A furlough is a big, flapping red flag that your job is in danger.
Forcing workers to take unpaid time off helps employers reduce costs and, ostensibly, avoid layoffs. But a company that decides it can do without your services for a few days might very well decide to do without them permanently.
Yet way too many workers fiddle while their careers burn. An online poll at The Consumerist found the majority of those furloughed treat the days as unpaid vacations. My informal poll of readers and posters on the Your Money message board found that many used the time to sleep late, pursue hobbies or catch up on household chores.
Now, I'm as fond of snoozing and clean closets as the next person, but people, come on. If you're forced to take furlough days, you should be using them to ready yourself for your next job. You might be looking sooner than you think -- and in case you haven't heard, it's not a great time to be unemployed.
People who get a head start on burnishing their résumés and networks will be in a far better position to find their next job than people who bury their heads in the sand, said Lois Frankel, a career coach and the author of "Nice Girls Don't Get the Corner Office" and "See Jane Lead."
"Nobody's safe anymore," Frankel said. "You should be making the investment of time now."
If you're facing a furlough, here are some ideas for making the most of your time off:
1. Create your layoff plan. Unpaid time off means less money coming in, so you'll need to adjust your expenses just to cope with a smaller income. But while you're trimming expenses, cut back a little more so you can build up your emergency fund. If there's an expense you'd cut if you were laid off, trim it now and bank the extra cash. (Donna Freedman's "In case of layoff: A financial fire drill" is a must-read. And read my "Survival guide for the unemployed" for tips about handling the worst if it happens.)
2. Get serious about online networking. Professional networking sites such as LinkedIn and Plaxo are free and allow you to reach out to former colleagues, friends and old classmates, all of whom can be a gold mine of potential job leads. Stanford sociologist Mark Granovetter discovered that many people find jobs not through their nearest and dearest but from "weak" connections: acquaintances and friends of friends. The bigger your network, the better your chances of uncovering your next great position. Résumé expert Tony Beshara, author of "The Job Search Solution," recommends writing down the name and number of every single person you know as a kind of master networking sheet, then working your way through it to let folks know you're looking for your next post.
3. Network offline, too. Consider joining at least one professional or social organization that can help you expand your network. Maybe you can use some of your unpaid days to attend the group's meetings or annual conventions for more face time. Volunteering can help you build contacts, as well as a sense of gratitude.
4. Create some goodwill. Keith Ferrazzi's excellent networking book "Never Eat Alone" emphasizes the importance of doing good deeds for others without direct expectation of rewards. Write a glowing recommendation for someone, tell someone else about a job prospect, encourage someone who's feeling down. This stuff is easy to put off in the rush of a typical workday but is essential to building a strong network -- and feeling good about yourself.