can I ask my boss if layoffs are coming?

A reader writes:

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 okay 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.

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{ 88 comments… read them below }

  1. Oxford Comma*

    Librarian at a public university. I think higher ed, whether you’re at a large or small institution, public or private, is going to be tough for the next year minimum. Hiring freezes, budget cuts, all kinds of cost-cutting measures, including probably furloughs/layoffs. Friends and colleagues at different universities and colleges are all saying the same thing.

    We’ve been taking turns asking at all staff meetings about this and while the answers change, you can get a sense sometimes of where they’re thinking of cutting first.

    1. College Career Counselor*

      I agree with you (private university here). The frustrating part is not knowing. I saw something on FB earlier that said:

      Every Meeting Everywhere
      1) We don’t know much
      2) What we know, we can’t tell you yet
      3) Everything is going to change
      4) Please make a plan

      1. FoodieNinja*

        This is sadly, painfully accurate. I work at a public university, and the message is consistently “we’re considering 14 different options, we’ll have news “soon,” please be flexible about everything.”

        1. Rock Prof*

          I got volun-told to be on a pandemic planning group, focused on online teaching. And it’s basically making those 14 different plans.

        2. old curmudgeon*

          My single-parent sibling is a tenured full professor at a public university, and the chancellor there just sent out an all-faculty email saying basically “programs will be consolidated/eliminated system-wide and layoffs are coming” – and nothing else. Nobody at the faculty level knows what programs are targeted, how they’ll decide who to keep and who to cut, or really anything beyond the fact that some unknown number of people there are going to lose their jobs in the next few months.

          I asked my sib if they’re planning to start a job-hunt, figuring I’d gift them copies of Alison’s books if so, and got a fairly fatalistic response. Sibling’s field is in STEM, and they’d have to move to another part of the country to find a new position in the same field. In their early 50s with a pair of teenage offspring, that prospect does not seem appealing, so they are basically keeping their head down, working hard and hoping for the best.

          If it was me, I’d have resumes sent all over the country by now, and I’d move wherever I have to in order to secure my livelihood. But not everyone is as risk-averse as I am, and depending on one’s personal preference, resources and tolerance for uncertainty, I can see some folks deciding to sit pat and hope.

          To the OP, it really does boil down to how many months’ worth of living expenses you have saved up, and what your personal tolerance is for risk and uncertainty. Being the risk-averse sort I am, in your shoes, I would not ask about layoffs; I’d just start a job-hunt regardless. If you’re offered a job, you are not obligated to accept it if the current one has started to feel more secure – but if layoffs DO come, you will be ahead of your colleagues if you can get that resume out there now instead of waiting for the pink slips to land.

          Good luck.

          1. Wibbly Wobbly...Stuff*

            I can understand your sib not job searching yet. Tenured full professor is the peak of safety in academia. The main two ways that your sib could lose their job at that institution would be for the university to eliminate their department or declare financial exigency (somewhat academia version of bankruptcy). If you sib job searched, most likely they would have to start over on the tenure track unless they had a lot of leverage based on prestige in their discipline and could bypass the tenure process.

            Given that many states have frozen their hiring, thus freezing large state university hiring, there may not be many jobs available at their level or in their discipline. STEM is probably one of the better areas, but we all thought that healthcare would be stable. Even in good years, academia was over-producing academics, now there will be many people applying for only a few jobs.

            While fatalistic from the outside, it can be a devil you know thing with academia, especially with private universities being a black box as far as finances. Some of the smaller ones were already on the edge due to the downturn in academia in general.

            Your sib could consider transitioning to corporate, but that depends on the discipline as to whether there would be more jobs in industry.

            1. SemiAnon*

              It’s common for tenured professors who change institutes to move to another tenured position (ie, they don’t get busted back to tenure track junior faculty and have to work their way up again). The downside is there are a lot fewer new jobs available for tenured senior faculty than tenure track junior faculty.

              The bigger problem I see is that academic hiring is very, very slow, even in normal times. If he started applying for jobs now, it would be for positions starting fall 2021. That’s assuming that other universities are actually actively hiring right now, and not facing their own problems. The other option is to try to pivot to non academic jobs and go into industry, which would mean a drastic change in careers, probably also mean moving, and be less secure to future layoffs than a tenured position.

            2. BethDH*

              Yeah, this isn’t really the time of year to hunt for a tenure track job in any discipline I know of. What I’d be doing in their place would be applying for as many grants as possible and trying to publish more — basically, putting their head down and working, as described. Maybe exploring non-academic routes if that’s of interest. But most jobs available this time of year will be visiting or adjunct roles without any of the security or compensation of tenure.

          2. Oxford Comma*

            Tenured full professor is pretty safe comparatively speaking. Leaving that right now, whether or not your sibling’s university is sinking, is risky. Very risky unless they can negotiate tenure at another university, which may or may not be in the same boat.

            OP identified herself as an admin so her position is probably a lot less secure/protected and job hunting right now makes a lot more sense.

      2. Canadian Yankee*

        In the administrations’ defense, there are so many uncertainties that I’m sure they have no idea how much income they’re going to have flowing in this fall. Foreign students paying full tuition are a major source of cash-flow, and who knows what’s going to happen to them. Some of the questions that have no definitive answer right now:
        1. Can some or all classes be held in classrooms in September, or will some/all have to be remote?
        2. If all classes are remote, will foreign students even be granted student visas to enter the country?
        3. If foreign students can’t come here, will they bother to enroll, or will they just withdraw and attend a school in their own country?
        4. If foreign students *don’t* withdraw, does the university have to figure out how to teach people who are twelve time zones away and behind a restrictive national internet firewall?

