In today’s wacky economy, there are no guarantees. Here are the new rules of employment, from experts who know best.

By Amanda Armstrong and Carlos Greer
Updated April 13, 2009
Burcu Avsar

Once upon a time, talent, skills, and a strong work ethic were the keys to holding on to a good job. And if you wanted a new one, you spent some time polishing your résumé. Now, as everyone knows, all bets are off. To help you stay afloat―and, yes, even prosper―in the current career scene, Real Simple asked the executives who do the hiring and firing, along with human-resource specialists, career counselors, and economists, to answer your most pressing questions about how the working world works today.

1. Layoffs are happening all around me. How can I show my boss that I’m an asset?

“Stay visible, and try to connect with your manager,” says Eve Tahmincioglu, who writes a weekly career-advice column for “It’s much easier to lay off the loner in the corner, regardless of how great she may be at her job.” Don’t pop into your boss’s office every day asking for things to do―you’ll just come across as underemployed. Instead, try to pinpoint her exact needs and fill them. Write a monthly ideas memo geared toward saving money or creating new revenue streams for the business; volunteer to lead a special project outside your usual area; offer to mentor new staff. One partner at a business-consulting firm recently witnessed a middle manager turn from a quiet, behind-the-scenes guy into a vocal and proactive player over a month’s time. “It saved his job,” the partner says.

2. Is it suicide to ask for a well-deserved promotion now?

No, but be realistic. Although job losses dominate the news, there are other things going on out there. “In some companies, people are getting promoted and laid off at the same time,” says Carol Semrad, president of the Society of Human Resource Professionals, based in Chicago. That said, tread lightly. “Start the conversation with something like ‘I recognize that the timing may not be perfect, given the economic climate,’ ” suggests career expert Kirsten Dixson, an online branding coach based in greater Boston. Then be clear about why you should get a bump up: Are you doing the work of two people? Have you brought in a key client? If your boss’s response is positive but a promotion is out of the question now, “ask for other negotiables, such as more vacation days or a few four-day workweeks during the summer,” says career consultant Stephen Viscusi, the founder of, an online résumé-writing service. And if you’re turned down flat? Well, at least you’re still employed.

3. If I take a lesser job to get back on my feet, will I ever regain the career success I once had?

The goal for anyone who is unemployed right now is to be working, even if that means taking a lower-ranking position and less pay, says Ben Dattner, an industrial and organizational psychologist. “Having somewhere to go and something to do is important for your emotional well-being.” (Not to mention your financial well-being.) When the economy turns around, the experts say, prospective employers are more likely to look at your career as a whole, not focus on what you did during the recession. In the meantime, you may have to “get humble,” says Jodi Glickman Brown, the president of Great on the Job, a New York City–based career-consulting company, “and be willing to do more for less to be a top earner in the future.”

4. I’ve been offered a position at another company. How can I tell if it’s a risky move?

Research the new business before quitting your current position. Industries such as health care and education have traditionally been considered recession-proof. (And since President Barack Obama has focused on them as key areas for reform, they have the potential for even more job growth.) But there are no guarantees. If your would-be employer is a large, publicly traded corporation, you’ll have no trouble finding information on its stock price, bond rating, and overall financial health on its website. (Revenue growth is a good indicator.) But also check out the status of its clients. “If they’re in trouble, there’s a good chance any business that serves them will hurt soon, too,” says economist Lakshman Achuthan, the managing director of the Economic Cycle Research Institute, an independent business-forecasting organization in New York City. If the company is smaller, ask around to find out if its vendors are being paid; search the local paper or Google News for articles reporting layoffs or financial struggles at the firm. But don’t assume that a company that has recently shed staff is untouchable, says Viscusi: “If they’ve cut back so much that they need one or two people back, that’s a good sign.”

