3 Unexpected Signals Employers Send Before They Fire You

By Andrew McDermott
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startled rabbit

You’re afraid.

If you’re like most web developers, you often worry about losing your job. The fear is always there, lurking in the back of your mind.

Am I next?

Most employers are seen as disloyal. If push comes to shove, they’re more than happy to show you the door. When they do, it feels like a betrayal.

For Employers, It Isn’t a Betrayal

It’s just business.

At least, that’s what we’re expected to believe. Dig a little deeper, and we see that employers and developers …

  1. … don’t trust each other. It’s common for developers and employers to distrust each other from the very beginning. Salary negotiations are focused on squeezing as much value out of the other side, while minimizing what’s offered in return.

  2. … rarely build a stable relationship. The employee/employer relationship is unsafe. Say the wrong thing, or say No to your boss, and you risk losing your career.

  3. … are inward focused. For the most part, developers and employers are focused on themselves — because both sides feel they have to be.

  4. … lack loyalty. For most, long and medium term employment has become a thing of the past. Some believe long term loyalty affects your value in the marketplace.

It isn’t just business, but even so …

Sometimes Your Employer Just Wants to Get Rid of You

Maybe you’ve lost the office politics game. It could be that your employer’s about to lose a major client, forcing them to lay you off. Maybe something’s gone wrong and you’re the scapegoat. Whatever the reason, your employer may feel the need to dump you.

What does this mean for you, the developer? At some point in your career you’ll be fired, laid off, demoted or aggressively “encouraged to quit.”

Most developers never see it coming.

Is that even possible? Is it possible to spot warning signs indicating you’re about to lose your job, way ahead of time?

Absolutely.

I’m not talking about the obvious signs — such as your boss announcing layoffs, or that your company isn’t doing well, etc.

Waiting for these signs means it’s too late. I’m talking about signs lurking in the background.

You’re About to Be Fired. The Signs Are There If …

You know where to look. The usual signs aren’t all that helpful, because it’s usually too late to do anything. If you’re waiting for …

  • management to announce layoffs
  • your boss to mention they’ve lost a major contract
  • your unpredictable workload to resolve itself

… you won’t have time to act when the announcement comes. You need a different set of tools. These tools need to (a.) give you plenty of time to act, (b.) be a reliable predictor, and (c.) give you options. One more thing. These signals require three things:

  1. some digging (don’t worry it’s simple and easy)
  2. understanding the information you dig up
  3. an understanding that these signals are about the business, not you.

Let’s look at the first signal.

Signal #1: You’re not part of the in-group

A meta-analysis conducted by Talya Bauer et al. discovered that feeling socially accepted was a key factor in employee success.

If you’re part of the group, you stay.

More importantly than that, they make the companies they serve more successful. But why do things work out that way? Because becoming part of the group gives everyone greater access to information and resources.

You share information and resources you have with the rest of the team, and they (your coworkers and the business) share with you.

This may not seem like much, but it’s vital. It’s vital because it’s the only way you’re able to demonstrate your value.

Reddit user FiletOfFish1066, has just been fired from his programming job at a major tech company. He was employed for six years receiving an annual salary of $95,000. What did he give his employer in return?

Nothing.

From around 6 years ago up until now, I have done nothing at work. I am not joking. For 40 hours each week I go to work, play League of Legends in my office, browse Reddit, and do whatever I feel like. In the past 6 years I have maybe done 50 hours of real work. So basically nothing. And nobody really cared. The tests were all running successfully. I shit you not, I had no friends or anything at work either, so nobody ever talked to me except my boss and occasionally the devs for the software I was testing.

Here’s the amazing part. This developer actually gave his employer an incredible gift.

He figured out how to automate his job completely. Let’s say there were just 10 to 20 people in his department. That’s $1,000,000–$19,000,000 per year he could’ve saved his employer.

That’s leverage he could have used to bargain for a raise. If his employer refused, he could have taken that information to another company, or started his own business.

So, what’s the lesson here?

If you’re a developer who’s not part of the group, not socially accepted, it’s a signal you’re expendable. When disaster strikes, you’ll be the first to go.

Signal #2: Sales, growth and profit blindness

Developers, as a general rule, despise marketers and salespeople. We don’t trust them because they’re usually not very technically literate. Naturally this means many of them will lie to get what they want. They’ll do or say anything to make the sale.

That makes sense, right?

Our disdain for sales and marketing folks is based on their behavior, which can be pretty terrible.

Here’s the problem.

Your salary comes from sales and marketing. It’s how you measure employer health. Are they bleeding money? Is the market dying? Are they up to their eyeballs in debt?

