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Although many people look at the day-to-day grind of going to work as something to dread, if you pressed them, most would say they appreciate the security that comes with knowing they have a job and a steady paycheck. Still, in the back of almost everyone’s mind, whether you are a CEO or a dishwasher, there is always concern about the prospect of that job disappearing suddenly. The majority of employment in the U.S. is “at will,” meaning that either the employer or the employee can decide to end the relationship at any time. Despite this, most people seek job security, and in many cases, feel as if they have it.
Job Security Defined
In the simplest terms, job security is a sense of assurance that you will remain employed for the foreseeable future – or at the very least, until you decide that you are going to move on. Job security means you are confident that your employer will keep you on board, regardless of the forces that affect the business.
Several factors can influence your sense of job security. The economy, individual conditions affecting your employer and your own performance can all have an effect on your employment. For instance, while the economy might be healthy, if your company has hit choppy waters due to poor management, you might not have the same level of confidence you would if your company was doing well. By the same token, if your boss is constantly reprimanding you for missed deadlines, or you made a big mistake on a major project, you could be facing unemployment because of your own job performance.
Some people have job security thanks to the terms of their employment; for example, they have a contract or are protected by labor legislation or a collective bargaining agreement. Generally speaking, those working in education, government, law enforcement and healthcare have the highest levels of job security. Among the careers with the lowest rates of job security are those in struggling industries, like telemarketers, as well as agricultural workers and unskilled laborers such as dishwashers and cleaners. However, the field with the highest rate of unemployment, and therefore the lowest rate of job security, is acting – 26.6 percent of actors are out of work.
Why Job Security Matters
Job security is important to both employees and employers. From the employee perspective, the importance of job security is clear: Job security means a steady paycheck. Unemployment usually means taking a major financial hit, and extra worry and anxiety about bills and debt. Even if you aren’t unemployed, constantly worrying about whether you will have a job next week or even next year can hurt your productivity, which keeps you from being the best employee you can be. Not to mention, increased anxiety from any source isn’t good for your health, and feeling constantly on edge can be damaging to anyone’s self esteem. No one wants to walk on eggshells all the time, and feeling secure in your job prevents that.
In fact, creating a sense of security for employees is one of the best ways that companies can not only attract and retain talent, but also ensure that they are getting the best possible work from their people. By communicating to your team that their jobs are safe and that they are a valued part of the team, you create loyalty among employees, and a desire among them to work hard. That doesn’t mean that underperforming employees shouldn’t be let go when appropriate, as there should be a correlation between performance and job security, but loyal, hardworking workers should be rewarded with the knowledge that they can stay on – not fear that they can be replaced by someone cheaper or faster.
Signs That You Have Job Security
Being told your job is secure – or knowing that it’s safe because of a contract or union agreement – is clearly the best way to know that you won’t be out on the street anytime soon. Unfortunately, many leaders are reluctant to come right out and tell their employees that they are safe. In some cases, the lack of communication is simply a political issue, and your boss is afraid to say anything for fear of looking bad if something changes or does not want to rock the boat if not everyone is in the same position. In other cases, the lack of news is a deliberate, if misguided, move to keep employees on their toes and working hard. These bosses believe that if you are constantly worried about getting fired, you will work harder to avoid that fate – even if it’s not even on the table.
It’s also possible that your boss may not discuss job security with you because they are complacent, and assume that you know you’re secure because you haven’t heard otherwise. They prescribe to the “No news is good news” school of management, but this is detrimental, as most people would prefer to know where they stand, even if they are underperforming. That being said, even if your boss doesn’t tell you that your standing with the company is secure, there are other signs that you won’t be going anywhere anytime soon. For instance:
- You’re regularly asked for your help and input on projects. If you are the “go to” person for help with projects or to answer questions or provide guidance, especially from management or senior members of the team, then you are likely to be safe. This is especially true if you have skills or knowledge that no one else has or you can offer something unique that no one else can.
- Your boss relies on you. Again, here is where your skill set will prove invaluable, because your boss will want to keep you around if you can do something she can’t, or you prove you're indispensable. Learning to anticipate your boss’s needs and be one step ahead can aid in this goal.
