What Do You Need? With ColorComm CEO Lauren Wesley Wilson: Navigating Layoffs While Keeping Your Head High

Greetings! I’m Lauren Wesley Wilson, CEO of ColorComm, and I’m excited to welcome you to the What Do You Need weekly column. Every Tuesday during the month of April, I will feature my favorite parts of my debut book, What Do You Need? This week’s topic is an excerpt from Chapter 9: What Need…to Move Up or Move Out, section Layoffs Are Coming.

In this climate we are in, we know that layoffs are on the rise. The majority of people of color will experience a layoff or firing in their professional lifetime. I want us to get smart and spot when a layoff or firing could be coming.

Layoffs Are Coming

Layoffs happen. Some companies do rounds of layoffs routinely to trim the fat, so to speak. Some organizations cut entire divisions or go through internal restructures that eliminate positions. Budget cuts—due to a company’s struggles or the greater economic climate—might require letting go of lesser performers. Some companies go under entirely, putting the full employee roster out of work. Getting laid off is not necessarily a judgment on your performance, but it can definitely feel personal if you are told unexpectedly that you no longer have a paycheck.

It also feels personal if you are a woman of color, one of only a few at a company, and the majority of the folks who were laid off look like you. Research shows that:

1. Women and employees of color are deemed “redundant” or “nonessential” more often than their white male colleagues. We are the first on the chopping block when layoffs loom. During the pandemic the outlook was even worse—women of color were the hardest hit by layoffs and job loss.

2. Understanding how to see a potential layoff coming and how to bounce back afterward, is a vital aspect of continuing along your career path even in the face of hardship.

The biggest indicator that a layoff could be coming for you is workflow. If your workload is light and has been consistently for a long (or even long-ish) period of time, that’s not a great sign. If everyone or most of the people on your team have a light load, it might mean there’s not enough work to justify your position or that rather than three people at your level on your team, there’s only enough work for two.

On the other hand, you might suddenly notice that your workload is light even though the colleagues around you keep getting more and more assignments piled on. Take note if your workflow seems to have dried up even though you keep asking for more. If people seem unwilling to talk about future plans with you, take note of that, too. When I was laid off from my first job, I had been asking my manager questions about my future, and she kept asking me to “hold off for now.” It struck me as strange at the time, and I should have known it was a sign, but no one had taught me that, so I figured the best thing to do was to sit back and be patient. I worried that maybe I was being too pushy. But it’s not pushy to want to move forward! Being proactive is generally looked upon favorably. If your managers seem to be getting frustrated with your ambition rather than encouraging it, there’s usually something bigger at play.

Relationships are another critical piece when it comes to anticipating layoffs. When cuts are coming, someone usually knows. Word gets around. The more allies you have within your company, the more likely you are to catch wind of the company’s plans. Of course, these relationships could also be what saves you from getting cut altogether. Having powerful people in your corner could be the difference maker because those people can vouch for you when decisions are being made, and the names of “dispensable” employees are getting thrown into the ring. If you run point on a number of important clients or are the person who attracts them, those relationships could also keep you safe. Similarly, if your colleagues have relationships that will obviously keep them safe, you could be at risk by default. If one of your colleagues is the niece of someone in the C-Suite or the son of an important client, they are probably not getting the boot. Your company is not going to lay off a celebrity daughter, even if her output isn’t stellar. Sometimes, that leaves you in the hot seat.

You might also notice, one day, that your company is gathering information from you on processes or procedures. They might say things like, “Remind me of the process for working with this vendor? Can you walk me through the stages involved in producing that annual report?” If this comes out of nowhere or from a higher-up who usually wouldn’t concern himself with that level of detail, it could be a clue that they’re coming for you. Companies don’t want to cut anyone loose until they’ve gathered all the information necessary to train the next person.

Unfortunately, knowing how to spot a layoff usually isn’t enough to save yourself. By the time you can see it coming down the pike, it’s usually too late to course-correct. Layoffs happen fast.

Companies don’t plan to lay someone off and then wait six months to deal with it. If business requires cutting people from the payroll, an organization will act fast to get back on track. You likely won’t have a window to improve your performance and convince them to change their minds, which is why establishing yourself from the outset is so important. At the end of the day, when choosing who to cut, a company looks at performance, likeability, and connection; none of these can be turned around overnight.

Let’s say you anticipate getting laid off and don’t think you can do anything about it.

You’re still better off knowing ahead of time. If you’ve got a sense that you might be on the chopping block, then you need to start developing a plan. First of all, you want to gather all you can from your company before your access is cut off. Make sure you have all your contacts saved somewhere other than in your work email. Maybe you want to reach out to HR and ask them what to expect. Your questions can be simple: Do you anticipate layoffs this quarter? If so, will packages be issued to employees? If you’re laid off with a decent severance package, then you’ll be much better off than if you’re cut with no safety net. If that information is available ahead of time, all the better. You’ll also, of course, want to start saving. Even if there is a package, you never know how long it will take you to land the next job. If you believe your paycheck is in jeopardy, you might want to halt your spending for a bit, or at least cut back.

You also want to leave your company with a strong portfolio of your work product. If you think any jobs in the company are in danger, start getting together documentation and examples of your output. Try to gather any internal data that will demonstrate the success of your projects. Even if you think you’ll be safe, it’s smart to be ready—employees often overestimate their own security, and the moment you’re let go you could lose access to documents and work that you wish you had saved. The intention is to do whatever is necessary before you’re laid off to ensure you’re a good candidate for the next job you want. That might entail reaching out to your contacts and asking for introductions. Keep in mind that you want to leave on good terms with as many people as possible. Industries are small. You don’t know who knows who, or who you might work with again. It might be tempting to try to burn it all down in your wake, especially if you feel mistreated, but don’t take the bait. Looking out for yourself means parting ways with as much dignity as possible because it will behoove you down the line. If layoffs are coming, your entire focus should turn to how to set yourself up for success.

Updated: April 16, 2024 — 6:02 pm