A Career Survival Kit

How to protect your job -- or find a new one -- in a scary economy.

The stock price of most major financial firms has plummeted. Such industry stalwarts as Bear Stearns, Lehman Brothers, AIG, and Merrill Lynch have essentially tanked. The economic impacts have extended from Wall Street to Main Street. How can you protect your career in increasingly uncertain times?

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Want to hold onto your current job?

If you're working for an organization you like, the rules for staying employed don't change in tough times; they just becomes more critical:

1. Find out if you're as good as you think. Most people live in Garrison Keillor's Lake Wobegone, where everyone feels above average. Alas, they're not. And don't count on your annual performance review to reveal what you need to know. Those reviews are often misleadingly positive if your boss believes that bad evaluations demotivate.

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Instead, get a 360-degree evaluation. Approach a few people -- such as a co-worker, a boss, a customer, a vendor, etc. -- and say, "Like all good professionals, I'm trying to keep growing, so I make a practice of periodically asking for feedback from people I respect. Would you anonymously send me a bit of feedback: a strength or two, a weakness or two, and an overall evaluation: excellent, good, fair, or poor. To assure your anonymity, just write the note in a standard font and drop it in my inbox or in the U.S. mail with no return address."

2. Be as much a profit source as possible. That usually means being line rather than staff: for example, sales rather than human relations, product manager rather than public relations manager. But it also means keeping your antennae out for ways for building the bottom line. Be sure you get credit for your ideas. For example, email a draft of your ideas to the staff for feedback so everyone knows they're yours.

3. Be indispensable. When Peter Keating, the incompetent boss in Ayn Rand's The Fountainhead, complained of too much work, Howard Roark offered to do some for him. Keating became addicted to Roark's help, which made Roark indispensable to Keating.

Other ways to be indispensable: become an expert at something critical to the organization. Sure it can be something obvious like being the guru on the new software your employer just bought, but it can be more subtle. One of my clients is a middle manager in a government agency in which there is ongoing racial strife. She became the bridge-builder between the feuding factions, making her indispensable.

4. Do things to make your boss look good. Of course, in meetings give the boss credit as often as ethically possible, but also consider less obvious approaches. For example, write an article for a trade publication in which you describe the innovation your boss initiated. Or give a workshop on that innovation at a professional conference.

5. Hitch yourself to a star. Is your boss a crashing meteorite? See if you can effect a transfer to a rising star. For example, if you see a star in the break room, say something like, "I've heard great things about you. If you ever need a little help on some crunch-time project, I'd be happy to help out."

6. Become beloved. Even if you're not the greatest performer, if you're popular among your co-workers, most bosses will keep you to avoid dispiriting the others.

7. Don't be expensive. In tough times, even if you deserve a raise and think you can get it, consider holding off. That way, if the organization later feels it needs to cut costs, you won't stick out as ripe for cutting.

Looking for a job?

In a weak economy, nonprofits will suffer: people donate less when times are tough. Private companies will be ever more aggressive in cutting jobs: automating, part-timing, temping and off-shoring as many positions as possible. So, if you're looking for work, I believe two of the smartest choices are to:

1. Work for the government. If you're not a self-starter, I believe the smartest choice is government employment, especially in health care, racial and immigration initiatives, and education (special education and community colleges should grow most). These are political untouchables -- they'll always get funded. And they'll probably get expanded under a liberal congress and if Obama wins the presidency.

2. Start your own low-risk business. Examples: a small chain of food carts, parking-lot-based oil changing, and even my own career: career coaching. See Entrepreneur's Guide to Success for more information.

Marty Nemko (bio) is a career coach and author of Cool Careers for Dummies.

Marty Nemko
Contributing Columnist, Kiplinger.com