5. My job was eliminated. Can I still ask my old boss for a reference?

Sure. “Layoffs are a lot less personal than they used to be,” says Achuthan. “It’s now more about the numbers.” But before you ask, “make sure you’re being honest with yourself about why you were let go,” says Tahmincioglu. “If it was because of performance issues, or if you were given your marching orders without any leads or advice, then I wouldn’t push it.” Regardless, heed the old wisdom and keep bridges intact after you’ve been laid off. Don’t skip meetings, slack off, or do what one employee at a PR firm did―send a mass e-mail to the entire staff, berating management. “Needless to say, she did not receive a response or a recommendation,” says a director of the PR firm.

6. What’s the best way to market myself in this economy?

Highlight your skills instead of your previous title or position, especially when applying for a job outside your usual industry. “A line like ‘Supported 20 attorneys in preparing and filing briefs’ will resonate far more with a prospective employer than ‘legal assistant,’ ” says Dixson. Tailor your résumé to each position you apply for, and use the language that’s in the job description, especially when responding to an online posting; the technology used on these sites scans résumés and ranks them by matching keywords. If you’ve done a smattering of short-term projects while out of work, list only the relevant ones under a heading like “freelance” or “consulting.” Otherwise you could come across as a job hopper. And use humor and creativity when appropriate to get an employer’s attention. Linda Shear, a human-resources executive for Whole Foods Market, received an application for a marketing position wrapped in a papier-mâché chili pepper. “It certainly made me look at the candidate’s résumé a few times and give him a call,” she says. (Though in the end he wasn’t a good fit.)

7. What are the new dos and don’ts of interviewing?

  • Do research the company. “The best advice I can give is to know the company you’re interviewing with,” says Adria Alpert Romm, a human-resources executive for Discovery Communications, which has more than 4,000 employees worldwide. Recruiters now have less time to spend with each candidate and can get annoyed by basic questions about the company’s current projects, clients, and competitors. “I interviewed someone recently and he boasted about how much he loved one of our shows. The problem was that the show was on a competing network! It was clear to me that he knew nothing about Discovery,” says Romm.
  • Do bring along visuals. “Walking in with a piece of paper and a résumé isn’t enough nowadays,” says Romm. Use a small binder with visual aids or even a PowerPoint presentation to illustrate your skills and experience and explain how they relate to the brand. But keep your spiel short, 10 minutes maximum.
  • Do try to make a personal connection. Comment on the artwork in the office or an object on the interviewer’s desk. A warm moment will help you stand out in her memory.
  • Don’t use the meeting as therapy. A prospective employer doesn’t want to hear about your sleepless nights or how the economy is putting a damper on your daughter’s wedding plans. “By seeming desperate, you could reduce your bargaining power, especially when it comes to salary,” says Ana Dutra, chief executive officer of Korn/Ferry’s Leadership and Talent Consulting, at Korn/Ferry International, based in Los Angeles, the world’s largest recruiting firm.
  • Don’t appear overconfident. A PR-firm director cites an interview in which the candidate challenged him with his multiple offers from other agencies. Although the candidate was qualified, his bravado turned off the director immediately.

8. Should I offer up my current salary in an interview?

No, says Brown. “Try to stay away from hard numbers.” But if you’re asked, be honest. Never overstate your earnings, but do mention additional benefits, such as your vacation days and health plan. If you don’t know how much the position pays, before your interview visit, a search engine that provides the pay scale for most jobs based on geographic location. Also, come up with a few reasons why your skills and qualifications―a second language, an advanced degree in a related field―might warrant more money. “Anyone with skills outside her specialty should request a higher salary, as it’s less expensive for a company to pay one person a little more for those abilities than to hire an additional employee,” says Semrad.

9. Should I look for another job while I still have my current one?

In general, experts advise employees in good standing to sit tight and weather the storm. But if you know your company is poised for cutbacks, it’s wise to put feelers out. Start your search with your firm’s competitors. “They’ll see the value in not having to train you,” says Viscusi. Naturally, you should keep your inquiries quiet; schedule meetings and make phone calls outside work hours. Don’t broadcast your search on social- or professional-networking sites like Facebook and LinkedIn or send lead-seeking e-mails that can be easily forwarded―all the way to your boss’s in-box.