    2. annakarina1*

      Yeah, I’ve been fearing that too. I’m an archivist at a public university, and while I haven’t heard anything lately of layoffs, I”m still bracing myself, adding to my savings account and mentally preparing for filing for UI benefits if it happens. I just hope to have my job over the next several months.

    3. Another academic librarian*

      I’m in the same boat, though I’m at a private university. When I asked this question to my boss in late March, the answer was that our jobs are very safe. Then other universities and colleges started furloughing and laying off staff and now the higher ups have become so much more guarded and careful with their words. I could deal with a furlough, but it’s the possibility of a layoff that has caused so much anxiety and is messing with my sleep and ability to focus and function.

      1. Artemesia*

        Many colleges are facing huge budget shortfalls and are cutting millions out of their budgets — that means layoffs. If I were in any roll except tenured professor I would be job hunting and thinking about ways to move laterally as all universities are facing these issues. And it is not impossible that whole programs including tenured faculty will be dropped. If I were a classics professor I’d be nervous; less so if I were a physics prof.

        Vague reassurances mean nothings — when we as employees are busily looking for a job and our boss asks ‘are you planning to leave’ we, if we are smart, say ‘I have no immediate plans to leave.’ When they are busily looking to cut positions, they say ‘we have no immediate plans to cut positions.’ Use your spidey sense here — ‘asking about layoffs’ is useless. Start thinking about plans B and C when the hammer falls, if the hammer falls. Any university roll that is not critical to serve students is likely to be seen as non-essential.

    4. Justme, the OG*

      Public university here. Definite hiring freezes, likely no yearly raises but there is a huge increase in our health insurance starting next fiscal year. I’ve heard of ones with it worse, like no matching to their retirement.

    5. Rock Prof*

      I’m at small, public university, and I totally agree. We’ve seen extensive furloughs for the summer and have no idea what’s happening for the fall. We don’t even know if classes will be in person or not. I think a lot of things are really in flux and will be for quite a while. So even an assurance of no lay offs today might not hold, through no fault of your supervisor. I straight up told the person I directly supervise, who is furloughed for the summer, that looking for jobs would be really pragmatic tight now. I have no further information, but everything is just so touch and go.

    6. C.*

      Yeah, I work at a private university and it’s a similar climate. Things are “OK” right now, but the cards will be on the table once the new academic year begins. So far, they’ve implemented hiring and salary freezes and are pausing on most construction and capital initiatives. If that’s the worst that happens, though, I will consider us extremely lucky.

    7. Curmudgeon in California*

      Private university here, IT staff.

      Our management has been trying to be as open as possible about the budget crisis and the steps that they have to take. They have a) put in a hiring freeze, b) eliminated our (always tiny) raises for the year. Other budget cutting is still happening. They are still crunching numbers for FY 20/21.

      (My garbage company want to raise its rates by 15%, even though they got a double digit increase last year, but my pay only went up 3% last year, and will go up zero this year. I’m livid.)

      Things on the table: Layoffs, salary cuts, summer shutdown, etc.

      While they haven’t eliminated layoffs, they are trying not to have to do them. I’m still anxious – I’m relatively new, since I’ve “only” been there five years.

      But the work for the IT area is not less – if anything it has increased, with supporting remote learning, videoconferencing, remote access to computing resources. They are finally able to allow the first groups back into the labs – the university’s research mission is as big as its education mission, and so far only the covid-related research was allowed. But all the lab related IT stuff is still there. My own job has had several “hot” covid related items on a very short turn around – information and web sites don’t happen in a vacuum, they require miscellaneous support from IT to be set up correctly.

      So that is why they are really trying to not lay off IT folks – because most of our stuff is still there, plus some new, higher priorities.

      My cynical, pessimistic side is still sure that layoffs are coming, and that I’ll be tagged because I’m an outspoken, older, disabled, NB person who doesn’t shut up and play nice even when dumped on, and certainly doesn’t kiss butt very well. (What can I say? I have a hard time getting up from my knees, so I don’t do that.)

    8. RabbitRabbit*

      Ironically, hospitals are being hit hard too. Sounds crazy but when you have to spend boatloads on PPE/cleaning and aren’t getting those revenue-generating procedures in the door, revenue goes way down. Fortunately where I work, the institution has been very forthright about the changes that have been made (including significant top-level salary cuts, raise freeze, etc.) and about their intentions to do their best to try to retain staff due to our strong performance during a difficult time.

  2. rayray*

    I was laid off a couple months ago, not pandemic related but literal days before things started shutting down. I was totally blindsided at the end of the day on a Friday. I had actually been job hunting anyway because I hated the job, I’d even gone to an interview that very day (didn’t get the job).

    Being blindsided kinda sucks, and it’s a bit of a slap in the face but I can see where the employer is coming from. People may jump ship or just mentally check out if they know they won’t have a job anymore in a few weeks. The employer may be trying to finalize plans. All the points Alison mentioned are definitely valid.

