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Illustration by Cathryn Virginia

'Can I Ask My Boss if Layoffs Are Coming?'

It’s tough to go to work every day wondering if you’ll still have a job in a few months—but your managers might not have answers either.
May 20, 2020, 3:57pm
Amateur Hour is an advice column for people who are new to the professional world and are figuring out how work even… works.

I am an admin at a large public university that has gone fully remote. Through the Covid-19 crisis, everyone is keeping their jobs with full pay, even if they can't fulfill all their duties or find work for all their hours remotely. However, I am worrying about the fall, when the full economic impact of the coronavirus is felt, resulting in the possibility of fewer students enrolling. If significantly less students enroll, budgets may shrink and that may result in layoffs. I worry I may be among those laid off, as I am the newest hire in my office. To be clear, this is my own reasoning, not anything I've heard from higher-ups.


When is it OK to start asking my supervisor about the possibility of layoffs? If I need to job search, I would ideally like to start now, as I have little savings and couldn't make it work for very long without an income.

So here’s the thing about asking your employer about the possibility of layoffs: Most of the time, you can’t fully rely on an answer that tells you your job is safe.

Most employers who are considering layoffs don’t announce them until they’re ready to actually lay people off. They often won’t acknowledge that cuts are being planned, and even more often they won’t tell you that your job is one of the roles being targeted.

That might sound heartless—after all, surely they should warn people so employees aren’t blindsided and can get a head start on job searching, right? But there are a few reasons employers so often play it close to the vest. First, they don’t want their employees to panic. They figure that if they acknowledge that they’re considering cutting positions, people will freak out, assume they’re about to be out of a job, and start frantically job searching—including people who they’re not planning to cut and who they very much want to keep. Second, plans can change, and they don’t want people taking steps to leave when they might not end up doing layoffs at all. And third, layoff decisions are often made way above the level of individual managers—so even if your boss wanted to give you a straightforward answer, she might have no idea herself.

To be clear, I’m not arguing that any of this is fair or good. It’s obviously better for you to have a heads-up about the possibility that you could lose your job, even if ultimately your employer doesn’t do that. But rightly or wrongly, this is so often the way it’s done that you’ve got to assume you won’t necessarily get an honest answer, and proceed accordingly.

That doesn’t mean you can’t ask your manager about layoffs at all. You can. And you might get an answer that gives you some insight you didn’t have before. It’s possible you’ll hear something that’s both credible and reassuring (like specifics on where the money is coming from to fund your team’s salaries). Or you might hear something that reinforces your concerns (like that layoffs are on the table if things haven’t turned around by July). Just make sure that you don’t put too much weight on an answer like “no, our jobs are safe”—because some people hear that and then end up being laid off days later.

That reality doesn’t do much to ease your anxiety, of course. It’s tough to go to work every day wondering if you’ll still have a job in a few months. That uncertainty can distract you and make it hard to invest in your work, which can affect your performance, which can lead to additional anxiety—all of which combines into an unpleasant and stressful cycle that is bad for your mental health and bad for you professionally.

The best advice I can give you is to start job searching. You don’t have to take a job if it’s offered, but getting the search process started will likely help your anxiety by giving you some sense of control back; you’ll no longer just be waiting around for news and at your employer’s mercy. If no cuts are made and the search turns out to be unnecessary, then great—that’s good news. And if things go badly and you do end up getting laid off, you’ll be much better positioned because you started searching now rather than having to start from scratch at that point.

Get more good advice from Alison Green at Ask a Manager or in her book. Do you have a pressing work-related question of your own? Submit it using this form.