In a tough economy, what can you do to keep your job or find a new one? Here are some tips from Cynthia Shapiro, a former human resources executive who is now an advocate for workers. Shapiro is the author of "Corporate Confidential," which gives the inside scoop on the decisions corporate executives make behind closed doors.
|Fear the 'Special Project'|
If you get put on a "special project" that takes you out of your normal workflow -- and perhaps moves your office/cubicle to another, less desirable location -- your job is likely in danger. Another sure sign of trouble is if you're put on a "performance improvement" plan to supposedly improve your job performance. "You have lost the support of your company and it's not coming back," Shapiro said.
|Don't Take All Your Vacation at Once|
Even if you've earned two or three weeks of vacation, take one week off at a time. "They'll find a way around you in two or three weeks, and they'll realize they can do without you," Shapiro said.
|Watch the Gray Hairs|
"Only executives get to have gray hair. It's not fair, but that's how it goes," Shapiro said. While employers appreciate the experience that older workers bring to the table, they are wary of those who might have health issues or are falling behind the latest trends and technology. Older workers should be careful not to dress in an old-fashioned manner and they should dye their hair if it's gray.
|Don't Take the Family-Talk Bait|
Hiring managers aren't allowed to ask applicants about their personal life, medical condition or age. But Shapiro said clever managers will try to get applicants to volunteer such information themselves. Some put a framed family picture on their desks to encourage interviewees to spontaneously talk about their own kids. One manager would actually follow applicants back to the parking lot to see if their vehicles had car seats in them.
|Don't Follow Up|
Shapiro said follow-up calls after an interview make you appear needy and desperate to hiring managers. They know whom they want for the job, and will let you know if they're interested, she said.
|Expense Reports Are a Window to Your Soul|
Beware of what you put on expense reports. Shapiro said expense reports are a secret test of loyalty, telling HR managers whether you are thrifty or extravagant on the company's dime.
|Work-Life Balance Programs Can Be Traps|
Many companies tout programs that allow workers to spend more time with their families, but Shapiro said these can be used as a "loyalty test" by companies to see who the most dedicated workers are. She cited a Fortune 500 company that penalized workers who took advantage of their work-life program.
"If a company implements a plan like that, I wouldn't jump in first generation," Shapiro said. "I would wait and see what happens to people who take advantage of it."
|Don't Overdo Casual|
Even though many companies encourage workers to dress more casually at work, there are limits. Sloppy or "too sexy" clothes, piercings, tattoos or brightly dyed hair often penalize you at work, Shapiro said. "[Executives] look at how you dress as a reflection of what kind of thinker you are," she said.
|They Really Are Reading Your Email|
Shapiro said companies monitor emails you send from a work computer because it provides a window into an employee's attitude, e.g., jokes about management, anger about company policies. According to Shapiro, "You should never send an email that you aren't OK having posted in the lunchroom for everyone to see."
Shapiro advises only two short personal phone calls a day, lasting no more than 5 to 10 minutes each.
|HR Isn't Your Friend|
Many workers consider HR an inviting place that is on their side, where they can freely spill their concerns about their boss and the company. However, Shapiro said these conversations are not confidential and that HR's main job is not to help employees, but rather to protect the company from its own workers.
"They're not going to disclose it to all of your co-workers, but if it's something the company needs to be aware of, they are required to tell your boss, the CEO, the higher executives, and they will," Shapiro said.
|Your Leave Isn't 'Protected'|
Even though the Family Medical Leave Act allows you to take medical leave with your position protected, companies find ways around this, Shapiro said. She recommends giving your boss formal notification as soon as possible if you plan to take pregnancy or other medical leave. If the company finds out through the rumor mill, they can find another reason to let you go.
|Don't Quit to Look|
If you want out of your current job, try to keep it as long as possible while trying to land a new one. Shapiro said companies like to hire workers who they believe are in demand; it can take twice as long for an unemployed worker to find a job.
|Don't Get 'Terminated,' Even When You're Being Terminated|
It's a stigma for a prospective job seeker if a hiring company knows you've been fired from your previous job. If you are being let go, try to negotiate with your company to call it a "layoff" or a "resignation" instead of a "termination," Shapiro said.
|Watch the Body Language|
Slouching, staring at the floor, folding your arms or putting your hands in your pockets can turn a hiring manager against you, even if you are well qualified for the job, Shapiro said.
|Don't Be Water Cooler Guy/Gal|
Shapiro said companies distrust workers who are known for gossiping. If a boss sees you gossiping in the coffee room, he will assume you are someone that talks about the company, and him, behind people's backs, she said.
|They Really Are Looking at Your Facebook Page|
Shapiro said companies definitely do troll the Internet looking for dirt on prospective employees. Any inappropriate language or photos on Facebook is a big strike against you.
|Check Your Credit|
Make sure your credit report and financial background information are accurate. Even though companies aren't allowed to use the information against you, Shapiro said prospective employers routinely check for bad credit scores, bankruptcies and lawsuits. If they see something they don't like, they'll just give you some other reason why they didn't hire you.
|Leave the Home at Home|
According to Shapiro, companies are wary of workers who spend too much time talking about their home problems, are frequently leaving early to attend their kids' soccer games or are unusually distracted by big life events like weddings or divorces.
|Love Your Boss|
As unfair as it may sound, Shapiro said it's not necessarily the most skilled and hardest-working employees who are protected from being let go by a company. Because your boss is your gatekeeper to the higher-ups, it's important stay on his/her good side and focus on his/her priorities, not yours.
"What people don't understand is that your boss is the number one determining factor in your job security," Shapiro said. "Number one."