Paton explains why it is important to hold your head up during a downturn, so
you can keep your job while all those around you are losing theirs
When organisations announce mass redundancies, it is inevitably HR’s
responsibility to pick up the pieces. While HR professionals may be good at
ensuring other staff cope with downsizing – providing counselling, legal advice
and shoulders to cry on – they often forget to look after themselves.
"When HR staff are working flat out to eject 2,000 to 3,000 people from
the business, they do not have time to think about themselves," says Aine
Hurley, partner in the business and professional services practice at executive
search firm, Odgers Ray & Berndtson.
A recent CIPD survey stated that the majority of HR professionals find the
redundancy process ‘traumatic’ and that it impacted on their working and home
life. But in today’s tight labour market, the HR department is just as much at
risk of being cut back as any other part of the business.
With little chance of moving onwards or upwards in such circumstances, how
should HR staff go about managing their careers in a downturn, particularly if their
department has already been subject to redundancies? How can you avoid being
next out the door?
The natural inclination might be to hunker down and try to become as
invisible as possible. But according to the experts, this is possibly the worst
course of action to take. So follow our guide to avoid becoming part of the
1 Reflect on your priorities
Ask yourself: what is important to you? Do you want to stick with the
business and put in the legwork to make a success of your current position? If
not, in the current climate, you might as well cut your losses immediately and
move on, says Juliet Killen, product management director at careers consultancy
If you are certain you want to stay put, examine your personal motivations
and values, and assess how they align with the business. Focus on what they
were previously, what they are now, and how you can make the best of a tough
"If people have left your department there is going to be a substantial
amount of work to be done. It’s about stretching," says Killen.
Flexibility, moving quickly and developing ‘career resilience’ are all key
survival skills, she argues. "If you are in control, you can adapt
2 Develop your skills
Within HR, a revolving cycle of skills are often required, argues Peter
Hood, principal consultant at career consultancy RightCoutts. At the height of
the mergers and acquisitions frenzy, due diligence and talent management were
the skills in demand. Now, downsizing and recruitment strategies are the key
areas. So it is worth making sure your skills are as broad-based and as
up-to-date as possible.
"In the US, HR technology is two or three years ahead, so try and make
yourself familiar with it. It’s good to be able to refer to something that you
have not necessarily done yet. You need to get outside your own comfort
zone," Hood says.
"What tends to occur, is that while development plans are established
for everyone else within the organisation, usually this does not extend to HR.
I have interviewed HR managers who have never updated their skills," he
Learning the skills to conduct a psychometric testing programme, for
example, or put an NLP (neuro-linguistic programme) in place, or simply to
successfully implement a new system or process, can all draw attention to what
you are doing, argues Andrea Eccles, joint managing director of career adviser
It is also vital to be completely up to speed with what is going on in your
own back yard, particularly which new employment laws are coming up. "If
you can be seen to be an expert, it increases your visibility," she says.
HR is still too often considered not to have enough financial or business
awareness, so why not look at the possibility of doing an MBA, or even going
outside the function completely, asks Hurley.
"Take some time to assess your personal development and training goals.
If you are already in HR, why not consider a finance or technical course? This
will help to counter preconceptions about HR people."
Polishing your presentation skills will make you more valuable as an HR
professional, she adds. A part-time MA in HR management could be another plus
depending on your career level.
"It’s about making yourself more marketable," says Hurley.
"This will be an asset when the market picks up. If you’re doing something
outside your area, you’ll also start building bridges with new departments. And
it’s good for morale too."
3 Look beyond your job description
Before the axe falls, it is important to try and create cross-functional
opportunities for yourself within your organisation, argues Hood.
"Try to take on another function. Many people fall into the trap of
doing project work, but you never get any kudos from that unless it’s your own
project or it gives you networking opportunities," he says.
Peter Sell, joint managing director of DMS Consultancy, says: "Look at
the HR strategies you have in place, and focus on how they can be improved –
what the change your organisation is going through will mean in terms of human
capital, your HR methodologies or even performance management tools.
"In a change situation, the people who go into denial and are not seen
to be contributing to the business are the individuals likely to be next for
the chop. You need to get your head above the parapet and show you are aware of
This could mean doing things as simple as running assessment days for new
graduate recruits, or looking at your training to promote people into their
first line-manager roles.
Essentially, survival is all about being visible and making it clear that HR
is not just a backroom service, says Hurley.
"It’s about reaching out," she says. "It is almost counter
cultural because in situations like this, people naturally go into their
shells. Above all, make sure that people do not perceive HR to be a narrow,
internally focused function. It’s not just pay and rations." she adds.