If you want to keep your job, you’ll need to understand sales and marketing — namely, how sales and marketing is done at your company.

When it comes to sales and marketing, the vast majority of companies have some pretty bad habits. These bad habits make job security impossible.

These bad habits create business disasters that lead to job loss — whether it’s furloughs, firings or layoffs. Okay. What kinds of habits?

  • Sales/revenue has dropped 2 years in a row. This could be a result of several factors. Dying industries like newspapers, automation in the taxi and delivery industries, or poorly managed companies like Kodak who created the digital camera in 1975 but never let it see the light of day.

  • Nobody knows where profits come from. Remember K-Mart? No one — employees, management or even vendors — knew which products were profitable. No surprise then that they’re circling the drain, continually laying off employees. Employees make fantastic decisions when they know which products have the highest margins and perform best for the company.

  • Sales force focused on volume instead of profit. Experts tell us “sales fixes everything.” But it doesn’t. Sales fixes everything if there’s profits, money left over at the end. That’s a problem, because sales often creates expenses. When there’s little to no profit, there’s little to no money to pay employees, which means furloughs, firings, and layoffs will follow.

  • Sales/revenues are 2x larger than net profits. Disaster is inevitable — a recession, investors drying up, a dying industry. When there’s profit you have a job, when these disasters hit there simply won’t be any money left to pay you. The business will either (a.) terminate as many employees as possible or (b.) keep everyone on board and die a slow, painful death.

See the problem?

Any problem that hurts your employer’s finances, eventually hurts you.

If you deliver results — money, connections, resources, time — you’re far more likely to weather the inevitable storm. But most employees won’t do the work to create transformative change for their employer.

So, they’ll lose their jobs.

Signal #3: Your company isn’t specific or unique

Consider the company you work for. What makes it unique?

Do you know?

Take a minute to check your company’s website, employment manuals, ads, brochures, etc. These documents should, in very specific terms, tell you what your company does best.

You should be able to:

  1. find something that’s specific and valuable (to customers)
  2. identify what you, your company are focused on.

Here are a few examples.

Let’s start with FedEx. FedEx was unique. They offered overnight delivery when their competitors didn’t. They guaranteed it and built their entire company around that promise.

FedEx: When it absolutely positively has to be there overnight

Chocolate is chocolate. No way to make that unique, right?

M&Ms: Melts in your mouth, not in your hand

What about something as generic as pizza?

Dominos: You get a fresh, hot pizza in 30 minutes, or it’s free.

These are ads.

Ads are annoying, but they’re also how you get paid. Each of these companies created a specific and very unique idea that’s focused on one goal.

Here’s a few more.

  • Google’s mission is to organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful.

  • Amazon: Our vision is to be earth’s most customer-centric company; to build a place where people can come to find and discover anything they might want to buy online.

  • Apple designs Macs, the best personal computers in the world, along with macOS, iLife, iWork and professional software.

What about some bad ones?

If your company relies on vague, generic statements like “top quality” or “satisfaction guaranteed”, you’re in trouble.

Why?

Because there’s no compelling reason for customers to choose your employer. There’s no focus or clarity so you can’t do your best work.

Which means you’re waiting for a trigger.

Could be a recession, declining industry, lost contracts — anything. When the inevitable disaster hits your employers, they pass the damage on to you; they’ll sacrifice you so they can survive.

These Signals Don’t Necessarily Mean You’ll Be Fired

Maybe some people get fired and others don’t. It’s really all about luck, right?

Actually, no.

These signals are the canary in the coal mine. They’re the disasters that will inevitably lead to a disaster. You have plenty of time, sure. But it’s difficult to tell when it’s too late.

As we’ve seen with Yahoo, the signs are there — if you know where to look.

It can be depressing.

It may seem like there’s no way to keep your job and survive. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Seeing the signs means you don’t have to suffer.

Awareness gives you options. You can use your time to find another job. You can speak up, doing what you can to help your employers. You can give yourself the time you need to launch your side gig.

There’s a lot that can be done. Do everything right and you may still lose your job. Awareness doesn’t mean you’re immune. It means you’re able to choose the outcome you want.

Sometimes Employers Just Want to Get Rid of You

But there’s no need to be afraid.

You were like most web developers, often worrying about losing your job. The fear was always there, lurking in the back of your mind, until you realized the truth.

It doesn’t matter if you’re next.

When you see the signals, you’re able to free yourself from the fear, from a bad situation. When push comes to shove, employers are more than happy to show you the door.

These signals give you power. They give you time.

Use these signals to change your situation or leave on your own terms, when you’re ready. Use them wisely and you’ll discover you’re no longer afraid.


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