    All that being said, I would hope employers might have a little more tact than mine did. It wasn’t unusual for me to leave work a few minutes early to run errands on my way home. I was tricked into thinking I’d be doing that. We parked in a garage but our office had a separate gated area that required swiping you parking badge again. I was instructed to pull my car around so it’d be easier to load my car. I did so and came back, and that’s when I was given the news with minimal explanation other than my position was eliminated and it was my last day, a severance check, and asking the parking badge back. (I had to call and bother the attendants to let me out, wasn’t a huge ordeal though)

    So employers, maaaaybe try to have a little more tact. I guess I don’t know exactly how to do it but don’t do it like that.

    1. A*

      Ugh, I am so sorry you had to go through that. It sounds like it was handled in a really cold and cruel manner, you deserved better.

    2. ThisColumnMakesMeGratefulForMyBoss*

      Wow that is beyond cowardly. If you’re going to let an employee go, at least have the decency to pull them into a meeting and provide an explanation.

      1. rayray*

        Yeah, definitely. I just got told the position was changing and it was my last day. She was a TERRIBLE boss. Absolutely awful. I complained about her on many open Friday thread. I’d tell people stories and see their jaws drop or get responses like “She sounds *bleep*ing ridiculous!”

        Cowardly is definitely the word for it. Like I said, I kinda get not giving me tons of advanced notice because I likely would have mentally checked out. But…yeah, just like NoLongerStuckInRetailHell said, it was like quickly locking the door behind me. I have a couple theories about what really happened but I don’t know for sure. It was definitely a slap in the face.

    3. NoLongerStuckInRetailHell*

      Wow that’s cold. That’s like asking somebody to step outside, maybe to check the weather or grab the mail, then quickly locking the door behind them. Then yelling through the door their position’s been eliminated and their last check is in the mail.

      1. First Amendment*

        Honestly, given the possibility of sabotage and workplace violence, I’d consider doing that next time I have to cut an employee loose

        1. pancakes*

          How exactly does treating someone that way lessen the possibility of either? Most workplace violence is perpetrated by people who return after being fired, not people in the act of being fired. People in the act of being fired tend not to be armed. I just looked to see whether there are studies on this, and there is an FBI study about workplace shootings that found “[m]ore than three out of four spent a week or more planning their attack.”

          1. First Amendment*

            You may be right about violence. That said, possible sabotage on the way out is a real concern. They can’t do that if they’re locked out of the building.

            I actually used to use a similar tactic when I was a nightclub bouncer to eject problematic patrons. I’d tell the offender that I needed to talk to him about something, and “it’s really important,” so could we step outside for a moment? Once out the door, I’d tell them to have a good night.

  3. Cordoba*

    I don’t think it’s inappropriate to ask, but I think LW needs to be realistic about how much confidence they can have in their boss’s response.

    Even if the boss is 100% forthright and honest about everything they know it’s possible that decisions are being made now that they don’t have visibility to, or that the situation could change completely a few weeks from now.

    If you’re at all concerned, start searching now. If nothing else, that gets you advance information on what the job market is like in your field at present.

    1. Uldi*

      Yeah, no one can say with any certainty how things will be come September (or even mid-June, for that matter). The situation is far to chaotic to be any more precise than saying it’ll be Bad (at best). That’s why so many employers are either taking a wait-and-see approach if they can afford it, or are laying off/furloughing now if they can’t.

    2. WhatDayIsIt*

      Yes, I would emphasize that when you’re at a large university (I’m in a similar position), it’s going to be difficult to get anything concrete out of your manager unless they are high up at a dean/associate dean level. My unit leadership has worked to be very transparent with us and they don’t know what’s happening. I’m in a particularly hard hit office and I know we might be told to downsize and I figure my manager is not going to have much say in it. I’m focusing for now on doing good work and creating work for myself that will look good at my next position, whenever and wherever that may be.

    3. ThisColumnMakesMeGratefulForMyBoss*

      Yes it will definitely depend on the type of relationship you have with your boss. I was super close with my previous manager and we worked on a government contract. We knew for a while that the contract was ending, but the parent company was treating us like children, keeping everything secret and pretending like we had no clue what was going on. Thankfully my manager got me working on another project so I kept my job, but the rest of my team was laid off. Having been laid off twice in the past, I was paranoid about losing my job and I asked her several times if I needed to be worried. I knew that she would be honest with me and tell me whatever she knew. But if your manager is the type to just tell you what you want to hear, it’s probably not worth asking.

  4. AdAgencyChick*

    I think most managers, if they’re decent human beings, won’t lie to your face. They won’t say “Your job is safe” if they know you’re going to be laid off. But, for all the reasons Alison said, they’re also not going to say “yes, there will be layoffs/pay cuts” unless you have a very rare and special kind of manager who’s willing to level with you. (I have worked for someone like that, and I have followed him to at least three different agencies during my career because he’s so great to work for. Like I said, rare and special.)

    What they might say if there are definitely layoffs coming, or if (very likely) they don’t know and aren’t sure themselves, is some kind of noncommittal “I don’t know what the future holds” answer. I think you can read a lot, not from the answer, but in how it’s given. Does your boss look really uncomfortable saying it? Does she add something like “I don’t know what’s coming, but you’re highly valued here and we will do whatever we can to keep you”?

    1. Artemesia*

      In my one experience of this, they especially lie in your face when they know. In our case, it was a merger that took out half of us and up to the day before they were denying any problems.

    2. Emily*

      Our provost was asked about layoffs and the answer was, “We have a lot of things we’ll try to meet budget shortfalls before we move to layoffs.” I’d be surprised if any university made it out of this with no layoffs, but most can’t give a good answer right now because they just don’t know enough yet.

