Firing Line: Are You Next to Walk?

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On the Street, the ax can fall without warning, but if you listen closely enough, you'll probably hear it slicing through the air on its way down.

And skill at reading the signs of your imminent departure is particularly useful this time of year, since bonus time is also housekeeping time at many financial services firms.

Ken Taber, an employment law partner at New York's Pillsbury Winthrop LLP, says, 'The end of year tends to prompt decision making at a higher rate than you see at the middle of the year, and budget processes do the same as people start to think about which lines of business work and which don't.'

From December through March, a higher-than-average number of employers call Taber for advice on cutting away the deadwood. 'The whole end-of-year compensation process focuses managers very hard on who are the real contributors and who aren't,' he says.

The approaching storm

Foreshadowing takes many shapes, some more obvious than others.

'Particularly on Wall Street, if you're about to be fired, they're not spending a whole lot of time managing your expectations,' says Michael Flood, managing partner of Westwood Partners, a senior-level financial search firm in New York. 'If they've reassigned your assistant, it's usually pretty clear.'

Often, word gets around ahead of the pink slip. 'You become like a leper at work,' says Lee E. Miller, a former employment lawyer and managing director of NegotiationPlus.com, who conducts negotiating workshops at firms such as Bear Stearns, Citigroup and HSBC. 'Corporations can't keep secrets,' Miller says, 'You really have to watch whether your boss and your boss's secretary are avoiding you.'

Be on the lookout for changes in others' body language, such as lack of eye contact, stiffness, and formality. 'The spontaneous or informal conversations don't come up at all or become significantly less frequent,' says Jay Gaines, president of New York-based retained search firm Jay Gaines & Company, whose clients include Morgan Stanley, Deutsche Bank, and The Federal Reserve.

Meetings are another important clue. 'If you find that you're not invited to planning sessions, that's a bad thing,' says Taber. 'If you find you're no longer being asked to attend important meetings with clients, that's a bad thing.'

When information ordinarily communicated orally begins to show up instead in emails and other written records, think trouble. One in-house counsel at a financial institution began to suspect her job was in jeopardy when her longtime boss began 'papering over' everything with her, including complaints about her not being a team player.

Other signs include being subjected to a thorough 360-degree review for the first time, removal from distribution lists, not having your opinion sought, and being excluded from social outings.

Finally, an often-overlooked place to read the tealeaves is in the hiring process. 'When someone is going to be fired, whether it's in a month or 18 months, their input is not asked for in hiring decisions to the point where they may not be on the interview schedule,' says Eugene Bedell, managing partner at Jay Gaines & Company. 'Or they may be on the schedule, but no one follows up and says how did it go, or if they do, their opinion is ignored.'

If you see yourself in any of the above examples, look for the second installment in this series next week: 'Can your job be saved?'

tkrogers@efinancialcareers.com

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