Sorry, we're going to have to let you go

Jobs in the Nineties are like holiday romances: sweet but short. We've entered a new 'sack culture' in which 'downsizing' and 'rationalising', 'redundancy workshops' for bosses and 'sack therapy' for employees are the norm. But while the stigma of being forced to 'widen your horizons' has dim inished, the agony remains. Beverly Kemp interviews givers and receivers of the 'bad news', and, below, Esther Oxford offers a five-point guide to surviving in today's leaner, meaner climate
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Indy Lifestyle Online
Jenny, 30, was asked to leave her job as editor for a publishing company when it became known she was having a relationship with a married colleague. The couple are getting married later this year and live in London.

I was branded as some sort of scarlet woman but the reality was very different. Tony's marriage had been unhappy for a long time and he had tried to leave his wife before we even met. It all started because we used to go home on the train together. We just got on incredibly well. One night we sat down in a wine bar and it was obvious to both of us that we wanted to be together.

Tony went to see the MD to explain that he was having personal problems and was leaving his wife for another woman. She asked: "Is it anyone I know?" He told her it was. Up until that moment the MD and I had got on really well. She would have nothing more to do with me after that, and only spoke to me if it was absolutely necessary.

The firm prided itself on being a small company based on family values and what we had decided was too nasty for them to contemplate. Things became increasingly difficult. Most of the senior management treated me as if I was nothing more than a tart. I knew that I was a good editor and highly competent. But the MD began sending memos to another director, saying that my books were badly edited and full of spelling mistakes. My boss stopped asking me to do things and began excluding me from meetings. Tony thought it would smack of favouritism if he stuck up for me so he didn't feel he could do anything, apart from listen. Slowly my job was being taken away from me.

I began having panic attacks in the street. I used to vomit every day before going into the office. By the middle of the morning I would find myself in the toilets. I couldn't sleep and I looked a wreck. There were days when I would walk along the street, telling myself, "You are good at your job, you are normal", over and over again.

I stuck it out for another nine months. Nothing to do with being tenacious. More to do with having a mortgage to pay. By the time I was summoned to the MD's office and told, "We would like you to leave now", the management of the company had systematically smashed every ounce of self-confidence that I had. I was a bag of nerves.

I couldn't face thinking about bringing a case for unfair dismissal. I felt so battered, I didn't want anything more to do with them. Even now I feel sick whenever I go anywhere near Westminster. At least I had Tony to support me through it all. They'd probably be gobsmacked to hear we are getting married in July.

All names have been changed.

Showing someone the door never gets easy

Suzanne (not her real name), 39, is a partner in a London firm of solicitors employing 350 staff. Thirty people in her firm have been made redundant in the past 18 months.

The first experience I had of being involved in a meeting to tell someone they were being made redundant was as an observer. We always ensure that there are two partners present. The man losing his job had been with the firm in a senior management role for over 20 years but had become disenchanted and was performing poorly.

He took it with a great deal of dignity. I sat there with tears in my eyes. I felt embarrassed because he was 15 years older than me and it seemed inappropriate for me to be there.

Deciding who to make redundant is a very long processinvolving a great deal of careful consideration. There is no first in, last out policy. In the end it all comes down to performance. Some of our longest-serving staff have been most vulnerable to redundancy because when times were good, they could coast along even though they didn't match up to the performance levels expected of newer generations. They simply weren't able to move with the times or provide the kind of service that clients demand in the 1990s.

Since then I have been responsible for making six other people redundant and it doesn't get any easier. I've felt nervous every single time. Part of me was anxious in case I handled it clumsily as far as the person's feelings were concerned. I found myself desperately hoping I had struck the right balance between being humane, without sounding too brusque, sentimental or making what I was saying sound trivial.

Word gets out very quickly when a redundancy programme is in place, so if staff are asked to come for a discussion at a time that is unusual for them, they tend to predict what is going to happen. One of the most surprising aspects for me is that people have generally coped with the news very well. Lawyers often have a mindset of weighing one hand with the other and being able to see all the angles.