    3. Curmudgeon in California*

      My direct boss would answer “I don’t know, I hope not.” He’d be absolutely telling the truth. Probably the same for his boss.

      The decisions will be made above those two, but they will have to deliver any bad news. It’s a sucky position to be in.

      Therefore, I personally don’t bother to ask them what they won’t know.

      We ask senior management repeatedly in our regular informational meetings, but apparently it really hasn’t been decided yet, and may not be until July or August for FY 20/21.

    4. The New Wanderer*

      I’ve been laid off twice, both times in highly publicized layoffs that went on for several rounds over the course of a year. The first time, I did ask my manager if I was being affected in the layoff that was going to be announced the next day, and she said she wasn’t able to say. I think that’s fairly common, for managers to be told they can’t say anything until the official discussion with the employee. I asked her a different question that on its own was completely unrelated but the answer would indicate whether I would be laid off – she was able to answer that one which is why I was prepared for the news the next day.

      The second time, I didn’t bother to ask. My manager at the time wouldn’t have told me the truth anyway, but as he had no poker face it was pretty obvious by the way he avoided me for a full month before the grandboss had the official layoff conversation with me.

      In general, I think companies should be straightforward when they decide that layoffs or furloughs are happening, but I may be biased because I’ve only worked for big companies that were open about this (and it’s kind of a part of the industry’s culture).

  5. ThinMint*

    I think it’s ok to ask. But often we assume that the next person up knows everything that is going on, and your boss may be just as in the dark.

    I work in higher ed and while I am in management, these decisions are happening at such high levels, it is definitely not trickling down to me.

    1. alienor*

      When I was a people manager, I was lucky to get 24 hours of advance notice if we were having layoffs and someone on my team was going to be affected. Once I was given a heads-up at 8 am, the layoffs happened at 9, and we had the big all-hands meeting to talk about it all at 10. It was the worst when people would ask me if I knew anything and I’d say no, and I could tell they didn’t believe me. I really didn’t, though.

      1. Dan*

        At my last job, my project lead found out I was laid off… from me when I called to tell him afterward. He said if it was any consolation, 1) He didn’t know and 2) If they asked him he would have said not to do it. They whacked half the team in that round of layoffs, and didn’t give him any warning.

        Four whatever reason, 2018 was a tough year for my current org. I asked my department manager (someone high enough up to know a few things but not everything) how things were looking, and he said “On high says things are fine, but I have an MBA and can read a spreadsheet. Things are not fine.” There were a few layoffs here and there (mostly for people with narrow skillsets) but by and large we dodged a lot of bullets.

        All this is to say that managers really do know less than people think.

  6. Pam*

    Also, if your job is unionized, as many at public universities are, read your contract, and talk to your union representative to see what rules are in place. For instance, at my university, during the last recession, furloughs had to be bargained separately from the general state furlough requirements. Layoffs didn’t happen, but unfilled positions were left empty.

    1. CheeryO*

      Yes, this. I’m in a union position in state government, and there are very rigid (and complicated) rules about lay-offs. After the 2008 recession, we had some sweeping lay-offs, but everyone was eventually able to be re-hired since they took precedence over new applicants. It took a lot of shuffling and some early retirement incentives, but the union protections ended up working out for everyone.

      Of course, all indications are that the current situation is much worse than the last recession, at least in my state, so it’s still a crapshoot. You just have to think about how “essential” your position is, where any redundancies might be, how much seniority you have, etc. and try to make an educated decision. It can’t hurt to keep your resume updated and keep your eyes peeled, at any rate.

      1. old curmudgeon*

        Sadly, unions have lost a lot of power in some states. I live in a state where a decade ago, the newly elected governor basically made it impossible for any state employee, including those in higher ed, to be represented by a union. And not surprisingly, the state legislature has since been able to implement a number of draconian/punitive policies toward all those “lazy state workers” who previously had had some small degree of protection from the union.

    2. Wibbly Wobbly...Stuff*

      Even if your position isn’t unionized, look for documents on how your institution handles financial exigency. That is the phrase that I hear in passing at my large public university as something that they are trying to avoid as it is basically the equivalent of declaring bankruptcy. It is one of the few ways that universities can layoff tenured faculty members. While it is not directed at the staff level, it is a indicator that they might do staff layoffs on the way to laying off faculty. Central Washington is the only university that I have see declare financial exigency so far, but they say that they are not going to do a reduction in force until after June 30th. Also, any staff or faculty manuals on how they handle furloughs or layoffs can be invaluable to your planning.

      Also, much may depend on the type of your institution. In my self-focused skimming of the news, I have noticed that universities with hospitals are in the short term having an extra pull down on their finances from the loss of elective surgeries. Once those surgeries are fully allowed, the hospital side may turn around and be an upward force on the university finances.

      Another area to explore in the state finances. One of my graduate students ended up getting a position at a smaller state institution because they have not frozen positions at that state.

      My state has frozen all hiring and that was backed up by the university freezing hiring. All exemptions to those freezes have to go up to the vice-president level. We have also been told to prepare budgets of cuts at the 5% and 10% level. If you listen between the lines of the admin Zooms, we have started to hear the unspoken “but” when they talk about the focus on avoiding furloughs and layoffs. Furloughs and layoffs are on the gossip lines, but just too much is up-in-the air right now. Do you have access to information from your Staff Senate? Meeting minutes from your Board of Visitors?

      Another data point you can see is whether your university hit its admission targets last year. Admissions number predictions is a messy business, but if your enrollment numbers were good last year, that is reassuring.