Another useful course of action might be to look at taking on different
roles at non-executive or boardroom levels, such as becoming a trustee or
"One thing people underestimate is the benefit of having a
public/private sector mix. Becoming a trustee or governor of a charity can be
an excellent networking opportunity, as well as being very worthwhile,"
While your gut instinct may be to work around the clock, a downturn may,
paradoxically, be the time to take a fresh look at your work-life balance.
Develop time away from the office to get fit and creative. Stretching yourself
mentally and physically outside the workplace often helps you perform better
inside it too, she adds.
4 Network internally and externally
Building a circle of allies is a key part of any survival plan. Sell advises
it is wise to identify champions of change, people who are in the position to
influence the organisation of your career. Get them on side and work at
building up your relationship and influence with them. Set aside specific time
to do this, rather than letting it slip in the day-to-day rush. "At the
worst, it’ll mean you’ll get a good reference," says Eccles.
If opportunities for networking internally are lacking, then organise
networking events across the company. They can raise morale and improve cross-function
working, as well as improving your profile and helping to adjust people’s
attitudes to HR.
Hurley says: "The problem is that marketplaces in a downturn start to
retrench and you need to get out and network. Look at the sector you are in. If
there is no body you can join, start one," she adds.
You will build up knowledge of best practice and how other organisations
operate, which can all be fed back into your own organisation, and will also
make vital future contacts.
5 Don’t be modest
Unlike our counterparts across the Atlantic, culturally, UK business
professionals often find it hard to blow their own trumpets. But in a downturn,
this can be a necessary evil.
Hood argues that, as an HR professional, you need to be in a position where
you are the one taking credit for what you have achieved.
"Usually, battening down the hatches is the wrong thing to do. If you
retreat and are not being seen to do anything, you will just speed up the
process of your own redundancy," he says. "You need to increase your
visibility and create opportunities for yourself."
Critically, he suggests that this must be "within the limits of your
own personality" – otherwise, people will smell a rat.
Employees left behind after redundancies often have low morale, or at least,
this is often assumed to be the case by managers.
"You are showing that despite everything, you are still motivated,
interested in the community and company and confident that you are contributing
something," says Odgers Ray & Berndtson’s Hurley. "You are
showing the company you are committed to them."
But trumpet-blowing must be based on results, warns DMS’ Sell. "Wearing
the suit and talking the talk is fairly superficial if you are not seen to be
contributing. HR’s influence is on the bottom line."
It is also important not to put senior noses out of joint, by going over the
head of your boss, for instance. While notorious for clogging up e-mail
in-boxes, the habit of copying in the boss of your boss on any initiatives you
are pioneering can be a useful way of keeping them informed without causing
6 Have an exit strategy
Doing everything right won’t necessarily stop the axe falling, so it is
worth having an exit strategy in place. This may be as simple as knowing when
to tell your firm you want out and the sort of package you’re prepared to agree
In a redundancy situation, it is most likely to mean ensuring that, along
with up-to-date skills, you have maintained good contacts with all the agencies
and headhunters – something you ought to have been doing anyway.
Taking advice from those who have left before you can be problematic, as it
is human nature for people to put the best spin on their new surroundings.
"How you cope with the negativity around the place can be really
difficult. Talk with people outside your realm, and try to improve your own
environment," says Hood.
If you focus on managing your current career, having an exit strategy might
not seem such a good idea. It can mean there is a constant question mark over
your motivation, says Eccles. But it should not be ignored.
"It is important not to have the exit strategy too far forward in your
mind, because during a downturn, companies want people working at 110 per
cent," adds Hurley.
If all else fails …
Still feeling stuck and unable to get
on? Then try the ‘elevator pitch’, argues careers guru, Bill Faust. The idea is
a new way to sell yourself and, suggests Faust, is a 21st century replacement
for the CV.
Normally no longer than a page, the ‘elevator pitch’ is designed
to say enough about you to sell yourself to a senior executive within the space
of a ride in a lift or, as the idea originated in the US, an elevator. It
should include information on your behaviour, skills, abilities, core
competencies, and how you intend to best deliver these abilities in the future.
It normally consists of four key elements, beginning with your
personal details. This is followed by a ‘personal promise’, covering who you
are, what you do and how you do it.
The main section of the pitch is an explanation of four or five
key core competencies designed to support your personal promise. Each will
include at least two examples providing evidence of how skilled you are in that
Finally, there should be a few lines on your career and
academic qualifications and any relevant work experience that has not already
As Faust wrote earlier this year: "The elevator pitch is
designed to maximise opportunities and open doors without introducing barriers
A variant of this approach, suggests RightCoutts’ Hood, is to
include a couple of sentences on your competencies on the back of a business
But it is also vital to be wary of the pitfall that in bursting
to get your information out, you forget to ask yourself ‘What do they want from
Selling your talents effectively is as much about making sure
you listen to what the other person is saying as about feverishly promoting who
"It is about using that approach, but it is also important
to listen," he says.