Working Life: When push comes to shove

When is redundancy not redundancy? When it's you they want to get rid of, not your job, says Bill Saunders

Redundancy has become an accepted fact of office life in the Nineties and, because the concept is so widely accepted, many employers are tempted to abuse it. For the lazy, the devious and the plain malicious, redundancy is a wonderful method for getting rid of awkward individuals or even settling scores.

Robert Andrews, 33, smelled a definite aroma of rat when his job in advertising production disappeared in a puff of smoke last February. He was among half a dozen employees to go when a magazine folded but, while he had been with the company for four years, a colleague who had been there for three months was found another job. Under the circumstances it was difficult not to cast his mind back six weeks to the office party.

"I danced with a woman who was widely known to be sleeping with the managing director," he recalls. By all accounts they were an eye-catching couple. "She was wearing a backless dress," says Robert, "and I suppose we were dancing very close together. I was certainly teased about it the next day. Unfortunately I lost my balance in the middle of a dip and we ended up in a tangle of arms and legs, at the feet of our boss and her lover. It may have had nothing to do with it at all but when I got the push I couldn't help wondering."

Phoney redundancies "are relatively simple to spot", according to Amanda Galashan, an employment law consultant. It is a reflection on the state of the economy that over the past few months some of the cases she has handled have been genuine redundancies, "for a change".

Redundancy, as opposed to a sacking, can be a face-saving exercise for both parties. And for lazy employers redundancy also has the appeal that it is apparently far simpler than dismissal. Many employers, says Ms Galashan, "can't be bothered" with the time-consuming business of correct disciplinary procedures. Apart from cases of gross misconduct, the law requires that employees are given the opportunity to improve their performance before they are dismissed.

It is far simpler to pretend that the job no longer exists, and then perhaps salve the conscience by paying slightly more compensation than strictly necessary. Simpler but riskier, because if a tribunal decides a redundancy is in fact an unfair dismissal, compensation can run to pounds 12,000 or more if there is an element of sexual, racial or disability discrimination involved. It is, as Ms Galashan says, "an expensive way to try to be nice".

Pregnant women in particular are likely to find themselves in the firing line. Redundancy was the last thing on Judy Lewis's mind when she was called into a meeting with a director at the merchant bank where she was working towards the end of last year. She had enjoyed a successful, even meteoric, career there over the past five years. She had other reasons to feel optimistic about the immediate future too because she was six weeks pregnant.

When she arrived, the meeting room was empty. Unconcerned, she rang to check she was in the right room. She was told to wait where she was. It was 4pm, school fetching time. With no reason to think anything was wrong at work, her mind turned to her husband who was collecting her daughter from nursery. Alone in the meeting room she became convinced that they had been involved in an accident and that she had been called away from her desk so the news could be broken to her. She panicked and began to hyperventilate. It was only when the director arrived accompanied by a personnel officer that she realised she was to be made redundant. After she had been frog-marched out of the building in the traditional City manner she began to feel stomach cramps. Her baby had died in her womb.

While Judy's case is especially horrible it is by no means unusual. The practice of discarding pregnant women under the guise of redundancy is, says her lawyer, "widespread, although it is by no means easy to prove".

In larger companies phoney redundancies are tricky, however, because an employer must explain why an individual has been singled out according to clearly defined criteria. In Judy's case, for example, it is significant that two colleagues in her department were found jobs elsewhere in the bank.

Redundancy criteria are difficult enough at the best of times. The BBC has just issued a contentious set at its Pebble Mill studios in Birmingham. At issue, as it always is, is whether the points that add up to redundancy are subjective or objective. The BBC wishes to include such vague factors as an individual's contribution to the business and, worse still, his or her acceptability to outside suppliers. All of which, contends one insider, are purely subjective judgements.

Employers who deliberately play a dirty game are likely to come unstuck, according to Ms Galashan, for the simple reason that it is very difficult to tailor the criteria to match an individual and too easy to point the finger at the wrong person. And if the criteria are too blatantly biased, the process is self-defeating anyway. In any case an employer must be able to show that the company was unable to offer another job, a much harder task in a large company.

An employee is entitled to redundancy compensation only after two years' employment, which often leads to the astonishing coincidence of people becoming redundant after one year, 11 months and 29 days. It is a crude approach and a stupid one too. "Employers should be careful playing that game," says Ms Galashan, because the notice period counts as part of time served and can be paid off in lieu only if the original contract says it can.

Judy's former employer is contesting her claim for unfair dismissal, which is quite rare. Apart from the risk of paying compensation, there is the fear of bad publicity even if they win. Then, says Ms Galashan, there are legal costs. In the field of sex discrimination there is no limit to the compensation a tribunal might award. "It is our strongest card," says Judy's lawyer. "The majority of cases settle."