      Sorry that this is so long, but we are in the same somewhat leaky boat in academia this year. While some universities have declared their intentions for the Fall, it is still a big ball of wibbly wobbly…stuff.

      1. Curmudgeon in California*

        In my self-focused skimming of the news, I have noticed that universities with hospitals are in the short term having an extra pull down on their finances from the loss of elective surgeries. Once those surgeries are fully allowed, the hospital side may turn around and be an upward force on the university finances.

        This is what happened to the medical side of the university where I work. They actually screwed with the employees of the hospital by making them take a large pay cut! But without the elective surgery money coming in, they were running a deficit.

        Apparently businesses, even non-profits, don’t have to have “rainy day funds for six months” like the conservative financial gurus demand that poor people save for. Who knew that organizations with access to loans don’t have to be as fiscally responsible as private individuals with only a badly frayed safety net? I guess that’s why corporations get bailouts, not individuals. I get excoriated regularly by “personal responsibility” advocates because I don’t have a six month nest egg, but corporations get taxpayer bailouts when they go a week without profits. Needless to say, I’m more than a little annoyed. /tangent

        1. Wibbly Wobbly...Stuff*

          One of the medical schools was making people take three month furloughs. THREE months. Who has the financial amount saved to hang out for that amount of time with only the non-binding wispy promise of a job at the end? I know that we are supposed to have six months of expenses, but that is tough to do.

          Not even talking about universities ceasing contributing to their employees retirement accounts. They are counting on people not seeing it as a huge benefit cut, because it is not only that sheer money but that it is tax exempt. To get the same amount of money in your check, you usually have to multiply it by whatever is your tax rate. For example, I can multiply my employers contribution to my retirement by 1.22, with the .22 being a stand-in for my actual tax rate. So an elimination of 8% of my income to a retirement account is really a 9.76% hit.

          I know, I know, I should be grateful to have a job, but the uncertainty is stressful. I chose to be a state employee rather than go corporate for the stability. Everything is unstable now.

          1. Owlcat*

            I also work at a large University in the United States in a major city. We’ve just been told that budget cuts are coming, and range from 5-15%. This is in addition to a hiring freeze, salary freeze and 401K match freeze. It is going to be a tough year for higher ed. I am “newish” as in came here less than 5 years ago, so I will get a tiny severance if I’m in the group of laid-off folks. I actually left corporate because of the constant threat of layoffs (high tech), thinking that even though it paid less, higher ed would be “safer” and the benefits were good….just goes to show you never can tell what will happen. I feel too dazed to start looking for a new job but I know I need to get myself out there. I do think my institution is doing the best they can to at least warn us of what might be coming.

  7. AnotherAlison*

    I’d consider what your specific position is and how likely it is to be impacted, and then I’d make my own decisions about searching without talking to my manager. I don’t know much about university administration, but something like grant contract administration might not be immediately impacted while an admin for an academic department chairperson could be. (Who knows – I could have that exactly backwards, but seems like departments are the ones immediately affected by student fee revenue declines.)

  8. KimPossible*

    Senior leadership in a service unit at a public university here. I agree with Alison’s advice to start the job search if, for nothing else, to see what else is out there and to put your mind at ease. That said, sometimes you do better with the devil you know. You don’t know, for sure, you would be the first to go because you were the last hired. I am faced with the possibility of losing non-permanent staff right now (all of them) and if I were told to pick who would go, I’d try to keep the staff who are the most skilled in their current work and who have the capacity to learn quickly and do more.

  9. Rachel in NYC*

    I’m at a private university but all the departments at my school already have to update their budgets. Our department outright told us- this is what’s happening, here is what to expect. It’s possible your boss just doesn’t know yet- or alternatively thinks this information has already been conveyed to everyone.

    I’ve also already have a number of professors reaching out to me because they’re worried about budget shortfalls and they want to cover salaries (I’m one of the money people in our licensing arm.) I wouldn’t be shocked to see grant funds being used to cover salaries as much as possible for the next year or so.

  10. J.B.*

    Assume there will be layoffs and act accordingly. Public universities will be in deep deep holes next year.

  11. MK*

    If the OP’s job might depend on how many students enroll, there is really no way for her manager (or even people even higher up) to know if layoffs are coming. Perhaps the OP should wait and ask after the enrollment period is over, while still job searching, of course.

    1. Katrinka*

      I work in secondary education. A lot of students re not committing yet. There’s too much job uncertainty for their parents, so they’re waiting until the last possible second to decide. I’m hearing that community colleges are going to get more students And the more expensive the school, the fewer the students), but it’s really hard to say at this point. Most elementary and secondary schools in the country don’t know what they’re doing in the fall, I wouldn’t expect colleges to know either.

      1. Smithy*

        In addition to parents financial uncertainty, I do wonder about students deciding that doing 1-2 years at community college if all classes are going to be remote anyways sounds like a better plan.

        So much about the traditional 4 year undergrad experience – be it public or private – is the on campus experience. And if that feels like it’s not going to happen or be severely hampered, I could easily see the appeal of deferring for a year, taking a bunch of core-curriculum classes at a community college and then re-evaluate enrolling for the following year as an “in-coming freshman” but then with a number of credits/core classes done. And if money is a concern, be able to graduate early.

        1. Beth Jacobs*

          Definitely! Right now, students are paying brick-and-mortar tuition for what is essentially an on-line degree. You can hardly blame them for not considering that to be a very good deal.

