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From outside it looks odd when a company offers workers voluntary redundancy. This happened in New Zealand on Thursday when the ANZ Bank asked staff to volunteer for redundancy.

There’s no confusion a company making such an offer wants to cut its wage bill. This means cutting staff. Or to use the fashionable euphemism ‘downsizing’. To my ears the other popular phrase ‘change management’ is downright Orwellian.

Why would managers offer voluntary redundancies and not draw up a hit list?

Redundancy is most attractive to people who find it easiest to get good jobs elsewhere. It can mean collecting a sizable payout on a Friday and starting a new job, with a similar or better salary, on Monday. They get a windfall, the troubled company cuts its payroll, There’s little disruption and minimal residual resentment from the remaining workers.

To use another modern management cliché: a classic win-win arrangement.

But the people most willing to accept voluntary redundancy, that is those who are most employable, are the people an employer can least afford to lose.

A badly run voluntary redundancy programme can see the experienced, highly skilled, motivated workers depart taking their accumulated knowledge and energy with them. On the other hand, people with few or out-of-date skills are the least likely to volunteer for a redundancy package. So if the process isn’t carefully managed, the overall effect is a dumbed-down workforce.

Of course, this may be deliberate.

Even worse, skilled people opting for redundancy may take their know-how and inspiration to a competitor. In some case, these people could start their own businesses and become competitors.

This is what happened during the 1980s and early 1990s when technology companies kept slashing their workforces. Many lost their best people to competitors, a handful left their employers with the ability and capital to start their own businesses just in time for the dotcom boom.

Ironically, during this period, those technology companies that had earlier cut staff numbers suddenly needed to hire new people to meet the increased demand for experience and skills.

No matter how bad things have been, when you quit a job, part on good terms.

Australians and New Zealanders are bad at making a clean break. We’re too blunt and our work culture doesn’t help.

Keeping perspective when you’re given 30 minutes to empty your desk isn’t easy. The good news is this response to a resignation is rare.

Parting on good terms is also difficult if you quit because of workplace problems—maybe the colleague from hell or a tyrannical boss. Even so, you must resist the temptation to even the score.

There are three justifications for making a clean break:

  • Things change. A difficult boss will one day move on. The company might change its pay policy. A new espresso machine might replace instant coffee. Either way, it doesn’t do to burn your boats. You might want to work at this place again—one day.
  • Even if you plan to burn your boats with an employer, think of your reputation. Reports of bad behaviour during your notice period will spread. Bosses talk to each other more than you think. So do colleagues. Bad behaviour at this stage can undo all the hard work you put into establishing your reputation.
  • A messy split is no way to start the next stage of your life. We’re not talking about bad karma, this is more practical. As you wrap up one stage of your life, you should make a positive preparation for the next. Allowing your bitterness or anger to boil over means you lose focus.

Here are six things you should do before starting a new job.

  1. Tell your existing employer you are leaving. Do this fast and stay as professional as possible. Don’t make a big production number.  It’s best to do this face-to-face. If that bothers you, write a short letter – not an email.
  2. Tell your existing employer why you are going. Focus on the positives – even if there are negatives. Say your new workplace has wonderful coffee. Don’t whinge about the powdered Nescafe.
  3. Wrap up loose ends. If you can finish projects do so. Try to ease the transition for whoever is going to fill your shoes. You never know, that person could be your boss one day.
  4. Work out your notice in good faith. Don’t start late and leave early or skive off to the pub. Work normal hours—of course no-one will expect you to work around the clock now you are on your way.
  5. Remember to thank people for the good times – there must be some. Be positive but sincere. Colleagues will remember your parting words longer than the thousands of words spoken while working together.
  6. Close on a high note. Singers leave the best songs for their encore – try to do the same.

Look for jobs that give you the right experience for the long haul. In today’s job market that’s easier and more important than getting more money.

For more than a decade now the hottest spot in the knowledge worker job market is for people who combine strong technical skills with an understanding of how business works. At the high-end salaries in excess of $500,000 are achievable. Although to get this money you’d need to be highly experienced and at the top of your profession.

But there’s an important twist. Employers aren’t just willing to pay for paper qualifications; they want to see real evidence of solid experience.

Evidence of a strong track record is even more important in a downturn than in the good times because employers simply can’t afford to take a punt.

Experience, delivery

Right now an ability to deliver is critical. No one is going to pay anyone a cent unless they can deliver exactly what’s expected. And this comes back to the basic principle of interview and selection; past behaviour is the best predictor of future behaviour.

The logic goes like this: If you’ve done the job before, you can do it again. If you’ve done it before, did it well learning new things along the way then you’ll do it better next time.

In other words, knowledge workers should look for jobs giving them the right experience, not an immediate high salary. The strategy that pays off in the long-term and a wise move in a downturn.

