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How Can You Tell If You’re About To Be Laid Off?

How can you tell if you are about to get laid off? Sometimes you can't, but this handy guide outlines some of the key signs that the worst is about to happen.

In the early days of the railroad, before radios and cell phones, if you wanted to know if the train was coming, you could put your ear to the rail. The vibrations in the tracks could be heard long before you would otherwise see or hear the train coming. In the video game industry, layoffs happen a lot. Many times, the crew is caught unaware, and the results can be devastating. We’ve run stories before on how to find video game jobs, and what to do if you’re laid off, but how can you see trouble coming your way at work? How can you tell if you are about to be laid off? Why would you even want to know if trouble is on its way? Well, maybe you’re about to sign a year lease on an apartment, or buy a car, or enroll in a long term education program. These are all financially big things you would probably NOT want to commit to if you knew you were about to lose your job. For the most part, a company will NOT tell you about a layoff until they absolutely have to. They don’t want to unnecessarily panic people, and they may be actively trying to prevent such a mass layoff. Many times, these things are avoided or at least scaled back at the last minute. Usually, mass layoffs are a long time coming. If you know the signs and keep your ear to the rail, you may know it is coming before it happens. Is there any way to know if your company is about to lay you off or cancel your project? Sometimes. Actual results may vary, but read on for some signs of layoffs that I’ve relied on. One or two of these in isolation probably aren’t a big deal. If you are seeing three or four (or more) of these where you work, you should probably make sure your reel and resume are up to date just in case. Here they are, in no particular order.

Changes In Normal Meetings

If your studio has regularly scheduled team meetings, you can usually get a pretty good gauge of where things stand. What will you be working on coming up? What are the plans for the next trade show? If you suddenly stop having regularly scheduled meetings, this can sometimes indicate a massive shift in plans. For example, at one studio job I had, we used to meet every Friday and go over the work from the previous week. Every meeting ended with a brief overview of where we were headed. One week, we got an email that we weren’t going to meet. This can happen sometimes, and I was pretty green in the industry, so I thought nothing of it. The following week, we didn’t meet either. Another email went out, stating that we would meet again as a group in two weeks. This sent up many red flags for the guys who had been in the industry for a while. I asked them about it at the time, and they told me something was up, but didn’t know what. They knew it wasn’t good. I was too optimistic to believe that could be true. Sure enough though, when finally had our team meeting, we were told that this would be our last film for a while, and that as the movie wrapped and our departments finished, we would be laid off. Many of the people I worked with had recently bought homes, cars, etc, and were now in a mad scramble to figure out what to do. You do not want to be in this situation.

Many High Level Meetings That You Aren’t In

If leads are being called into meetings that are quite long, and then return from those meetings looking like someone just shot their dog, things are not good. That was most likely not a sprint planning meeting if it took several hours and people come out pale.

Numerous Unexpected Departures Of High Level People

This one kind of goes with the previous one. People leave jobs all the time. One or two people isn’t a big deal, depending upon their roles. If many people who are “in the know” start leaving the studio, maybe you should start looking for the closest life boat too. This isn’t the Titanic. There is no honor in going down with the ship. If lots of higher up people are bailing, maybe you should jump out, too.

Big Deals Falling Through

Did your game have a big pay day coming from a partner that got called off for some reason? Maybe Mountain Dew was going to give your company X number of dollars for a promotional tie in? Maybe a distributor in another country decided to pass on your title? There are usually large numbers associated with these types of arrangements. If they go away, so does the money. What’s the plan to make up the difference? Is there one? If not, you may want to have your resume and reel ready, just in case.

Big Changes To Milestones

Remember how you were supposed to have your first playable build in May, and then it got pushed? Why? What happened? If your entire team was working toward a date, then that date suddenly changed, there has to be a reason. It can sometimes be a bad reason. A lot of times, bonuses and profit sharing is directly tied to a deliverable date. If that date changes, you’re probably not getting that bonus when you thought you would. Maybe things are fine and you got some extra time for some new features. Maybe things are really bad, and your publisher just dropped you. It’s probably worth finding out why the milestones are suddenly different.

Huge Reduction In The Current Project’s Scope

Have you been on a team where you’ve worked for a year on a feature, only to have it cut at the last minute and shelved? Why? Why was your team cranking away only to have your work not go into the game? Is the game being cancelled? Maybe. Ask around and see what you can find out. Maybe the feature just wasn’t fun and now you’re going to work on some other aspect? This isn’t always a bad thing, but it should be a cause for pause.

