I work in the IT department of a major corporation that isn’t doing well financially and has recently laid off some staff, although not in my department. My boss held a special meeting to tell us not to worry. I’ve been here for a few years now and have never seen them lay people off or seen the whole place so tense—with lots of meetings of senior staff behind closed doors. Am I paranoid? Should I look for another job or just hang in here and hope for the best?

There is a saying that goes something like this: “Just because I am paranoid doesn’t mean they aren’t out to get me.” These days, a little paranoia while working within corporate America can be beneficial. So, it wouldn’t hurt to start working on strategies to help you keep your job while you are also preparing for the possibility of losing it.

You should work on strategies for keeping your job because rarely does a company let everyone in a department go at the same time. Most of the time, no matter how bad the staff reduction is, some people keep their jobs. Others even get promoted because the person above them is laid off.

Make sure you are an employee they need to keep
You need to do some careful investigation around your company to see how it decides who to keep and who to let go. Companies have different ways of determining who should go and who should stay. Some rank employees by salary and get rid of a certain percentage of highly paid employees. Some use other criteria, such as job performance or the importance of job skills.

I have seen some companies (having worked at one or two) that use layoffs as a way of getting rid of underperforming or difficult employees. Rather than go through disciplinary procedures, they’d just declare they had to lay off people for financial reasons, and out went the undesirables. After watching this happen a couple of times and seeing only particular types of employees go, I figured out the method behind this apparent madness.

Without being so completely obvious about what you are doing that you make enemies, you need to make sure that your boss and your boss’s boss know how important you are to the company. Being a good employee is not enough these days. You have to be a stellar, highly productive employee, and you have to market yourself internally to the decision makers.

It’s a sad thought that IT employees have to prove that they are worth more than others in order to keep their job, but that’s corporate America these days. You can show how useful you are by making sure that you document how productive you are and that you have the important skills your employer needs. (You may have to pay for your own training in order to get those skills, but money spent on education is never wasted.)

If you have any outstanding personality clashes with your boss or coworkers, now is the time to resolve those quietly. If you have any attitude problems, make sure you don’t say or do anything that reveals them. You want to present a cheerful, enthusiastic, can-do attitude at work. A good tip is to refuse to participate in office gossip about those closed-door meetings.

This doesn’t mean that you should ignore what is happening with your company. On the contrary, you need to get an objective idea of what is going on by doing some outside research on how well your company is doing financially.

Do a little preemptive research
Check out the major business publication Web sites, such as Forbes and Fortune, as well as the major business newspapers such as the Wall Street Journal. You should also check Hoover’s Web site. Go over the last few months of the business section in the local major daily newspapers in your area and scan any relevant trade publications.

In doing the research, you are looking for any specific information about how your company is doing—good or bad. (For example, you might find a rumor or two that the board of directors is putting the company up for sale. That could mean management is reducing head count to make the profit numbers look better.) Look, too, for general information about the industry and your company’s competitors. The competitors might end up being your new bosses, either by buying your company or because you got proactive and sent them your resume.

Speaking of resumes, now is the time to get your resume together and take the time to do it right, making sure that it properly represents your accomplishments. Then get out there and network by going to trade shows, conferences, online forums, and so on. Also, there are many industry trade associations that have job opportunities posted on their Web sites, as well as discussion groups, and they would certainly be worth checking out. You’ll also want to start hunting for IT recruitment firms. The training you might have to do to upgrade your current skills may well help you get your next job. By the way, if you opt for training that is not intended for your current job, don’t tell your boss about it or ask for tuition reimbursement. If you do, the boss will figure out that you’re looking for another job, which is not a good thing.

In the end, the more you get involved in your industry outside of your current position, even if it’s just in the low-key ways I’ve outlined here, the better off you’ll be if your job paranoia turns out to be well founded.