Last Updated: March 27, 2008: 12:01 PM EDT
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When your employer goes bust

How to protect your career if your company suffers a Bear Stearns-like crisis.

By Anne Fisher, Fortune senior writer

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(Fortune) -- It's every professional's nightmare: You're working in a great job for a well-regarded employer, then the company -- seemingly overnight -- suffers a crisis and is bought out or goes belly-up. Your career, which seemed golden just a few days ago, suddenly looks to be in jeopardy. And the pressure's all the worse if your savings were heavily invested in your employer's now-much-devalued stock.

That's the unpleasant situation facing many Bear Stearns (BSC, Fortune 500) employees, after JP Morgan Chase (JPM, Fortune 500) first announced March 16 it agreed to buy the cash-strapped brokerage firm at the fire-sale price of $2 a share. Morgan quintupled the offer Monday to $10 a share, but financial and career pressures on employees remain.

And it's happened before: Back in December 2001, more than 4,000 Enron employees lost their jobs when the company declared bankruptcy. And sadly, similar corporate blowups likely will happen again, causing untold damage to talented employees' professional lives.

How can you protect your career from an employer's missteps? And what should you do if your company does implode?

The Bear Stearns debacle should be "a wake-up call for anyone who isn't staying in touch with a wide network of contacts," says Rich Gee, an executive coach in Stamford, Conn. "You really need to make time to keep your professional connections robust and fresh, because who knows? Today it's the financial services industry where people are suddenly out in the cold. It could be your company tomorrow."

If the worst does happen, and you fear your job and your employer are at risk, "you have to immediately start calling on your network - talking to people you know, taking people out to lunch, picking their brains at Starbucks over coffee," Gee says.

On average, talking with 10 people will net you three or four solid job leads, says Gee.

"It may be true that there isn't much hiring going on at Wall Street firms or anywhere else right now. But even at the worst of times, there is churn," he says. "Openings are created by people getting promoted, or retiring, or by new projects that come up. The more people you get in touch with, the more likely you are to find out about these opportunities."

But is there a stigma attached to coming from an employer that went bust? "The trouble with coming from a failed firm, even if you had nothing to do with what went wrong, is that you may be perceived as desperate," says Fran Luisi, a senior principal at human-resources executive recruiting firm Charleston Partners (www.charlestonpartners.com). "So you need to project confidence in yourself and your skills."

When you go into networking meeting and interviews, keep in mind that, "people realize that a few bad apples don't spoil the whole barrel," Gee says. "They want to help you if they can."

To be on the safe side, though, treat any stint at a company that cratered "just as you would any other potential objection or reservation that a job interviewer might have," Gee advises. "Bring it up and address it. Make it clear that you were not involved in the part of the business that brought the house down."

Bear in mind that what really interests job interviewers, and others in a position to hire or recommend you, is the future, not the past. Your goal is to persuade them that their organization's future will be better with you than without you.

So be sure to tell stories that highlight your accomplishments throughout your entire career. "An employer wants to see passion, and wants to know how you handled different situations and solved problems," says Gee. "You're not there to talk about Bear Stearns or... wherever you may be coming from. You're there to sell yourself and your abilities."

If you're a nervous Bear Stearns employee, keep in mind that no one knows yet how many staffers will be kept on.

"Chase will certainly keep people they perceive as adding real value, including top salespeople, who bring valuable client relationships with them," says Jeff Greene, a vice president at headhunting firm Battalia Winston (www.battaliawinston.com) who specializes in Wall Street recruiting. "Anyone in wealth management should have no trouble either - again, that's relationship-based, it's the folks with the golden Rolodexes."

Greene notes that Bear Stearns until recently made most of its money processing securities trades: "Those back-office people's jobs could be safe if JP Morgan Chase decides it wants to get into that business - and who's to say they won't?"

Greene adds that Bear Stearns' stars, including a few managing directors and some traders well-known on the Street, should land on their feet: "They may start their own private equity funds, or go run an existing fund. There is still an astonishing amount of private equity money around, and some of it is in real need of adult supervision."

Luisi at Charleston Partners agrees. "Talent will always be in demand regardless of the economy or the individual circumstances," he says.

Folks, a quick question: For a future story, we would like to find business owners who routinely sleep no more than 4 to 6 hours per night. If you're a night-owl entrepreneur, write to me at afisher@fortunemail.com and tell me how you adapted to your current schedule. Many thanks!

Readers, how safe is your job? Are you worried your company could suffer a Bear Stearns-like implosion, and if so, what are you doing to get ready? If you worked for a company that failed, how did you deal with it? Post your thoughts on the Ask Annie blog. You can also send us your photos and videos, or email us and share your story.
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