Timing is very important. We always offer people the option of going straight home if they feel they can't face their colleagues or want some privacy. Another received wisdom is that if you are planning to make redundancies and Christmas is approaching, it's better to do it before rather than after so that people have the option to modify their spending.

Both men and women have cried

Mark Todd, 40, is operations director of the publishing company Longman Group Ltd, based in Essex. The company currently employs around 700 staff. Last year 150 staff were made redundant.

You hear horror stories of people walking into their boss's office, expecting to be congratulated on their performance, only to find they are losing their job. I always try to prepare the ground so that it never comes as a total shock.

Usually we have had a discussion beforehand to explore their views on future employment, which enables me to get a feel of who really wants to stay and who might consider opting for voluntary redundancy. You try to anticipate how people will react but it's impossible to get it right every time.

Our redundancies last year happened for a number of reasons. The company was re-organised into three different businesses. A chunk of jobs in my division was lost because people didn't want to relocate to Southport, Edinburgh or London. Our head office became much smaller and market conditions forced us to make further redundancies in two other divisions.

In a number of cases, staff being made redundant were single parents or the sole breadwinner for their family. The personal circumstances of the individual can be a tremendous worry. We laid on a counselling service to support people by providing advice on financial issues, self-employment and finding another job. Two months later, more than 60 per cent of the people we had let go were in new employment or settled in some other way.

Pitching the right note is the most difficult aspect of a redundancy interview. You can explain over and over again that large numbers of people will be losing their jobs, but the main concern of the person you are talking to is obviously number one.

It's important to focus the conversation exclusively on them and their feelings and options.

In 99 per cent of cases, redundancy decisions are final. I can only remember one occasion when I told someone their post was being made redundant but he ended up retaining his position.

Sometimes people do get very bitter and angry. It's just a natural reaction.

Often they need to let their emotions out about how they feel about the company and how they would have dealt with things differently. Part of my job is to take that. Both men and women have cried. Perhaps the most important element of my task is to be sympathetic, yet try to ensure the person leaves the room focused on what's going to happen next, rather than what's gone on in the past. I felt I'd let the family down by failing Mike Stanley, 42, was made redundant from his job as transport manager for a large construction company in December 1994. He had been with the firm for 18 years and is still unemployed. He is married with three children aged 5, 8 and 9 and lives in Birkenhead.

The managing director walked in just before lunch and said: "Can I have a quick word with you?". We went into his office and he said something to the effect that I was a candidate for redundancy so I may as well go home now rather than stay at my desk. All I could say was: "How am I going to tell my family this?" His response was that that was my problem. It was a complete bombshell. I remember feeling very cold and my chin quivering. Jan and I had just begun decorating the house and I'd been moaning at work that I'd never have time to finish it by the end of the month. I went back to my office and said to my colleague: "I'll have all the time in the world to do my decorating now!" Initially Jan took it far worse than I did. I'm not very good at consoling people and I kept coming out with old cliches like: "It could have been worse. I could have been told I only had six months to live." She knew when I walked through the door what had happened because I never usually came home at lunchtime. I felt more stunned than bitter. Christmas was a bit of an act of trying to make the best of it for the children. I didn't want to burden my parents or our friends so I waited until the New Year to tell them. The children didn't seem that upset at first but they are beginning to feel a bit sorry for me now. Obviously we're more restricted in terms of what we can do for them. Yesterday our eldest lad came up to me and said: "I'm sorry you didn't pass your test." I'd been taking HGV driving lessons so I could apply for long-distance lorry-driving jobs. I felt I'd let the family down by failing. I've also started a City and Guilds in electronics at college. We're all doing it as a way to a job but who knows what the chances will be two years down the line? Jan has been a tower of support. In some ways what we are going through has strengthened our marriage. It probably gets on her nerves having me around the house all the time but we don't row. I'm far more involved with the children. Unfortunately we remortgaged the house four years ago. If we hadn't done that, it would have been paid for in two years' time. We're not behind with our payments but my settlement money can only see us through until July. I have a lot to offer employers but there are so many people chasing so few jobs in this area.

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