The first time he was fired, Bill Gentz didn't have a clue about what was coming. He got the pink slip just a few hours after receiving a favorable performance review and a raise.
Mr. Gentz, who had been planning how to tell his wife about his raise, suddenly found himself rehearsing how to tell her he'd lost his job.
"I was in a state of shock. It came out of the blue," Mr. Gentz says of the layoff in 1981. He still resents the way the Philadelphia chemical company let him go without warning after 10 years of service.
But getting fired the second time was less stressful. Mr. Gentz, one of the employees trimmed from USF&G's Baltimore-area payroll in April 1991, noticed some danger signs before he lost the job.
That helped him recognize and handle the blow to his self-esteem when he was laid off in April, along with about 25 percent of USF&G's work force.
By noticing such danger signs, and preparing for a layoff or firing, workers are better able to handle the rush of stress and disappointment, personnel consultants say.
In their book "Parting Company: How To Survive the Loss of a Job and Find Another Successfully," authors William J. Morin and James C. Cabrera identify several signs that indicate a job is short-lived.
They suggest you dust off your resume if:
* You hate your job. "Even if you try to hide your feelings, you will subconsciously telegraph them to the people you work with," they write.
* You get left out. People who find themselves out of the communication link, who are excluded from meetings, who don't get invited to work-related social events, or who don't get any tough assignments are probably not long for the employee roster.
Mr. Gentz, for example, noticed subtle changes immediately after a new management team replaced several USF&G executives, including Mr. Gentz's boss in the human resources department.
New people assumed responsibilities he had once held. He found himself excluded from projects he thought were central to his job. And he realized he was getting information important to his work by secondhand means.
* You get negative feedback. "Too often employees only listen for positive remarks during performance reviews and forget that the most important comments are the ones that are the toughest to accept," write the authors of "Parting Company."
* The economy is taking its toll on your company. "Doing the job doesn't necessarily make the position secure," the authors write. "Perhaps the fact that the new product isn't selling or competitors are taking market share from the company is not your fault, but it may turn out to be your problem."
For example, in the banking industry alone, mergers and budget trimming could result in 250,000 jobs lost by the end of the decade, reports Arthur Anderson & Co.
* You are not productive. Companies rely now on every employee to work harder and more efficiently. The few who can't keep up may be let go.
* You fail to meet goals supervisors have set for you. Keeping busy is not the same thing as meeting objectives.
* You resist change. Businesses have to change to stay competitive. If employees cannot accept the thought of new management moving in, old ways moving out, and a constantly shifting work force, they could be seen as obstacles to growth.
* Your reporting relationships change. A boss, important mentor or others who have supported you may be transferred or leave the company. If your working style conflicts with the new manager's, you could be on the losing end.
Job security is no longer a fact of life, and employees actually hurt their careers when they expect it from their employers, says John A. Stevens, senior vice president of Drake Beam Morin Inc. and managing director of the outplacement firm's Baltimore office.
"So much can happen," Mr. Stevens says. "Maybe a new boss comes in, or there's a loss of a key piece of business. Overnight something can change the strategic direction of the company. That's what's catching so many people off guard. It was never that way before."
Mr. Stevens says most employees deny their jobs could be in jeopardy, even when their companies are obviously troubled.
"They know something is happening. But they say to themselves, 'If I keep doing my job, I'll be OK.' This is particularly true with longer-term employees."
Mr. Stevens' own experience of being fired shows how emotionally wrenching the experience can be. He spent 30 years with a large health-care corporation, the last 10 years as an executive vice president. When the company merged with another, a new president arrived, bringing with him his own managers.
Although Mr. Stevens knew there would be major changes after the merger, he didn't expect to be let go. But soon enough, he says, "A bunch of us ended up on the beach."
What if the loss of one's job seems imminent? Mr. Gentz, who accepted a new position with a construction and engineering firm this month, thinks employees who believe they could be fired should confront their supervisors.
"That may hasten the process," he says. "But I'd rather know what's going on." At the same time, get a resume together, start networking with business contacts and file job applications, he suggests. And if the layoff occurs, take all the services offered.
Mr. Gentz accepted outplacement counseling as part of his termination package from USF&G.
"Aside from the clerical support and office to come to, it keeps a routine in your life," he says. "And the support you get with people in similar situations helps keep your spirits up."