4 The notion of a 'job for life' is risibly antique. The byword nowadays is 'flexibility' 4
Restructuring, delayering, down-sizing ... forget job security and golden handshakes. In Nineties Britain, redundancy is a way of life, spawning a language and even an industry all of its own

FOR THE FIRST FEW months after she joined the European headquarters of a large, cutting-edge computer services company, Amanda Wolfenden felt "warm and comfortable". And the feeling was mutual: within three months of recruiting her, the company promoted her to sales manager and gave her an award for "outstanding achievement".

Then, about six months later Amanda, along with 38 colleagues ranging from secretaries to managers, found herself invited to a breakfast meeting the following day.

In a large warehouse specially hired for the purpose, they were served a full English breakfast, with crisp, white napkins and real silver service. Then the company's solicitor dispassionately informed them that they were all being made redundant with immediate effect; they would not be allowed back on to the premises, even to collect personal belongings; and any questions should be addressed via solictors. The boss was nowhere to be seen, although he did make an appearance at the lunch held for remaining staff, where he cheered them all up with the news that the dead wood had now been cleared out.

Meanwhile, Amanda managed to gain access to the office by the fire escape, simply in order to clear her desk. When she tried to take with her a small plaque commemorating her award, she was told it was "company property" and it was snatched from her. A security guard was then called to escort her off the premises.

"The thing that really leaves me cold," concludes Amanda, "is the callousness of it. Walking into that warehouse and feeling: 'All I've done - is this all it's worth?'"

Redundancy has become a fact of life. It is an occupational hazard in the world of work. In the private sector, fewer and fewer people can expect the company they work for even to exist in five or 10 years' time - let alone for that particular job to be safeguarded. And in the public sector more and more jobs are subject to tendering and contract. Whereas the recession of the early Eighties decimated blue-collar jobs, signalling the end of traditional trade unionism, the slump of the early Nineties cut a swathe through managerial and white-collar jobs. The shock to the middle classes was, and is, palpable: there is now such an utterly endemic sense of insecurity that you can almost smell the fear of redundancy.

Amanda's experience is the subject of the first programme, Thank You and Goodbye, in a four-part documentary series on BBC2 about work in Nineties Brit- ain. According to its makers, approximately five million people have been made redundant since 1990. And although the trend has been downwards, the latest figures from the Government's Labour Force Surveys show a marked jump, up to 220,000 in the first quarter of 1995. This would translate, as a national average, into roughly one in 100 employees losings their jobs last spring. Since Amanda had worked for the company for less than two years, she received no redundancy payment. Those who had, received the statutory minimum, which stands at a ludicrously parsimonious maximum of pounds 210 for every complete year of service. The firm was far from exceptional in applying the legal minimum. A 1992 survey by the Employment Department showed that only 40 per cent of companies chose to enhance payments in cases of compulsory redundancies.

In David Millichap's case, it wasn't the money that mattered, but the principle. He was one of nine senior teaching staff in a higher education college who were made redundant. His union, Natfhe, disputed the grounds for the redundancies and he feels the college never made a convincing case. In the end, though, "a gun was put to our heads" as he says: accept the voluntary terms or go compulsorily and lose the package we're offering.

When the coup de grace finally came, it was laughably bungled: there was no face- to-face meeting with a personnel officer or high-ranking member of staff; not even a handshake. The notices were delivered, Nineties style, on a Friday evening by motorcycle messenger. David did not even get his letter that evening - and he believed himself reprieved after all - because the courier couldn't find the new estate on which he lives. The fact that redundancy has become declassee has resulted in one or two interesting side effects. It's an ill wind ... for even unemployment, it seems, can create jobs: a recent report by Incomes Data Services, Surplus to Requirements, notes: "Many employers now routinely offer redundant employees financial advice and counselling either in-house or through an external provider."

Catherine Gilbert works for a business consultancy called DBM, one of several companies specialising in "outplacement". If one is fortunate enough to have been working for a relatively benevolent company, one which is squeamish about redundancies, then DBM may be called in to counsel employees who are about to lose their livelihoods and help them into a brilliant new stage of their career. At the (former) employer's behest, they will give you practical advice and support in finding another job. Which is fine, you might suppose, as long as the other companies that might provide employment aren't busy with "outplacing" themselves.

In any event, DBM's bread is buttered on both sides, because it also runs courses for people dispensing the bad news.

"You might want to think about security," Ms Gilbert advises matter-of- factly. She is conducting a workshop for personnel managers on Separation Interview Training. This may sound like the sort of counselling you or I go to Relate for, but the separation anticipated here is of a less intimate kind. And there is a chance, apparently, that the person being separated may not be altogether overjoyed - hence the need to think about security.

It's a curious feature of the jargon of human resources management that it does not seem to have an appropriately antiseptic term for the persona non grata. The only available explanation is that human resource managers are happiest when they don't have to mention humans at all. The pain of that ugly face-to-face business of telling someone that they are out of a job can be gently massaged away with nice impersonal words like restructuring, delayering and downsizing - distant lexical cousins, perhaps, to cleansing.

What is incontrovertible, no matter how it is stated, is that redundancy is now an occupational hazard for practically everyone in paid employment. What the large- scale restructurings of the past five years have left behind is a workforce disciplined in the belief that the notion of a job for life is risibly antique. The byword nowadays is flexibility.

"Companies are moving towards having a core of employees on the payroll and then everybody else on contract," Ms Gilbert explains. In other words, the big clear outs of the early Nineties made way for a whole new regime of people management. "Traditionally, companies have thought, 'Right, get rid of numbers. Get everyone working harder'. But they're realising it is not as simple as that, everything's tied: you have to treat well the people who are leaving, but you also have to do quite a lot of work with those who remain."

One of the general symptoms of employee insecurity is "presenteeism" : people who become obsessed by the need to put in absurdly long hours as a sign of their commitment - even if they are not using their time very productively. And in companies where there actually have been redundancies a new phenomenon has been documented: survivor syndrome. "This is the term which has been coined for the sense of shock," elaborates Ms Gilbert, "that those people who remain in an organisation go through after a downsizing. They experience the same symptoms as those who have left: shock, guilt and upset, which affects their productivity."

Companies that have specialised in outplacement, such as KPMG Peat Marwick, Sanderson Sydney and Couts Career Consultants, as well as DBM, are now moving into career management, according to Angela Baron, a policy advisor at the Institute of Personnel and Development, the professional association for consultants in this field.

"The old set of expectations of career progression is less and less realistic. Because of redundancies, companies have less scope for moving people up - the career ladder is a lot shorter than it used to be. Career management is about sideways moves, adopting a cross-functional approach, so that, for example, a person might be moved from production to marketing or a personnel role."

Unfortunately, what such bright-eyed enthusiasm for the future conceals is that getting the sack is not only as devastating an experience now as it has always been, but now it is also absolutely endemic.

"Even now," admits Amanda Wolfen-den, "I still feel sometimes it was me. I must have been crap at what I did. If I was good, they wouldn't have got rid of me'." And as 52-year-old Bob Bradshaw, a senior training advisor at an engineering company who was delayered in March last year, described: "I had heard not a dickie bird until a quarter past four that Friday afternoon. I never thought it was going to be me. I couldn't take it all in. It's like a death really." Despite his best efforts, his only work since has been as a part-time taxi driver.

"There's no happiness in the world of work these days," he says. "It's ruled by fear. People are tremendously frightened of what could happen if they step out of line."

o 'Thank You and Goodbye', the first in a four-part documentary series, 'Nice Work', is on BBC2, Tuesday, 24 October

Comments