Thoughts on branding, design, writing and life by Kevin Potts. Established 2003.

Prepare to Get Laid Off

In this economic downturn and era of layoffs, it is important for designers to be smart about their future, and to plan for the worst case scenario. There are several things that can be done in advance of layoffs to help hit the ground running with a network of lead opportunities already in place. Bottom line: be smart, and don’t think you’re safe.

We all know the pros and cons of operating independently versus working for another company. No factor more clearly illustrates the difference than income stream; freelancers control their own financial destiny, but their corporately employed brethren are tethered to a regular paycheck.

Being independent carries a built-in element of risk. Income can only be projected so far, and the fat times are irrevocably tied to the lean times, instilling a survival mentality and a non-stop hunger for work. Being employed by a company comes with a steady paycheck. Income can be projected indefinitely; salary is defined on a yearly basis as opposed to a project-by-project basis.

Complacency, Not Job Security

Working for a company is comfy. You know you’ll get paid on Friday, and then another Friday two weeks later, and then another Friday four weeks later, and sometimes you even get a bonus. Inevitably, this soothing repetition leads to what some might call “job security” — but what is really complacency.

This world has continually shown the concept of job security to be a dangerous fantasy. Companies who think they are doing well can lose everything in days. Industries that are considered recession-proof continue to tighten expenses. And no skill set — no matter how difficult or unique — is immunization against CFOs looking to cut costs through personnel reduction. In today’s modern jet-setting utopia, layoffs are the rule, not the exception.

Shaking the Snow Globe

As someone who was laid off during the dot-com implosion and who recently had to execute layoffs in my own creative department because of the current recession, I have seen both edges of that blade. Both are painful.

What is interesting, and rarely discussed, are the reactions of the survivors. Suddenly, “job security” loses all meaning. The financial complacency that so warmly covered everyone like a dreamy blanket is ripped away like a morphine drip, and the withdraw is instant and feverish. People continue to work hard — head’s down, no bullshit, thank-you-sir-may-I-have-another hard — but every time the manager’s back turns, a resume is getting tweaked, a portfolio is updated, personal business cards are getting designed, Twitters are flying and Facebook profiles are in utter, paint-the-roses-red bedlam.

Then, all of the sudden, life goes on. The second round of layoffs never comes. The CEO sends a memo saying things are gonna be alright. People start hearing about how their affected colleagues find other jobs, and maybe this recession isn’t so bad and we’ll all be OK after all. The resumes, portfolios, business cards, LinkedIn recommendation requests, and 30-panicking-Twitters-an-hour state of distress simmers down, eventually cools, and ultimately disappears, smoothed back into an opiate haze by the comforting rhythm of the bi-weekly paycheck.

This cycle of behavior is like shaking a gigantic corporate snow globe. It’s also class-A madness. Right now, the need to stay acutely conscious of potential layoffs never diminishes, and neither does the need to prepare for the worst case scenario.

Stay Sharp

There’s no sure-fire way make your job recession-proof. Designers and developers are often seated in marketing or IT, which take brass-knuckle beatings from economic downturns. Once management has set aim, there is no salvation — there is only mitigating the pain and moving forward as quickly as possible. So stay sharp. Follow these tactics to make your escape from “redundancy” as smooth as possible.

  • Save money.
    Retain three months of salary in an accessible savings account. When you get laid off, you’re probably eligible for unemployment, so this might be contingency money anyway. I can hear a lot of you blinking in disbelief at the amount, but just try.
  • Keep an active social life, both online and in meatspace.
    This enables you to keep connections fresh at all times, not just in moments of crisis. People are far more likely to respond positively to a regular contributor of the social circle — not to someone who just pops their head in the social door every time they need something, like, you know, a job.
  • File contact info for trusted colleagues.
    Over time, you develop trusted friends and colleagues at work. Make sure you have both professional and personal contact info. (Some companies strictly ban their employees from communicating with those who have been let go, so the latter avenue of communication may be the only one.) These may be your best start for the inevitable new-job networking circus.
  • Sharpen the resume.
    In this miracle age of technology, the idea of maintaining a resume seems incredibly pedestrian. But it’s important. Job sites and recruiters do not ask for LinkedIn profiles or the name of your Twitter account. These online places require different formats, so make sure you have the following locked and loaded:
    • PDF, although almost no one excepts them anymore
    • Word
    • Plain text, full version
    • Plain text, less than 3,000 character version
  • Retain an online presence.
    This does not necessarily have to be for freelancing. You just need a URL to give people; ideally, this has your resume and work samples, if applicable. A vanity URL is best (demonstrates personal style), but a professional site like LinkedIn or Creative Hotlist can work.
  • Treat every paycheck as if it might be your last.
    Read that again and think about it.
  • Have a plan.
    There’s a good chance you’re not going to follow through on some of the stuff I highlighted earlier. Not everyone has time to develop their own website, and three months of salary is hard to come by. Nevertheless, have a plan. Play out the scenario in your head — “if I get let go this week … what will I do?“ This is like having an escape route from your house in case of fire. No one wants to use it (duh) but you’ll get to safety a lot faster if you already know the steps.

