How Free-Agent Tactics Boost Your Job Security

As an independent consultant, I’m astounded when people say, “I’d love to do what you do, but I’d miss the security of a paycheck every two weeks.”

What’s astounding isn’t that some professionals want to enjoy the benefits of free agency without taking any risks. There’s always a segment of the population wanting to get something for nothing. What surprises me is that in this current cycle of layoffs, employees believe that they’ll get a paycheck in two weeks.

Nearly half a century ago, William H. Whyte Jr. immortalized the concept of “The Organization Man” in his book of the same name. Washington, D.C., writer Daniel H. Pink describes this epochal figure in the book “Free Agent Nation” (Warner Books, 2001) as “what was then the quintessence of work in America: an individual, almost always male, who ignored or buried his own identity and goals in the service of a large organization, which rewarded his self-denial with a regular paycheck, the promise of job security, and a fixed place in the world.”

Can it be that two generations later, we still believe in this outdated notion of job security, that as long as we do good work, the organization will take care of us?

Layoffs aren’t just the domain of extinct dot-coms that should never have been in business in the first place. People were mostly aware of the risks associated with working for start-ups, and the most risk-averse stayed away. But layoffs have affected established companies, too. For example, Lucent Technologies had 155,000 employees a year ago and will have about 60,000 when the latest round of layoffs is completed in the next several months. In August, Ford Motor Co. announced plans to cut up to 5,000 white-collar jobs, and New York analyst firm Standard & Poor’s warns that even more drastic cuts would be needed.

Maybe I missed a meeting, but where’s the security?

Nearly all of us know someone who has been laid off in the past 12 months. Moreover, we’ve seen that it isn’t just the slacker or incompetent misfit who’s getting the boot. Many professionals with strong resumes, who had their choice of jobs, just happened to choose the wrong employer. They may have been with a company that couldn’t survive the confluence of a declining stock market, disappearing venture-capital funding and slowing technology sector. This perfect storm has left many capsized careers in its wake.

I worked on a consulting project at a company for which monthly layoffs became the only solution to conserving cash in the face of declining sales. I saw firsthand the shock and anger expressed by laid-off employees, and the despair and worry of those who remained. They wondered when it would it be their turn. It seemed paradoxical that as a free agent, I enjoyed the most security. But I did. I had a contract, I knew exactly when my project would end, and I prepared myself for it. I didn’t worry about the layoffs that were happening around me. I focused on doing good work for my client and continuing my plan to build my free-agent business.

Free agency certainly isn’t for everyone. It takes work to diversify a client base so that success doesn’t hinge on one customer. But company employees can adopt some free-agent tactics that can make them more valuable to their employers and help them get back on their feet faster should they fall victim to the corporate ax.

  • Change your attitude. Your company never promised you lifetime employment, so don’t expect it. Realizing this fact is critical. A layoff can happen to anyone at any time.
  • Do your job well. Though good work won’t guarantee you’ll be spared if your company gets in trouble, don’t make it easier on your employer to get rid of you.
  • Keep learning. If you’ve been with the same company or job for many years, what new skills are you able to offer your current employer or the next one? Take a class in Internet marketing, financial analysis or business writing. If your company offers tuition reimbursement, take advantage of it. If it doesn’t, take the class anyway.
  • Network. Join a professional association. Get in touch with former colleagues who have left your company and find out what they’re doing. Make connections with professionals outside of your company. You never know when you might need them.
  • Get a plan. What would you do if you knew you were going to be laid off in six months? Is there something you’ve always wanted to do? Start researching your idea now or take a class in that subject. Developing a plan and acting on it will help you feel in control of your career destiny and give you confidence to pursue opportunities wherever they may appear.

These tactics are all about self-reliance. Once you face the fact that no one is responsible for your career except you, you’ll enjoy at least one benefit of free agency: an inner security that no single organization can give or take away.

Career, HR, job