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Create a Career Self-Defense Plan

Career defense

Imagine a small business that has just one customer. Would you want to lend money to it?

Probably not. It’s easy to see that the business could collapse if that single account dries up. Many of us make the same mistake in our professional careers. We fail to diversify.

When we accept a job, we commit to having just one customer—our employer. We make decisions about how much we spend on our houses or cars based on that one account–our income. That can lead to disaster—and career decisions made in desperation—if the job evaporates in a corporate restructuring, when a new boss comes in, or many other reasons.

Fortunately, there are many ways to prevent this from happening. Here’s how to pull it off without alienating present and future employers who want to know you’re committed.

A Career Self-Defense Plan

Read before you sign. Negotiating a hiring package? Get legal advice before you sign any noncompete agreement that would block you from finding a new gig quickly or going into business for yourself if your job ends. You may be able to talk your way out of signing it, or at least negotiate the terms. Even if you think a document won’t hold up in court, that doesn’t mean an employer won’t try to enforce it if you try to take a job with a competitor. That could cost you time and scare off a future employer who has made you an offer.

Find out if you’re allowed to moonlight. If you’ve got a demanding full-time job, you may not have the time or energy now to take on the additional work of a side gig or part-time business. However, your view on that may change if your company or job ever looks shaky. Many a savvy professional has survived a gap in full-time employment by tapping income from a secondary pursuit.

To avoid closing off your options, ask potential employers in a tactful way about their rules on consulting, freelancing, teaching or other pursuits. After an employer has made you an offer, you might say, “I love mentoring college students and have taught as an adjunct in the evenings. Does the company allow outside work like this?” Or, if you are already employed, you might say to your boss, “This might sound crazy, but my friends keep telling me they love the jewelry I make as a hobby on the weekends, and I should put up a small store on Etsy. Do company rules allow that?” Being allowed to freelance adds value to a job for you—and you should consider that when you field offers.

Add to your tool kit quickly. Virtually every professional field requires new tech skills today. Look for speedy, inexpensive opportunities to pick them up—including options outside of the university system. For instance, the learning community General Assembly, which has locations in New York and other major cities, offers moderately priced on-demand webinars, short in-person seminars and courses on topics like data visualization, search engine optimization, and project management.

Free up 50 hours a year for professional development. Here’s the easy way: Make an appointment with yourself one day a week to have lunch at your desk or with your iPad at a quiet lunch spot to watch a webcast or do a tutorial that adds to your professional tool kit. Spend that time wisely and a year from now you’ll be a lot more marketable, no matter what happens at your present company.

About the Author

Elaine Pofeldt is an independent journalist who specializes in writing about entrepreneurship and careers. She was a senior editor for Fortune Small Business magazine, and her work has appeared in Fortune, Money, Forbes.com, Inc. and Crain's New York Business, among others.