Unless you work for a major national corporation, chances are you've suspected at least once in your career that your employer was financially struggling. Armed with limited information and little more than a sneaking suspicion that your job may not exist in a few weeks, you consider the option of applying elsewhere--but fear the consequences if the situation is all in your head.

All businesses go through ups and downs, so it isn't abnormal to find yourself in a small- to mid-sized business that's going through a bit of financial trouble. The key is to recognize when the company has hit a pivotal moment--the moment it needs to start laying people off.

So how can you tell if your employer is going under, assuming you have no access to data that could provide you a direct answer?

You Haven't Gotten a Raise in Years

Think of the last time you got a raise. Has it been a few years? If you've improved your performance over the past few years (or even stayed consistent, but with more experience and more responsibilities), most employers would give you a cost of living raise at the very least. If you haven't received one, it means either your performance has been questionable or the company is in a tight financial situation. Every company has bad years every now and then, but if you've consistently failed to get a raise for several years in a row, it could be a sign that the company itself is on a downward trajectory.

There's High Turnover in the Upper Ranks

Have there been many changes in leadership in the past few years? How many? One transition is clearly explainable; for example, a CEO may depart to retire, or spend more time with family, or may be asked to leave after a bad mistake or poor performance. But if you see multiple executives heading for the door after relatively short terms, it's a sign that there's something frenzied and desperate at the core of the business. Things aren't going the way the company needs them to, and these executives and leaders are getting the shaft for it.

You Haven't Seen Any New Hires Lately

Some companies manage perfectly well with a consistent staff, but even without actively increasing the office's numbers, there are usually occasional hires to replace those who leave. When was the last time you saw someone hired at your place of work? If there's been a formal hiring freeze, it could be a sign that the company is in financial trouble. Even worse, if you've seen layoffs or strange departures in the past few months without anyone coming in to replace those who left, it's a sign of serious trouble.

The Company Direction Has Changed Dramatically or Is Unclear

Think about your company's current mission statement, and where your company plans to go in the next few years. Has this direction changed much in the past few years? Is it currently ambiguous or does it seem strange to you? Radical new directions have occasionally saved companies or turned them around for the better, so don't cast judgment too quickly, but if you notice unclear or unsettling cues from the top regarding the direction and future of the company, it should rouse your suspicions.

Your Workload Is Unpredictable

Few jobs have a perfectly consistent workload attached to them, and most of us enjoy a bit of variety. But think about the fluctuations in workload and capacity you've seen across the company in the past few months. Have there been weeks of frantic rushes, followed by weeks of twiddling thumbs? Rapid shifts in available work are a sign of inconsistency in the company's performance, and could be a sign that things aren't going well overall.

Cash Flow Is Becoming an Issue

Cash flow is probably the biggest indicator of a company's overall health, though it can be one of the most difficult signs to discern unless you're in the financial department. Cash keeps companies afloat by paying bills, paying employees, and investing in new developments. If your company has had trouble paying the bills and keeping the lights on, it could be an indication of bigger, less fixable financial stress.

Rumors Are Flowing

You should never let a rumor dictate your thoughts on the company's health. Rumors can start from nothing and escalate quickly, and because of that, they're often untrustworthy. However, if you start hearing rumors from multiple sources about multiple topics, and start hearing rumors from outside your company as well, it's time to consider them a real and actionable sign that the company is in trouble. Other people are noticing the same things you are, which can only spell trouble for the long term.

No one sign is enough to tell you whether your current company is going under. In fact, some of these are actually positive changes in the right context. But if you notice many of these signs, and your coworkers agree with your suspicions, it's a pretty clear indicator that your company has fallen on hard times. That doesn't mean you should quit immediately and abandon ship, but it does mean you should start paying close attention to company developments in the coming months and possibly dust off your resume. Be cautious and conservative; anticipating a company's failure when it's perfectly healthy can be just as bad as being blindsided by a company going under.

Published on: Nov 4, 2015
The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.