During previous recessions (the early 1990s, just after the dotcom crash) the knowledge workers who had the most trouble finding work were those who had previously enjoyed puffed up salaries. Often they were puffed up themselves and didn’t have a track record of delivering.

Remember that the right kind of experience will almost always beat paper qualifications in an employer’s view. Faced with the choice between spending $30k on a masters’ degree and taking a $30k pay hit to work on a prestigious project, the latter is the better investment.

There was a time when bosses demanded loyalty. In return they’d give you a job for life – or at least a sizable chunk of it, along with steady progress through the ranks and pay rises.

At some point the social contract broke down. Employers no longer expect you to stay for ever. Or at least most don’t. If they want to keep your skills, talent and enthusiasm they’ll offer you equity, options or another incentive.

So you’re off then?

From a younger person’s point of view, moving on should not just be about earning better money. You should also build your curriculum vitae. You must balance the variety of skills and breadth of acquired experience against the need to show stability. Make sure you make a tidy, clean break and stay friends.

Your next employer may not care if you have only been in your current job for 10 months, but later employers will.

It’s important that you don’t appear to be a butterfly flitting casually from job to job. On the other hand, smart recruiters recognise five years at a single employer might not mean five years of experience, but the same year of experience repeated five times. It might also show an unambitious nature or even a lack of gumption.

No easy answers

There are no hard and fast rules. Details differ from discipline to discipline and from region to region, but after talking to recruiters and people who successfully manage their careers the following seems to be about the right recipe for today’s job market:

  • It’s OK to have a new job roughly every year up until around your 30th birthday.
    Assuming you graduate at 22, that means you can safely fit in seven employers before hitting your 30s. Less than three employers in this time means you probably haven’t learnt enough. Higher degrees, periods of self-employment and bar-keeping in London each count as a single employer.
  • When you hit 30, you need to slow down. Individual jobs should last between 18 months and three years with an average of over two years.
    Aim for four jobs between your 30th and 40th birthdays. Don’t worry if one lasts less than 18 months—but make sure you have a good explanation if there is more than one short-term job. Higher degrees and periods of self-employment are still cool. Indulgent goofing-off (i.e. bar-keeping in London) can look flaky to some employers, but accomplishing something (writing a book, sailing single-handed around the world or climbing Everest) is OK.
  • Above 40 it’s OK to stay a little longer with employers, but not too long and certainly not if you stay in the same role. The lower limit of 18 months still applies but you should be looking to clock up some extended periods of more than four or five years with a single employer.

Technology companies talk up their products and technologies. Let’s not mince words: they are hype merchants.

They hire professional public relations consultants and advertising agencies to whip up excitement on their behalf.

Sometimes they convince people in the media to follow suit and enthuse about their new gizmos or ideas.

Occasionally the media’s constant search for hot news and interesting headlines leads to overenthusiastic praise or a journalist swallowing a trumped-up storyline.

Hype cycle

None of this will be news to anyone working in the business. What you may not know is that the IT industry’s shameless self-promotion has now been recognised and enshrined in Gartner’s Hype Cycle.

Gartner Hype Cycle

 

Gartner analysts noticed a pattern in the way the world (and the media) viewed new technologies. This is a huge initial burst of excitement rapidly followed by a sigh of disillusion and, eventually, a more balanced approach.

This observation evolved into the Hype Cycle represented graphically in the diagram. The horizontal axis shows time, while the vertical axis represents visibility.

Five phases:

In the first phase, Garter calls it the “technology trigger”, a product launch, engineering breakthrough or some other event generates enormous publicity.

At first only a narrow audience is in on the news. They may hear about it through the specialist press and  start thinking about its possibilities.

Things snowball. Before long the idea reaches a wider audience and the mainstream media pays attention.

This interest gets out of control until things reach the second phase, which Gartner calls “the peak of inflated expectations”. At this point the mainstream media becomes obsessed – you can expect to see muddle-headed but enthusiastic TV segments about the technology.

You know things have peaked for sure when current affairs TV shows and radio presenters pay attention.

At this point people typically start to have unrealistic expectations. While there may be successful applications of the technology, there are often many more failures behind the scenes.

Trough of disillusionment

Once these disappointments become public, the Hype Cycle shifts into what Gartner poetically calls the “trough of disillusionment”. The mainstream press will turn its back on the story, others will be critical. Sales may drop. The idea quickly falls out of favour and seems unfashionable.

Occasionally ideas and technologies sink beneath the waves at this point, but more often they re-emerge in the “slope of enlightenment”. This is where companies and users who persisted through the bad times come to a better understanding of the benefits on offer. As a rule of thumb, most of the media has lost interest and may even ignore things, the good stuff just happens quietly in the background.

Finally, the cycle reaches the “plateau of productivity”. This occurs when the benefits of the idea or technology are now widely understood and accepted.