Incoming Chapter 11: How to know it’s about to hit the fan at the office

My first (real) employer filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy three weeks after I started. One morning, I came into work and what to my wondering eyes should appear but a press release on my chair with lots of words like insolvency, lien, reorganization and trustee.

It wasn’t until later that they told me I still had a job. In fact, they kept me for three years. They even paid those of us who survived the RIF (reduction in force) a retention bonus. Welcome to “Operation Hang-Onto-the-Cheap-Labor.” At the time, it seemed ridiculous to pay a bonus of any size to anyone when the company was broke. But since when was corporate reorganization logical?

In retrospect, there were signs that something was afoot. Whether your company is folding, layoffs are cooking or a hostile takeover is in process, nobody can hide all the evidence. Here are a few clues. Start polishing your resume if you see:

  • Invoices being rushed through accounts payable for manual checks
  • The corporate attorney taking up residence in the conference room
  • Employee evaluations postponed
  • The CEO and top execs all missing until found later in a secret closed-door meeting. This happens repeatedly, and each time, they are found somewhere else.

One last thing: Beware of Friday! If they are cutting you loose, your big surprise will come on a Friday afternoon around 3:30. Nothing like starting your weekend with a pink slip! The December holiday season is a particularly common time for the axe to fall because it starts the new tax year clean.

The execs didn’t try too hard to hide the pre-filing chaos from me, but they also didn’t explain why they were doing what they were doing. (Picture parents spelling in front of their toddler. Faces are serious, but words make no sense.) Luckily I was so naïve that I was still completely shocked when the press release greeted me that morning.

Believe it or not, I’m glad my career started with a bankrupt employer. With the org chart cut to ribbons, I had the opportunity to learn new things and pick up responsibilities that ordinarily would have been reserved for people beyond my pay grade and level of experience. The ordeal also desensitized me professionally, and I needed that. Change became the only thing I knew in the workplace and the only thing expected. A little perspective really makes you appreciate the blessings in life. Of course, I’m thankful that perspective happened long before I had a family and a mortgage.

Have you survived an employer’s bankruptcy, merger or near demise? Were there any clues? If so, share your tips in the comments.