You’re Not Safe. Really.

I have met way too many people who consider themselves irreplaceable. They think their talent, tenure and process knowledge are so critical to the company’s day-to-day operation that the idea of getting laid off is as preposterous as removing a corner of the Eiffel Tower and expecting it to remain standing.

Let’s be lucidly realistic for just a second. Every one is replaceable. Really. From the mail room guy to the CEO. There simply is not a position on earth that management can’t figure out a way to assimilate into the job responsibilities of the poor sap in the next cube over who didn’t get fired. The people at the top of the food chain are always thinking about stuff like that. That’s their job. Arrogance just makes the target on your back bigger.

So don’t be stupid. Don’t be lazy. And don’t believe management.

commentary + criticism


wrote the following on Friday January 2, 2009

Terrific post, Kevin. Can you post this 3 months ago back when I had a job and could have been doing this ahead of time?

Seriously though. Great information. Glad I’m doing all of it now.


wrote the following on Friday January 2, 2009

I second that. Great stuff! I especially like that you told folks to save their income now for when they need it later. I also like that you gave us the untarnished truth: Nobody’s safe. Not even the CEO. Scary, maybe. Enlightening, sure.

Nate Klaiber

wrote the following on Friday January 2, 2009

I think this is great advice, and some really good tips – but it doesn’t have to apply to the state of the economy right now. I think this is just good business practice to be protective and hungry. Any business doing the opposite is destined for trouble, in my opinion.

I’ve had these same thoughts when the economy was in a much better state, and while I was working for a very stable company (still is stable). But the truth is, things could change in an instant – we aren’t guaranteed anything. The key is to always be prepared and have a plan, as you have stated with much better words than I could.

David Airey

wrote the following on Sunday January 4, 2009

Hi Kevin,

As Shane, Micah and Nate say before me, stellar advice. I found myself agreeing with each of your ‘stay sharp’ tactics — not the first time we’ve been thinking similarly.

Here’s hoping you have a fantastic 2009, and that you continue with your online publishing.

Jill Ducey

wrote the following on Sunday January 4, 2009

Glad you posted something specifically about this issue. I have had my three month emergency fund for a while. In fact I want to put more away for a rainy day. I haven’t felt complacent at my job in a couple of years, happy but not complacent.

I am really sad about whats going on but you should know that “we” understand. Unhappily understanding.

Peace to you ol’ boss and fwiend :)


wrote the following on Thursday January 8, 2009

Best (and only) advice my grandfather ever gave me: Always have a savings account.

I always try to put a percentage of each check into the account (at least half of what I pay into the tax account).

Michelle Taylor

wrote the following on Friday January 9, 2009

When the first round of layoffs happened, I was extremely surprised that I wasn’t let go. I proceeded in the next 6 weeks to constantly search job boards, submit resumes, and reach out to contacts. I never gave up my search and with that, came some great leads. These are leads that I hope will pan out soon.

I have about a year’s worth of emergency funds. A little excessive, but every news report is saying that things will get worse. As someone who is navigating the unemployment system and dealing with super busy recruiters, I would say a year is about right.

In my 22 years in the programming industry, I have ever been laid off. They say you go through a mourning period but I found, for me, that isn’t the case. I think that’s a testament to the job I held.

What I do know is that when I have shed tears, it’s been at the kindness of others.
a) My friend has offered me to stay at her place in Houston rent-free while I’m looking for work. And yes, my dog and two cats are welcomed as well.
b) My dog’s daycare, who at times when I’ve had phone interviews or meetings with Kansas Works, will take my dog at a reduced rate.
c) My hair stylist for charging me half price today because I need a hair cut to look my best for the job interviews that come my way.
d) My family – who stand by me not matter what. They watched me in the last year go from raving about my job to shedding tears because I’m powerless about my fate – fate that I didn’t make but by virtue of who I worked for, was decided for me.

Anyway, I’ve rambled on enough. I guess my point is a restatement of Kevin’s – prepare, prepare, prepare, because just dealing with everything else can be overwhelming (unemployment, insurance, stopping automatic bill pays, calling recruiters, etc, etc.). That way, when the worst does happen, you know that you’ve done everything you can.


wrote the following on Wednesday January 14, 2009

Very compelling, Kevin. Regarding the survivors of layoffs: My grad class read quite a bit of research on the survivors of layoffs and other outright corporate wrong-doings, such as Enron.

I think your snow-globe analogy to describe the behavior following it is perfect. Well put.


wrote the following on Tuesday February 3, 2009

Being self-employed for the last 10 years, I can confidently concur. Excellent information, thanks.

Steven Vachon

wrote the following on Tuesday February 10, 2009

I am irreplaceable.

Heheh, but I agree- most people think “it won’t happen to me” until it finally happens.

Brandon Bender

wrote the following on Thursday September 1, 2011

A person with real skills never should worry.