A single redundancy can be traumatising, but what about three? This is what retrenchments look like from other side: the good, the ordinary and the ugly.
Over the course of a seven-year career in eCommerce, I have been made redundant three times. Maybe it shocks you to hear that. It shocks me to write it out.
But we shouldn’t be shocked. The fact is, redundancies are becoming more frequent. It started many years ago with the beginnings of globalisation, and is going to continue as technology transforms work. Just last month, Singtel Optus announced it would be eliminating 440 positions. It made a splash in the news, but not because it was unusual. Rather, it was noted as part of a growing trend. Singtel Optus joined other corporations such as Telstra and NAB, which both also cut significant portions of their workforces this year. Of course, I doubt anyone at Optus was shocked – just a year earlier, the company eliminated 320 roles.
Rosemary Guyatt, the Australian HR Institute’s general manager, people and culture, confirms this is an issue across the workforce. She notes that over the last 10 years, “redundancies have become very frequent. And we’re seeing larger organisations doing them on very large scales. So in my opinion, it really is part of doing business.”
The looming spectre of automation makes the picture more dire. In 2015, a CEDA report found that new technologies could replace more than five million Australian jobs in the next 10 to 20 years. That’s nearly 40 per cent of the country’s total workforce that would need to find new kinds of work.
Considering that redundancy is going to be a major milestone in many employees’ careers, HR professionals should have a grasp on what best practice looks like, and just how badly the process can go awry. Thankfully – for the purposes of this article anyway – I’ve seen every way it can go. To paraphrase the title of a Sergio Leone movie: I’ve seen the great, the ordinary and the ugly.
My first redundancy was undoubtedly the most alarming. There are a couple of reasons for that – the saddest being that once you’ve been made redundant, you’ll never be shocked by a redundancy again. But the fundamental reason was the way it was handled.
We were a new team, working on a brand new project. So perhaps the fall of the axe shouldn’t have come as such a surprise. But I was young, and we were motivated and filled with the energy you only get from a daring venture. When the decision came to cancel the project altogether, it hit hard. But what really managed to knock the wind out of me was the way I heard the news.
I was on leave at the time and I did not hear about my redundancy from my manager, nor an HR representative. Instead, the news came via a phone call from a distraught teammate, telling me that we’d all been let go.
Rather than hearing from a manager – preferably with a trained HR professional in attendance – I heard from someone who was scared, angry and upset. I called my manager on my own prerogative and confirmed that, yes, I too was being made redundant.
I asked Rosemary Guyatt what she thought might have gone wrong in this situation: “So many things. Employers have to look at who’s in scope – who’s likely to be made redundant – looking at each individual and their circumstances. Are they going to be in the office or are they going to be on leave? There’s always advance notice. How do managers get in touch with them so they don’t hear it by word of mouth? You shouldn’t have to call in yourself to find out that your whole team is being made redundant.”
“Rather than hearing from a manager – preferably with a trained HR professional in attendance – I heard from someone who was scared, angry and upset.”
For my part, hearing the news from an emotional coworker was difficult and, frankly, more frightening than it needed to be. My first moments absorbing the news were not accompanied by facts, assurances or any sort of helpful detail. It was simply an announcement of a crisis. A crisis I had to try to resolve myself.
And that set the tone. From that point on, I was defiant and vexed. And I don’t think this feeling is unique. The effects of this kind of bungling are multiform. For one, it engenders bitterness among employees – both those being made redundant and those who remain behind. A misstep like this can be interpreted as callousness and can undermine the sense of security that remaining employees have regarding their own roles. When things are properly handled by trained HR professionals, I found out, the unpleasantness of the situation can be managed.
The thing about going through multiple redundancies is that eventually you become attuned to the signs that there’s one barrelling toward you. The most obvious is any major shift in the company. Any significant business development or team restructuring is a signal of instability. And if you see those signals and you’ve been through a redundancy or three, your eye starts to twitch. But the moment you really know you should start worrying is when they say there’s no cause for concern.“Don’t panic,” my managers would tell me. “This team is safe. Nobody’s job is in jeopardy”.
When you hear those words repeated over and over – “Don’t worry. You’re safe.” – pretty soon your ears flatten against your skull like you’re a dog that smells a hurricane brewing.
By the time of my most recent redundancy, I was attuned to the signs. So when a joint venture was announced, and we received the typical assurances that we were “safe”, I started to worry. And, of course, the day soon came.
This was the redundancy I consider to be run-of-the mill – though by no means perfect. In the morning I was called in to a meeting with my manager. She told me my position was being made redundant, but there could be a chance of redeployment. Another meeting would be scheduled later that morning to go over the details.
I returned to my desk unnerved, but mildly hopeful about the possibility of redeployment.