- You get a promotion. Companies don’t promote people they want to fire. That’s not to say that a shifting economy or business conditions couldn’t affect your job security post-promotion, but if you are regularly getting great reviews, raises and new responsibilities, it’s safe to say you aren’t on the chopping block.
Signs That Your Job is in Jeopardy
Just as there are clues that you have a good thing going, there are also signs that you might be going on some interviews soon. While most of these alone are not definitive signs that you’re going to lose your job, taken together, they could indicate troubled waters ahead.
- You’ve received warnings. This is the most obvious sign that you should be worried about your job. If you’ve received a poor performance review or you’ve had meetings with your boss related to your performance, you have cause to be concerned.
- The rumor mill is turning. Rarely do layoffs or firings come without warning. There are often clues, and those clues can get the rumor mill going. If you start to hear rumblings of issues, both in your department and elsewhere, it’s best to keep your ear to the ground and pay attention. Rumors don’t necessarily mean that your specific job is in jeopardy, but it’s best to be prepared.
- Benefits disappear. If benefits like tuition reimbursement are suddenly reduced or disappear altogether, your company is likely facing a fiscal crisis, and jobs could be on the chopping block.
- Company-wide freezes. Another sign of trouble ahead is a freeze on hiring, as well as freezes or reductions in raises and bonuses. If positions are going unfilled, that’s usually a sign that big changes are coming and there could be some changes to staff.
- Expenses are scrutinized. A sudden new focus on expenses, and a level of scrutiny that you have never experienced before, is potentially a sign of a financial issue that could affect your standing. It might simply be a reaction to suspected abuse of the system, or it could be a sign of bigger problems.
- Reduced communication. Is your boss suddenly in a lot of closed door meetings and close-lipped about what’s going on? Is information that was previously easily accessed suddenly hard to find or not available? Does it feel like something is happening, but no one is saying anything? These are often signs of trouble ahead.
Other than a specific warning from your boss regarding your performance, none of these warning signs is an indication in and of itself that your specific job is in danger. Still, it’s best to pay attention, as several of these signs together could mean that the company is in trouble and your job is on the line.
How to Improve Your Job Security
Although it may be difficult to overcome some challenges that affect your job security, such as company financial problems, you can protect your job by positioning yourself well from the start so your boss won’t be willing to lose you, no matter what happens. This begins with understanding your company's – and your boss’s – goals and how you can help achieve those goals. You should also meet with your boss on a regular basis (at least yearly, if not quarterly) to discuss your priorities and goals and your progress in achieving them.
Becoming indispensable means exceeding expectations. Your job security is riding on your role within the team, so work on making yourself an expert in something – and never stop learning and developing. Strive to do your best work every day, but be open to feedback and constructive criticism as well. Be reliable, committed to communication (adapt your style to your boss’s) and helpful to others, and there’s a better than average chance that you can survive whatever comes your way.
What to Do When You Sense Trouble
So you sense trouble – and suspect that despite your best efforts, you aren’t as secure in your position as you thought. The first thing to do is consider the situation objectively. Is there a real issue, or did you just have a bad day – or week or month? Do you have evidence to support your concerns?
If you do, then it’s time to take action. Worrying about your position isn’t going to cushion the blow if you are let go, so prepare for possible unemployment. Create a budget, and start scaling back on your expenses to create an emergency fund if you haven’t already. Gather the information necessary to make an unemployment claim if you need to, so you don’t waste any time. Most important, start preparing to search for a new job. Update your resume, clean up your social media profiles and ramp up your networking efforts. Start doing some research on the positions that are available, and what they require. The better prepared you are to find a new job if something happens, the less likely it is to have a significant impact on your life and finances – and the more secure you will feel.
An adjunct instructor at Central Maine Community College, Kristen Hamlin is also a freelance writer and editor, specializing in careers, business, education, and lifestyle topics. The author of Graduate! Everything You Need to Succeed After College (Capital Books), which covers everything from career and financial advice to furnishing your first apartment, her work has also appeared in Young Money, Lewiston Auburn Magazine, USA Today, and a variety of online outlets. She's also been quoted as a career expert in many newspapers and magazines, including Cosmopolitan and Parade. She has a B.A. in Communication from Stonehill College, and a Master of Liberal Studies in Creative Writing from the University of Denver.