    2. Emily*

      Maybe… I work at a private university and typically, our enrollment period would be over now, but we know those numbers are very, very soft. If we stay online in the fall (and really, as a residential university, I don’t see how we can safely bring students back to campus), I expect a lot of freshmen will defer or eat the deposit.

  12. Rebecca*

    I work in a second language private school.

    Education is essential, private schools are not. A lot of families are going to decide in the next few months that public education is just fine.

    Your boss might not even know if layoffs are coming until the students don’t enrol. That’s where we are – hoping unenrolment does that happen, or, realistically, that it doesn’t happen too much. If I asked my bosses now about layoffs now, they’d shrug their shoulders – they are waiting for numbers the same as we are. They’ve extended all the dates for families to make decisions, and are hoping. All I know is that I probably won’t be the first one laid off, but even that depends on which kids, from which classes, don’t re-enrol.

    I doubt your managers would have an answer for you, even if everything Alison said was true. I for sure have a back up plan.

  13. Kimmy Schmidt*

    I’m also at a public university, and this is wildly up in the air for us at the moment. Our state legislature will meet in June, so at this moment we have no idea what kind of cuts we’ll receive in state funding. We also don’t have a good sense of fall enrollment, because many of our (predominantly rural, first-generation) students can’t afford to come back, even if they want to. Incoming freshmen may decide to take a gap year or attend elsewhere, especially if we continue with online education.

    Higher ed is going to be impacted, and there will almost certainly be layoffs, but right now it’s really hard to get a sense of anything concrete. It’s not necessarily because the highers ups are withholding information, but a lot of them don’t even know yet.

    1. Eeyore's Missing Tail*

      That sounds like what my state is doing. We’ve been told to prepare for 14% budget cuts and our Board of Regents has already put forward a furlough plan based on your salary. And we heard today that vacant positions will probably be closed. But, at least we still have a job.

  14. Anon for this*

    If you are at a public university, you have a lot more information than the average person. The governor, the state board of regents, the State House, etc., tend to publish information about what they’re expecting for the state U campuses the following year.

    My husband is faculty at a State U and the governor said straight out, there will be hiring freezes, staff furloughs, layoffs, and 15% budget cuts across the board, in a press conference. It was then up to the board of regents and the university presidents, deans, and department chairs to figure out how this was going to affect individual departments within the university.

    Unfortunately, a lot of faculty who were in process of being hired for next academic year had their offers pulled at the last minute, so now they are left with no faculty position and no postdoc to go back to, and will probably have to leave academia permanently as a result of this bad luck.

    1. Professor Ronny*

      I’m also at a public university and this is absolutely correct. Our Board of Regents has announced furloughs for all State universities and colleges but no layoffs. There is also a hiring freeze. State agencies are covered by sunshine laws that mean that decisions like this are much more likely to be announced (and/or leaked) publicly ahead of time when compared to companies.

  15. So long and thanks for all the fish*

    I somewhat disagree with Alison in this specific instance. I also work for a large public university, and while budget cuts are not yet finalized, departments have been asked to make tentative plans for budget cuts of X and Y%, and therefore the areas where there might be potential layoffs are already known. Because it’s academia, it’s likely to be more public than most workplaces and the OP probably could ask other people who have been in those planning meetings, giving her more reason to trust what she hears.

  16. Something Something Whomp Whomp*

    Former higher ed here. I would err on the side of not asking at all. I mean, you know your manager and you know your institutional/departmental culture, but there’s something to be said for watching carefully for how much transparency your manager is willing to lead with. This is a weird time, so it’s best to not ask at all lest it creates any discomfort. This situation is bad for managers, many of whom won’t have much control over layoff decisions. I agree that higher ed is often more public than most workplaces, but if you’re on the non-academic side of the house it can be more hierarchical than most other industries. That leads to a weird “we tell you a lot already, what more do you feel entitled to know?” culture at some institutions.

    Make your personal private decisions around job searching with the assumption that you need to prepare for the worst, but publicly it is best to keep an air of acting like everything will be absolutely okay because you are a valued employee. A commitment to everything being okay will make you manager much less worried about potential morale issues if your position survives a round of layoffs.

    Especially in higher ed, I would start my job search now and mostly look outside the sector, preparing to leave higher ed permanently. Outside of instructional design and its related supports (because everywhere needs more resources to pivot to online), it’s not a safe sector to be in for the medium term.

    I’d say that this is doubly the case if you’re mostly looking at public institutions, because it’s hard to realistically believe that governments in North America will reverse decades-long trends of scaling back operating grants for higher ed when they’re facing massive revenue pressures from every last angle. For different reasons, smaller private institutions may be unusually unsafe at this time too.

  17. DEJ*

    Another person in higher education here. I work in athletics, which is a whole different area of uncertainty. Our university has been open about the fact that their goal is to attempt to cut our budgets in other ways besides cutting people. I know we’ve already announced we are putting off one renovation project. Do you know what kind of financial stress that your university is in? What does their endowment look like? Have they been borrowing money from the state recently?

    I do think you can ask your managers if layoffs/furloughs are something they are looking at considering, but don’t be surprised if they don’t have the answers either.

    I agree that starting a job search now just in case is a good idea regardless if you want some peace of mind.

  18. Employment Lawyer*

    I’m not sure I agree with AAM’s advice here.

