy. Study the acquiring company's organizational structure. Do other employees there have similar jobs as you? If so, do your best to become friends with them, learn how to perform all of their duties, gauge their weaknesses and sell them up the river when the layoffs come.

2. Your company's stock price plummets. The stock market can be fickle, but it is nonetheless a good indicator of a company's financial health and future well-being. If investors are giving your business a savage flogging, sell your stock while you still can and stash the cash to give yourself some flexibility when you receive your pink slip.

3. Your company's profit margins take a nosedive. A great deal of reputable companies disclose earning statements and quarterly results at all-staff meetings. These are the four meetings per year that you should not sleep through. Be alert as to whether your company hemorrhaged money during the last quarter (particularly if this has been an ongoing trend). If so, take it as a not-so-subtle hint to ponder your other options, regardless of the warm, fuzzy, we're-all-in-this-together-team speech the CEO feeds you.

4. The suits begin holding frequent "secret" meetings. Confidential meetings among executives are commonplace at most companies, but more closed doors and hushed voices than normal should serve as a warning. For instance, if most of your department suddenly disappears for an impromptu two-hour meeting that you weren't invited to, you should at least ask questions — and be prepared to hear lies.

5. Your job duties are marginalized. If you went from handling your company's biggest Fortune 500 client to fetching lattes and fielding whiny calls from your manager's spouse in a matter of just a few months, you may want to think about whether your company considers you a vital part of its future.

6. You are asked to take a pay cut. Any self-respecting person with an ounce of sanity would raise serious objections to having their paycheck slashed, particularly if his or her performance has always been impeccable. But some companies will often ask employees to take pay cuts as a last resort before a major housecleaning.

7. Efficiency experts are brought in. Remember "The Bobs" from the movie "Office Space"? Those type of guys are called "efficiency experts," which loosely translates to "people who decide your job isn't so important after all." If you get wind that these fellows are haunting the office, look busy or take it as a definite cue to head for the hills.

8. Your direct reports go over your head. It's always nice to have some extra help on a big project, and it can be fulfilling to help groom the company's future leaders. But if you find that your youthful "apprentice" is muscling in on your most important duties or going over your head without permission, it may be time to have a little talk with him or her. The person may simply be a clueless overachiever with no understanding of workplace hierarchy, but it's possible that he or she knows something that you don't.

9. Routine expenses are suddenly cut. If you've constantly requested a fresh supply of pens or an office chair that doesn't wobble but haven't heard a thing in reply, it's a good bet that the company's finances aren't doing so hot — especially if the office manager has already been canned. Note: You may not have a job in a month, but rest assured that the executive team will likely still enjoy its annual, company-funded "off-site strategy meeting" in the south of France.

10. The email deluge suddenly dries up. A sudden, pronounced and prolonged drop in the volume of email you receive may be a welcome respite from communication overload, but it also might mean that key projects that would have normally been assigned to you are being handled by employees that the company sees as key to its future. Meaning, not you.

11. Your company begins outsourcing a large amount of internal projects to India. Sure, India is a source of cheap labor that many businesses have tapped into to save cash. But if almost every major company initiative is being handled overseas, assume that your employer is struggling to survive.

12. Your industry friends begin losing their jobs. If you've been in the same line of work for a number of years, it's likely that you have a number of acquaintances and former co-workers in your industry. Use your professional contacts like canaries in a coal mine; if they start losing their jobs, you may not be far behind. Find another gig, prepare for unemployment or consider becoming a consultant.

13. You notice unfamiliar security guards around the premises. Companies often hire extra security personnel on days that employees are let go, ostensibly so that those who blow a gasket can be manhandled off the premises before they cause a ruckus and that those with access to important company data don't walk out the door with state secrets. If a couple of 275-pound bruisers start hanging around the break room, you or one of your colleagues may have a shorter-than-expected work week.

14. You notice boxes stacked in the hallway. A fresh stack of boxes at the office ordinarily may not raise questions. But if you're already suspicious that a layoff is about to go down, ask the office manager or other in-the-know employees what the boxes are for. If your question is met with stutters, averted eyes or a nonsensical reply, it may not be just the paranoia talking.

15. You see news vans in front of the building. A few job cuts at a small, local business aren't likely to cause salivating reporters to come knocking at a company's door. But if you work for a large, well-known, newsworthy company — say, for instance, Google — and you notice a media swarm near the building when you return from lunch, it's a safe bet that something has happened.

16. Your company plans to move — to a smaller building. If the startup you work for is abandoning its expansive, elegantly designed digs for a tiny former storefront in the part of town where chalk outlines on the sidewalk are a routine occurrence, you shouldn't need to be told that the salad days are over.

17. The CEO is indicted by a grand jury. The shady exploits of white-collar criminals might make good fodder for late-night talk-show hosts and comedians, but if the CEO is facing a long stretch in Sing Sing, there's nothing funny about your company's future.

Of course, there's always the chance that you hate your job or stand to score a handsome severance package if the ax falls. If so, sit back, smile, relax and entertain yourself and your soon-to-be-ex-co-workers with some good, old-fashioned, childish office pranks.

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