If you've been getting lousy reviews, complaint letters in your file, and glaring "one more mistake like that..." remarks, you know what's coming. You're gonna be fired.

But layoffs are different and insidious. Top management keeps a layoff secret, because they want to decide who goes and don't want top talent to depart before the storm.

Getting laid off is the worst way to get fired. If you're blindsided, you hit the streets (and end up competing for a new job) with the rest of your clueless co-workers.

However, if you know a layoff is coming, you can use it as a spur to find your dream job or start your own firm.

Lucky for you, I've been through half-a-dozen layoffs and kept my eyes opened as they happened. Here are the hidden signs that one is imminent:

1. A merger or acquisition.

When one company acquires another, there is always duplication of effort. Layoffs will occur as soon as the opposing management teams have fought the turf war.

2. Off-site management meetings.

When top management conducts meetings at a location where they're 100 percent sure they won't be overheard, they're usually planning a layoff.

3. A sudden increase of HR bustle.

Just as tax season is crunch time for accountants, layoffs are crunch time for HR. When the HR drones buzz about more than usual, layoffs can't be far away.

4. A corporatewide hiring freeze.

The biggest challenge for every (viable) company is finding top talent and filling key positions. When they stop hiring, they're about to start firing.

5. Unexplained visits to China or India.

If there's no obvious reason for multiple C-level trips to Asia, you can bet your bottom renminbi that your job is about to be outsourced.

6. A memo about corporatewide office supply usage.

It's a certain sign of financial desperation when top management grouses about the cost of paper, paper clips, or (this really happens) toilet paper.

7. No more free coffee.

Companies who care about morale keep their employees fully caffeinated. Companies that would just as soon you quit charge by the cup.

8. Any delay of normal financial activity.

Payroll checks go out late? Annual report published in May rather than April? Vendors calling about payment? To quote Scooby-Doo: "Ruh-roh."

9. Management denial of layoff rumors.

The most reliable sign that there will definitely be a layoff is when management says there will definitely not be a layoff.

Published on: Oct 14, 2016
Like this column? Sign up to subscribe to email alerts and you'll never miss a post.
The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.