    But first, an old joke:

    Two hikers are in a field when a bear pops out of the woods and starts running towards them. One hiker bends down to tie her running shoes.
    “What are you doing?” her partner screamed, “you can’t outrun a bear!”
    “I don’t need outrun the BEAR,” she replied, “I only need to outrun YOU!”

    You can job search, i suppose. But EVERYONE is looking, and companies who hire may pull offers, and that is not a great outcome.

    However… as you can see all over this blog, people have VERY varied responses to CV. Some are, shall we say, not performing very well. Maybe they have their reasons!
    But you don’t care about their reasons, you only need to care that THEY get laid off instead of YOU getting laid off. In other words: Outrun them.

    So if you have it in you, you can also try to become the Administrator Without Who Everything Would Fall Apart, so you can get kept while others are laid off instead.

    1. Kimmy Schmidt*

      But sometimes layoffs are based on multiple factors, such as the type of funding for the position, “first-in-first-out”, and university need. If my university can’t host study abroad programs next semester, the entire study abroad department is likely to be considered for layoffs. It doesn’t matter how good your reviews and performance are. They can’t outperform one another because that work no longer exists.

      1. Something Something Whomp Whomp*

        Something else to consider, especially for public universities, is the cost of severance packages. Every now and then, a state (or province in Canada) might stop its universities and colleges from running deficit budgets in a single fiscal year or attempting to carry them over. When that happens, laying off long-tenured and more expensive employees becomes tricky if they’re entitled to large severance packages. In that situation it might be easier to turf 5 newer employees who would each get $20k in severance and see their positions abolished permanently versus one person at the same pay grade who would get $100k due to length of service.

      2. button*

        Yes, this. At my public university, we are a lean enough staff that significant layoffs would mean cutting entire programs or functions, not just cutting half of the people who all do identical work. Especially when you consider that some, like study abroad, athletics, campus events, etc are much less likely to come back in the short term.

        1. MatKnifeNinja*

          My friend just found out his department is no more (Mathematics). The private SLAC will keep granting a minor. It’s just him and one other professor now, who get to teach all the lower level requirement classes.

          He can retire in three years, and is praying he can hang on that long.

          1. Curmudgeon in California*

            No Mathematics department? The mind boggles. Who teaches remedial algebra, remedial geometry, all the stem calculus and differential equations? Just two profs?

    2. M. Albertine*

      Another factor is that since the LW is new, presumably they are still lower on the salary scale and they are a “cheaper” worker than someone who has been there a long time. Yes, they have to factor in the institutional knowledge the longer-term worker has, but when they’re looking to save dollars… At any rate, being low on the totem pole is not all downside.

  19. Tired of it all*

    I work for a University and asked this question to my immediate Supervisor yesterday. He said the University is doing everything it can to save positions. He does not expect layoffs, but does think there may be furloughs.

  20. CyaneaCapillata*

    Every time budget cuts or staffing issues were even speculated about at our newspaper, my former boss/current mentor would tell me that he wouldn’t be surprised if he got the axe. While his realism did border into pessimism, tempered by his resolve to do good by his people regardless, I appreciate how he instilled in me that I would never be safe. While the guillotine descended as the union fought for months, he allowed me (the newest hire) to adjust my schedule for job interviews and offered recommendations. Always grateful.

    1. AnotherAlison*

      I got that growing up from my mom, whose company got sold a lot. So many times I heard, “Well, I’ll probably get laid off. They’re going to move all accounting to Corporate in [other state],” or, “Well, we were going to do ‘X’ but we need to see how your mom’s job goes before we make any big decisions.” She worked their from 1987 to 2019 and retired by her own decision last fall, but it was a fair worry as a lot of people did lose jobs there and others were transferred out or sold off with certain divisions. Good to stay prepared, but also to not freak out and leave before it is time.

      1. CyaneaCapillata*

        Indeed! In his colorful language, “I hope they s—can me so I can collect unemployment.” Admittedly, the process would take more time in the event of firing vs. layoff, but on his more disgruntled days, he did relish the prospect! In the meantime, though, his 14 or so years of excellent service to the company shall continue.

  21. :(*

    I am also in the (non-federal) public sector, not education though, and you can definitely feel the desperation ramping up, particularly at some of our peer agencies. Our agency is actually okay because we are not as dependent on tax revenue as most public agencies in our area, plus we are already running lean (staffed at levels 15-20% below what’s in the org chart) with a number of retirements pending. They are assuring us that there will be no layoffs. We’ll see.

  22. Lilyp*

    I do think you should job search, but since EVERYONE is being impacted right now, you should take some time first to think through what kind of job you could find that would be *more* stable that your current one. If you just move to a similar role at a different university you will likely still have the same doubts and anxiety there. Are there types of institutions (or specific institutions) that you’re confident will be less impacted? Adjacent industries you could think of transferring to? Specific roles that are more vital?

    1. Paula*

      I second this. If you job search, think through where you might end up and if that organization’s industry might be similarly affected by the economy, just on a different time scale. I am in a layoff-prone sector. I have witnessed colleagues get nervous about rumored job cuts, jump ship to another company, and get laid off from their new company sooner than they would have at the original one, because at the new company they had less seniority and were easier to lay off.

    2. M. Albertine*

      Seconded. I moved *into* University Administration at the start of this (I had two days in the office before the work-from-home order was issued), and even given the financial insecurity, I am definitely in a more secure position than my old one and it’s the most secure of any place that I interviewed with during my job search. My boss said that pay cuts are rumored and we are low-key documenting justifying the work and the services we provide for other departments. I am feeling okay; this job was a raise from what I had been making, so I know we could make a pay cut work.

