Thursday, 1 December 2011

How Redundancy Became A Dirty Word Once More

I remember during the last depression in the British economy in the 1980s when redundancy became commonplace, even for people in what had previously seemed ‘jobs for life’ that there remained an attitude ingrained from the 1950s and 1960s that people were made redundant as a result of something they had done wrong. I guess in middle class professions the attitude was perhaps even older because in the 1930s when mass unemployment first really hit national consciousness it was often very regionally and sectorally focused on heavy industries in northern England, Scotland and South Wales, whereas much of the Midlands and the South and new more technological and service sector industries did not suffer nearly so much. My father was only made redundant once in a career which lasted about 43 years and that was at an age when he was entitled to early retirement. My mother was never laid off, but that was because she was a nurse and it has only been in recent years that nurses have been unable to find work very easily.

Going back to the 1980s, my father had a friend he had known since childhood, who worked in the construction industry. I still remember the sticker he had in the back of his car which said ‘Don’t Nationalise Building’ and had a picture of a pair of hands one holding a brick and one a mortar trowel, locked together with handcuffs. The whole campaign these days somehow seems as alien as something that might have been run in East Germany at the time. Anyway, he was made redundant as happened to millions of middle aged family men in the 1980s alongside all sorts of people. I remember being told that his mother was so ashamed that he had been made redundant that she would not talk about it. She could no disassociate being laid off because the company had closed down or was ‘downsizing’ from being sacked for improper behaviour or laziness. Though it was her son, she could not shake the sense that he had done something wrong to be without work. I never found out if she changed her attitudes. My father advised his friend to train in computers which were just coming in on a large scale at the time. The friend took the advice and in his next job avoided further redundancy because of the skills he had and was able to continue working to a profitable retirement.

In my career which has spanned 20 years this year, I have been made redundant three times. In addition, for much of the time I have been on fixed term contracts, which whilst being set up that way have pretty much the same effect when they come to an end, especially if you are uncertain if the contract is going to be renewed or not, something you are usually only told late on. The similarity of the end of such contracts to redundancy is why in the UK since 2002 companies have had to pay redundancy pay if they do not renew the contract of a worker on a contract of 2 years or more. In addition, if the person has been on contracts for 4 years they have to be moved to a permanent contract. This was because previously there were cases of workers on contracts for 12 years with no security. While it might seem the same in terms of pay and condition, that threat of your job coming to an end through no fault of your own does prey on your mind and reduces your productivity.

Anyway, redundancy has been a fact of working life for at least thirty years and in certain industries it has been incredibly common. Now, always on the lookout for a new job, especially as I always seem to end up with the most appalling managers and working far from home, I subscribe to online services such as Monster and LinkedIn. As well as the job searching, CV listing and networking facilities these sites often send you articles about work. Many of these seem to be influenced by US tendencies, which Americans appear to believe are universal, at least for their English-speaking cousins. However, some of them appear to be quite comic to British readers especially when it comes to the precision about matters of clothing for the workplace. For a start we do not have Labor Day and no self-respecting businesswoman would ever wear white shoes to work anyway; for men black suits without a stripe have no such negative connotations that they seem to have in the USA. Setting such cultural differences aside, reading US workplace attitudes can be useful as British employers have a common tendency to follow their American counterparts sooner or later.

The interesting trend I have picked up on at a time when we are facing high unemployment and redundancies, is how ‘redundancy’ is once again a dirty word as if we were back in the early 1980s. I received an article from LinkedIn about networking which advised you when speaking to people you should never mention you have been made redundant and should find some euphemism for the period that you were without work as if it was some kind of dirty secret rather than a fact of working life for people at all levels.

My view of why this attitude has reappeared is that it stems from other recent trends in business. I have heard from employers in my sector and others that two of the key things they value from employees are not their ICT skills or their ability to manage projects or speak a foreign language but ‘deference’ and ‘gratitude’. Employers, or rather managers at all levels, are leveraging the fact that jobs are scarce in order to compel a forelock-tugging attitude towards them from among their staff. They expect workers not only to be grateful for their jobs but to actually say this repeatedly. Of course, because there are recruitment processes in place, often the job is not a gift of your manager but once in post you have to behave as if it is and as a result, regularly thank your manager and support their view no matter how hare-brained or unethical it might be. To even propose a different approach is to be ‘disloyal’, not with a view to the company as a whole but to the individual who wields power over you. I have noted before that even commentators on business have observed that this attitude is unhealthy for a company that wants to survive let alone prosper in the current economic climate:

It is interesting that the Coalition government is seeking to reduce the opportunity for industrial tribunals and even remove the chance to protest unfair dismissal. Clearly their view is that all dismissal is ‘fair’. The government is aiming to reinforce this attitude that all workers, whether professionally qualified or not should simply keep their mouths shut and accept whatever they are told by their bosses and similarly to accept the prejudiced treatment which is once again increasingly common.