How Are The Financials Of The Studio?

A video game series I once worked on released every year. One year, we did quite well, since we were the only game of that nature on the new Playstation 3. The following year, two of our biggest competitors had not only caught up, but put out products that were far superior to ours. They were also selling on multiple platforms, while we were only selling on the PS3, PS2, and PSP. Our game only sold in the neighborhood of 8,000 copies. That’s a horribly abysmal number. The writing was on the wall, I knew there was financial trouble, and I left the company. Shortly after I left, they cancelled the game series and let most of my whole team go. I had dodged that bullet.

Lots Of Well Dressed People You Don’t Recognize Taking Tours Of The Studio

This one has happened at a few places I’ve worked, and I’ve found it to never be good. A game studio has a pretty relaxed dress code. Who are these people in three piece suits walking around? Usually it turns out to be a team of potential buyers or investors. If you ask about who these people are, and don’t get an answer, you should probably be concerned. It could be an innocent visit from people interested in the production processes of the studio. If so, they are usually introduced to the team though, and given a more personalized tour of the facility. If they are whisked through with no introductions and a gaggle of people with them to make sure no one talks to them, that is when you really question what is going on.

Mandatory Crunch/Working On Saturday

“Why are you working on a Saturday? I thought you had Saturday and Sunday off?” is a tough thing to hear from a spouse. If you’re suddenly asked to come in on the weekend, with no compensation offered, your team is behind for some reason, and the studio is trying to catch up on the cheap. If the schedule was done well, there should be no reason to work on the weekend. Now, things happen, and pretty much everyone who works in games is passionate about their projects. As a result, they don’t mind putting in some extra time for a feature they really want to polish or an asset they really want to make. When it becomes a mandatory thing, you should be concerned.

Studio Moves Or Large Purchases That Don’t Happen

Was your studio going to move into a cool new building? Why did they call it off? Moving isn’t cheap. Usually studios move because they are outgrowing their current space. If a move is suddenly called off, maybe they’re going to have more room than they need soon? Maybe they don’t need all the space they were looking at getting? Were you going to get new machines for your department? Why didn’t that happen like it was supposed to? Ask about it. Again, needs change. A change isn’t always a clear signal of doom and gloom.

Check Out The WARN Act In Your State

WARN stands for the Worker Adjustment and Retraining Notification Act. It is a Federal law that protects employees, their families, and communities by requiring most employers with 100 or more employees to provide 60 calendar-day advance notification of plant closings and mass layoffs of employees. The best part about this act for employees is that there are searchable websites where you can see exactly what companies in which areas will be doing layoffs, and how many people will be laid off. For example, if welook at the current WARN notice for California, we can see that Sony Pictures Entertainment will lay off 69 employees on 4/03/2015 in Culver City, due to a facility closure.  A quick Google search should show you the WARN Act site for your state. They don’t list everything, but you may find what you are looking for. This is also the easiest thing to check up on, given the online listing.

Straight Up Ask Your Supervisor

If you are in a life situation that requires stability, and you are questioning your long term future at your current company, ask your supervisor. While they may not be able to tell you anything specific, they may be human enough to tell you not to buy that car, or not to sign that year lease. If they don’t know anything, keep going (respectfully) up the chain until you get the answers you’re looking for. Many times you’ll get some helpful answers. Sometimes what you don’t hear speaks volumes.

I’ve seen the rug pulled out from under many of my friends too many times, and had my own rug tugged more often than I would have liked. I’ve left companies that I really loved because I felt something wasn’t right. Nearly 99% of the time, layoffs followed after I left. Sometimes these happened right away, and sometimes maybe a year or so later. The point is, keep your head on a swivel and look for issues before company problems become a problem in your life. It’s a business. If projects don’t make money, adjustments are made until things are profitable.

It doesn’t matter when you get off the tracks, just that you aren’t standing on them when the train comes barreling through.

While it may sound silly to leave a perfectly good job, it’s very hard to be in a situation where you are looking for work along with everyone else from your studio in an area where there may not be a lot of jobs in your field in the first place. You may find that you are competing against friends for the same job. Getting out early and finding something else before there are 30 other applicants for the same job might mean the difference between staying in your current house and pulling your kids out of school and moving far away. Good people are put in bad situations during layoffs, and are forced to say goodbye to employees they would love to have around forever. I’ve been on both sides of layoffs, and it sucks. Hopefully these tips help you see trouble coming and make some tough decisions so you can avoid bombshells in your own career.

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