  23. Scout Finch*

    I work in IT at my state’s flagship public medical/dental/pharmacy university. So far, we are hoping to avoid layoffs by cancelling our scheduled July raises and implementing a hiring freeze.

    We have a relatively new CIO who is being as transparent as possible (he is awesome & has proven himself to be so even before this hit). We have several open positions in IT (and many more in other university departments) and are hopeful leaving those positions open will help considerably. I am confident in our senior leadership team. This has been the best C suite under which I have ever worked.

    That being said, I am taking some online (udemy has had some good stuff for like $10-15, Lynda is free thru our public library) courses in areas that would allow me to exit higher ed if necessary. I like my job & serve a critical need, but I understand that anything can happen. But who knows what IT will look like in the private sector after all this shakes out?

    In short – prepare for the worst. Hope for the best.

    I wish you the best.

  24. Majnoona*

    I am at a public university. The president is saying -we’re open in the fall, face to face, football, it’s all great. But everything else the U is doing says the opposite. Lots of (paid) short classes over the summer to switch to online courses, talking about distancing by splitting the class in half – teach the first half one day, teach it again to the second half the next day, then do half a class online. I think the president is speaking to incoming students and parents and just wants to get the bodies on campus, and then we’ll go mostly online. Likewise they’re saying no budget cuts now, but I think we’ll hear a different story in the fall.

  25. I'm just here for the cats*

    I could have written this letter! I’m the newest on the administration side for both the departments I work for. I think you should just ask you boss what they have heard. Frame it as you don’t want to leave of course but that you hope they could give you a heads up.
    I think part of this is that they are still trying to figure things out. I know my college we won’t know until July if fall is remote or not, and we still can’t get back in buildings.

  26. Captain dddd-cccc-ddWdd (ENTP)*

    You can ask whenever the possibility occurs to you (i.e. now).

    They may not be able to answer with any degree of certainty about your workload in the future… which given the amount of uncertainty right now is probably what you expected actually.

    (Especially if you are able to transfer your skills into a less affected industry) I’d suggest you start looking already — you never know what you might find!

    Keep in mind the possibility that when you ask about the future of your position or future layoffs etc, that it would be better for the organisation that you remain there for the moment so “white lies” – or just lies – get told about the future of your position. Try to develop (if it isn’t already top notch) your sense of people being economical with the truth.

  27. Lady Farquaad*

    Here’s my 2c coming from a manager’s perspective.

    Our company will definitely lay people off. But while our business remains closed it’s impossible to assess how many or who will be affected; so we can’t make plans or notify anyone.

    I know roughly who would be the first to go and who the company would try their hardest to keep. But the communication to both groups at this point would be similar – acknowledging we realistically won’t keep everyone, but we’ll try our best to minimise lay offs. The only thing I might add to the latter group would be, “Your role here is critical, and we’re going to do our absolute best to keep you. We really hope you stay.” However, we can’t make any promises in this climate. Even my job is not secure.

    Basically, until we can start making specific plans about numbers, there’s not a great deal of information we can provide to employees mainly because we don’t know ourselves for sure.

    So start job searching if you’re unsure about your job security. I fully expect almost everyone in our company would be looking.

  28. Alice*

    This is my exact situation as well – I’m the newest admin person in my department at a large public university. Except – my office is Chancellery, so my “boss” not only knows what’s coming, but is steering the whole ship.

    It’s so hard to deliver the boss a cup of tea or some files and not ask – is this good enough? Am I in your budget? What is going to happen?????

  29. purposefullydesigned*

    As an admin at a top technological university who was furloughed on 5/4 after 2 months of successful working at home, I feel your anxiety. I definitely did not see the move coming, and when I was informed that the two directors wanted to have a conference call with me the next day, I thought I was being fired. The waiting and then the finding out that I was being furloughed created 48 hours of very high stress. I understand that higher ups weren’t supposed to talk about it, but I wish someone could have given me some kind of heads up. My furlough had nothing to do with the ability to work from home and everything to do with projected shortfalls related to a perceived significant decrease in fall attendance due to our demographic being 60% international.

    Good luck!

    1. honeygrim*

      Oh that sucks. My institution is planning on furloughs but middle-management/supervisors have been expressly instructed to NOT mention anything about furloughs until we actually have to furlough people. It infuriates me because I’m supposed to pretend everything is okay when I communicate with my employees, even though I know that some of them are going to be furloughed for weeks/months? I understand where management is coming from (everything Alison said about panic, etc.), but our institution is so bad at wanting to project a (frankly, superficial) positivity and “we’re all in this together” image that the messages coming out of the administration haven’t even hinted at furloughs (only upper-level pay cuts, not matching retirement benefits, budget cuts, etc.) That’s bad enough, of course, but I feel like they should have at least mentioned something about looking at positions.

  30. BasicWitch*

    I work for a public agency. Every week it’s different (and worse) reassurances from our upper management. It started with: “We’re good! Nothing’s going to change other than many of us are WFH!” Then the next week: “Other agencies are doing hiring freezes, but we definitely won’t!” To: “We’re having a hiring freeze, but your positions are safe!” And finally last week: “… We’re going to keep as many positions as we can.”

    It sucks because with each meeting I have less and less faith in their increasingly weakening assurances. I realize things are changing constantly, but I’d rather they had been honest from the beginning that they can’t make promises about our job security rather than raise our hopes one week and whittle then down the next.

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