How does this connect to mentioning redundancy in your career history? Well, managers never like you hear you criticising your previous employers even if they are competitors. They assume that if you are critical of the previous companies you have worked for you can easily be critical of them, something we know they now have no tolerance for. Mentioning redundancy in a single word seems to be critical of the planning of that company and of their treatment of their workers. In addition, you are exhibiting ingratitude for not expressing how grateful you were that the company actually employed you in the first place and kept you there for as many years and months as they did. I soon noticed this three jobs back when I, along with 200 others (the first phase in a lay-off of 500 staff), were told we were being made redundant. I was criticised for any mention of the fact and my email account was shut down because my ‘Out-of-Office’ statement mentioned it. Despite that 10% of the staff were in line to be made redundant gave us no right to discuss it. Consequently it became impossible to even hand over work to the staff who were remaining and projects very close to completion were simply dropped, unfinished with the funds that had gone into them wasted as I was not allowed to talk with people who could have picked them up and finished them off as it would have meant me saying why I would not be around to do it myself.

In such circumstances reality begins to become distorted. Simply because of the criticism-phobia which is now permitted among managers, money is allowed to be wasted and no proper follow on from a period of large-scale redundancy can be implemented, further damaging the company. We have to face up to what is being balanced up here. On one side it is that some managers for a few weeks will be irritated that staff being made redundant talk about it, on the other side thousands of pounds is wasted and projects left unfinished damaging the funds and reputation of the company. Yet, in our distorted world it is the managers’ unease which wins out.

There is an additional way in which the person being made redundant suffers if they cannot mention that they have been made redundant and this is when you apply for other jobs. You have to come up with a range of more or less feasible excuses for why you left your previous employment. With fragmented careers it becomes increasingly difficult to produce good ones and interviewers become suspicious, assuming that you must be hiding something. Of course, it would be easy if you could simply state the reason as ‘redundancy’ but to do so would clearly damage your chances for the new job, yet often the alternatives are little better. Saying you left because you no longer fitted in, for family reasons, for better pay or conditions, to work nearer to home and so on all seem to provide reasons not to employ you in another post. It would be better if you could say I was made redundant, it had nothing to do with my abilities it was simply the company could not afford to employ me and 499 other people any longer.

The default assumption by interviewers that you are seeking to hide something just accentuates this problem. Too often interviews are coming to resemble police interrogations. Rather than trying to gauge what skills you have and whether you could apply them in a new post they cross-examine you to find any flaws in your story. Having read advice about writing a CV I had begun only listing jobs going back over the past 10-12 years. This was a big mistake at one interview. They spent the whole time asking me about my work in the 1990s and in the post-interview feedback said it was because they believed I had been serving a prison term at that time, not realising that at their company the form declaring that I had no criminal record was sent to their human resources department. It seems that other excuses used to conceal redundancy could open you up to a similar risk.

By making redundancy once again a taboo subject the myth that we have total control over our careers is promoted and the view that we are to blame if they are at all disrupted. In turn the view is perpetuated that companies are blameless for the hardships they impose on the ordinary worker even if, as if often the case in the UK, it is the result of bad planning, inertia or not being alert to changing conditions. It is particularly galling when your redundancy comes as the result of some development you tried to alert the company to but were choked off by the ‘I don’t want to hear that’ mentality which is so prevalent.

In the 21st century redundancy is going to be a factor for every worker no matter how illustrious a career path they take. Even members of the boards of multi-nationals lose their jobs. What we need is not to somehow brush it under the carpet but acknowledge it is a fact of working life and not make the person made redundant feel guilty for something that is imposed on them simply because it makes some managers feel a little uncomfortable for a short time. Compared to the worry and financial pressures the person losing their job faces, such unease is nothing and should not become the prime driver for workplace expectations of behaviour.

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