In the second meeting – this time with my manager and an HR representative – I was presented with the possibilities for redeployment. But it turns out they weren’t actually possible.
The “opportunities” were so far outside my area of expertise that I had to chuckle a little at the absurdity of what was happening. The HR representative acknowledged with a sympathetic grimace that there didn’t seem to be anything that was right for me.
“When you hear those words repeated over and over – “Don’t worry. You’re safe.” – pretty soon your ears flatten against your skull like you’re a dog that smells a hurricane brewing.”
I explained to Guyatt what had happened to me and she had this to say: “In some cases, redeployment can occur with a small to medium amount of reskilling. But I think people need to understand the potential, because if there are really no other jobs, people shouldn’t be taking you down a garden path. You need to get a realistic view of the scale of potential opportunities.”
That moment of hope in the first meeting does feel a little barbed in retrospect. And from a personal perspective, I would say that clarity is a worthwhile goal in these sorts of discussions. Artificially sweetening any one moment of the process to make it easier to swallow will only make the whole meal more difficult to digest.
Still, it went about as well as I expected it to. I was personally informed of the situation in a professional fashion, then paid the statutory minimum and sent on my way that very morning. Despite the mild annoyance of the redeployment issue, the situation was handled as well and professionally as it needed to be.
But there are situations where employers may exceed their minimum requirements. For one thing, enterprise agreements that have been negotiated by unions typically offer far more generous redundancy provisions.
And, of course, an employer is not bound to pay only the statutory minimum. This brings me to my final example.
One of my redundancies flew so high above expectations it stands out as a nice memory. The twist is it happened at the same company as my first – the ugliest. I’d returned to the fold months later, and was there for five more years.
And in that time, the company grew. It rose from a startup to a market leader. And to its credit, it changed its practices to the point that I consider the way it handled my team’s redundancy an effective case study.
It was a matter of outsourcing. Editorial was being transferred to Poland. However, when the redundancy packages were announced, they were all generous. No-one had to leave that day, genuine redeployment offers were made, and some of us were retained for months to help onboard the offshore team.
A partner at law firm Hall and Willcox, Kylie Groves, says that, historically, “having a generous redundancy policy was often seen as a method of staff retention. You give your employees security – ‘We don’t think we’re ever going to have to make you redundant, but if we do, then you’ll get this generous amount.’”
Beyond the effect this kind of policy can have on remaining staff, it also benefits the business. When redundancies occur, there is usually some handing over of skills and responsibilities. And when staff feel fairly dealt with, they are more inclined to be helpful. For my part, I look back fondly on helping to train the offshore team that replaced mine, and it remains a point of pride on my resume.
Groves says the crucial legal concern HR needs to be aware of when it comes to redundancies is making sure the role is genuinely redundant. Because choosing to use redundancy as an alternative to other dismissal processes – which may involve warnings and meetings – is a sure way to fall foul of the Fair Work Act.
“You need to gather evidence about why a position is no longer required, and that evidence needs to inform your decision about which positions are to be made redundant – not the other way around,” says Groves.
“When redundancies occur, there is usually some handing over of skills and responsibilities. And when staff feel fairly dealt with, they are more inclined to be helpful.”
And she warns that if companies – intentionally or otherwise – make an employee redundant for non-genuine reasons, they can face unfair dismissal claims.
“If they have selected someone for redundancy for a prohibited reason – for instance, they’ve selected someone because they’re a troublemaker, they’ve exercised workplace rights in the past, or they have some protected attribute, like they’re on maternity leave or they’ve got a current workers comp claim – then they could be at risk.”
You scratch my back
Guyatt notes that in situations of redundancy, affected employees still “have to be responsible for handing their work over”. In a situation like my great redundancy – where we were responsible for training an offshore team – treating staff well has very positive effects.
“If the handover isn’t good and all the knowledge just disappears, then that outsourcing arrangement is also going to be problematic,” says Guyatt. “So the fact that you’re all feeling somewhat motivated to support that process, when it may not have gone that way, means that business continuity is much more likely to be successful.”
That my ‘great’ redundancy was also the one where the employer stood to gain the most from those being made redundant doesn’t strike my cynical mind as coincidental. But at the same time, I don’t have a problem with that bargain. If companies become aware that they can improve their own situation by handling redundancies with compassion, support and generosity, that’s a win-win.
If each of my redundancies was handled well, I doubt I’d feel a sense of foreboding whenever major news is announced in my workplace. If each time I’d received genuine communication and support, I imagine I’d see a redundancy as representing what it ought to represent: a shift in the company’s situation and a chance for me to spread my wings. It’s just a shame it feels so much like an ejector seat.
This article originally appeared in the October 2018 edition of HRM magazine.
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