And settle quietly too, which is why employees are often in the dark about their legal rights. It is the difficult cases which generate the publicity. If your job is currently on the line, it is worth remembering that your employer does not necessarily have the last word on whether you stay or go.

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Life and Style
ebookNow available in paperback
ebookPart of The Independent’s new eBook series The Great Composers
Arts and Entertainment
Tom DeLonge, Travis Barker and Mark Hoppus of Blink-182 pictured in 2011.
musicBassist Mark Hoppus and drummer Travis Barker say Tom Delonge is 'disrespectful and ungrateful'
Arts and Entertainment
Olivia Colman and David Tennant star in 'Broadchurch'
tvBroadchurch series 2, episode 4, review - contains spoilers
cyclingDisgraced cycling star says people will soon forgive his actions
Britain's Prince Philip attends a Garden Party at Buckingham Palace in London
Arts and Entertainment
Ed Sheeran will play three sell-out gigs at Wembley Stadium in July
Lena Dunham posing for an official portrait at Sundance 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Under the skin: Sarah Kane in May 1998
theatreThe story behind a new season of Sarah Kane plays
Arts and Entertainment
Preening: Johnny Depp in 'Mortdecai'
filmMortdecai becomes actor's fifth consecutive box office bomb
Bradford City's reward for their memorable win over Chelsea is a trip to face either Sunderland or Fulham (Getty)
Lars Andersen took up archery in his mid thirties
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs General

    Recruitment Genius: Warehouse Operations & Logistics Manager

    £38000 - £42000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: One of the UK's best performing...

    Recruitment Genius: GeoDatabase Specialist - Hazard Modelling

    £35000 - £43000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Our award-winning client is one...

    Recruitment Genius: Compressed Air Pipework Installation Engineer

    £15000 - £21000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This leading provider of Atlas ...

    Recruitment Genius: Operations Coordinator - Pallet Network

    £18000 - £20000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Opportunity to join established...

    Day In a Page

    Woman who was sent to three Nazi death camps describes how she escaped the gas chamber

    Auschwitz liberation 70th anniversary

    Woman sent to three Nazi death camps describes surviving gas chamber
    DSK, Dodo the Pimp, and the Carlton Hotel

    The inside track on France's trial of the year

    Dominique Strauss-Kahn, Dodo the Pimp, and the Carlton Hotel:
    As provocative now as they ever were

    Sarah Kane season

    Why her plays are as provocative now as when they were written
    Murder of Japanese hostage has grim echoes of a killing in Iraq 11 years ago

    Murder of Japanese hostage has grim echoes of another killing

    Japanese mood was against what was seen as irresponsible trips to a vicious war zone
    Syria crisis: Celebrities call on David Cameron to take more refugees as one young mother tells of torture by Assad regime

    Celebrities call on David Cameron to take more Syrian refugees

    One young mother tells of torture by Assad regime
    The enemy within: People who hear voices in their heads are being encouraged to talk back – with promising results

    The enemy within

    People who hear voices in their heads are being encouraged to talk back
    'In Auschwitz you got used to anything'

    'In Auschwitz you got used to anything'

    Survivors of the Nazi concentration camp remember its horror, 70 years on
    Autumn/winter menswear 2015: The uniforms that make up modern life come to the fore

    Autumn/winter menswear 2015

    The uniforms that make up modern life come to the fore
    'I'm gay, and plan to fight military homophobia'

    'I'm gay, and plan to fight military homophobia'

    Army general planning to come out
    Iraq invasion 2003: The bloody warnings six wise men gave to Tony Blair as he prepared to launch poorly planned campaign

    What the six wise men told Tony Blair

    Months before the invasion of Iraq in 2003, experts sought to warn the PM about his plans. Here, four of them recall that day
    25 years of The Independent on Sunday: The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century

    25 years of The Independent on Sunday

    The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century
    Homeless Veterans appeal: 'Really caring is a dangerous emotion in this kind of work'

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    As head of The Soldiers' Charity, Martin Rutledge has to temper compassion with realism. He tells Chris Green how his Army career prepared him
    Wu-Tang Clan and The Sexual Objects offer fans a chance to own the only copies of their latest albums

    Smash hit go under the hammer

    It's nice to pick up a new record once in a while, but the purchasers of two latest releases can go a step further - by buying the only copy
    Geeks who rocked the world: Documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry

    The geeks who rocked the world

    A new documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry
    Belle & Sebastian interview: Stuart Murdoch reveals how the band is taking a new direction

    Belle & Sebastian is taking a new direction

    Twenty years ago, Belle & Sebastian was a fey indie band from Glasgow. It still is – except today, as prime mover Stuart Murdoch admits, it has a global cult following, from Hollywood to South Korea