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I ignored the many signs that my small company, which had been in business for 30 years, had terminal financial problems. Being an optimist, I was convinced that hard work and creative thinking could right the sinking ship — until a paycheck bounced. My employer promptly gave us new checks and paid the fees incurred from insufficient funds. But my relief was short-lived. A few months later, I left the company with six weeks of bad checks. The lesson: Fool me six times — shame on me.
I also had not heeded the warning signs at two other financially ailing companies. But now, I’m far wiser.
My previous company was big, employing about 2,000 workers at its peak, and has since become a shadow of its former self with many empty offices and cubicles. One of the first signs of doom was broken office equipment that wasn’t repaired. (“Just use the third-floor copy machine.”)
More recently, I freelanced for a huge global media company with a deteriorating bottom line that made daily news. That company cut the entire staff I reported to. My first clue something was amiss was when my editors suddenly stopped answering e-mails. I looked online and the staff’s photos and bios had been removed. Poof, like they never existed.
I see some common denominators in these companies and now I’m an expert at reading the writing on the wall. Here are some signs that your company is in trouble:
The company stops paying for coffee. This penny-ante cost-cutting sounded ridiculous when Bernie Ebbers, CEO of the telecommunications giant WorldCom, famously took out the coffee machines before the company went under. But, sure enough, the first sign of trouble at my large company was an announcement that they were going to stop providing coffee. The employees were so oblivious to what lay ahead there was an actual outcry about the lack of free caffeine. The lack of jobs came soon after. At the small company, the boss also stopped buying coffee before the checks started bouncing. And later, he stopped springing for toilet paper.
Creditors are calling. Credit card companies, clients we owed money to, and my employer’s car loan company were calling daily. Now I knew why he was suddenly backing his car into the lot, license plate away from the street.
The phones are cut off. Or the electric or the internet service. Your employer will say it was a mistake. It wasn’t.
The boss leaves early. This was true at both the small and large companies. The bosses who had always come in early and left late were now taking long lunches, and leaving two hours early with vague excuses. Some days they didn’t come in at all.
Bad news. Pay attention when your company or industry is in the financial news, and not in a good way. And listen to the company grapevine. The bosses have all canceled their expensive vacations? Hmm.
No travel. When the travel stops, and the trips to annual conferences and conventions you used to go to are canceled, it’s time to pack your bags for job interviews.
Lots of meetings on how to make the company more profitable. You’re finally told the company isn’t doing well and you need to submit ideas on how to fix it. You needn’t pay attention at these meetings because it’s already way too late to make a difference.
A cut in pay. Or a cut in hours or days. Or a furlough. This is the company’s last gasp. Make use of your new unpaid day off by polishing the resume and calling the unemployment office to see how much you’re going to get.