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Redundancy: A senior leader reveals what it’s like to put hundreds out of work

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Redundancy was a surprisingly common feature in my early career. My first job ended when the company simply stopped paying its entire workforce and the next thing we were all out of jobs. And in my first management position, bailiffs turned up one day and took the computers we were working on! Both endings came without warning, support or communication from the powers that be, and left me with a real sense of unfairness – not just due to the financial hardships caused; but the feeling of being treated like a number, like I mattered less than the ‘assets’ being sold off to pay debtors.

My next experience with redundancy left me with an altogether different sensation – one of huge loss. A huge career break with one of the first big online companies meant exciting times which took me all over Europe to work with some brilliant people. When the financial crisis came, downsizing was inevitable. The process was handled effectively, but I suffered from the loss of a job that was truly precious to me. I convinced myself I’d never again find a role I loved.

Bereft woman

I did, of course. But that position would be the one to push me to breaking point as I found myself having to tell hundreds of employees in six countries that they no longer had jobs.

By the time the company ran into trouble, I’d spent many years building up its European operations, personally recruiting every single one of my team. Among them were many who’d inspired me and been loyal team players I’d come to know personally and socially. And then the emails started from the top – I’d need to shave 10% off a budget made up almost exclusively of payroll. And that was just the start.

Another email, another target; another 10% here, an additional 20% there.

At the outset, it’s easy to be pragmatic. To keep the business going, you simply have to shed some of the deadwood - underperformers, individuals causing problems with their managers or those with poor attendance. But those people are few and far between: very quickly the selection criteria becomes wrapped up in emotion.

Honesty is core to my personal brand. I pride myself on being transparent. But when you’re managing a redundancy situation, there’s no room for authenticity. My most pungent memories are from the times I stood next to someone in the queue for the coffee machine or found myself opposite someone in a meeting, nodding and smiling as they chatted about some future project or business event.

I knew that when they found out they no longer had jobs, they’d look back on that encounter and understand I’d known and said nothing.

To be open in a situation like that is to be in breach of countless employment laws, but that creates huge conflicts with your personal values. I felt deceitful; I was treating people just how I’d been treated back in the day. It was particularly difficult when the colleague in question was about to get married or was expecting a baby – on those days, I’d go home, pour a large glass of wine and have a good cry.

Mortgage calculator

Things changed for me when an employee ‘on the list’ asked me for a reference for her mortgage company. She was days from buying a house, and weeks from finding out she had no job. I couldn’t bear to provide false hope but I was both legally bound to write the reference and forbidden from sharing the company news just yet. I had to lean on my most trusted connections outside of the process. They couldn’t tell her what was coming, but they could have an informal conversation about how volatile the organisation’s finances were and suggest that maybe now wasn’t the best time to be making huge commitments. It was a risky strategy and one I had to manage carefully to avoid the rumour-mill going into overdrive, but it was the only way to avoid making a terrible situation even worse.

It was a very lonely time. I couldn’t talk to anyone on my team for fear of looking weak. I was the most senior woman among my girlfriends, and I worried how they’d look at me if they discovered that I was doing horrible things to junior and middle managers like them. Years earlier I’d taken my daughter to work during the school holidays and after she saw me interacting with my team, she wrote me a note saying she was glad her Mummy was such a nice boss. I’ll never forget the look on her face when I got home one day - upset and anxious about the latest round of redundancies and the pressure of trying to keep motivated all the overworked people who’d been lucky enough to keep their roles - and she realised what I was doing at work.

Suddenly I wasn’t ‘nice boss Mummy’ anymore.

My partner was my rock. If I hadn’t had him to offload to, I don’t know what I’d have done. Sometimes in business you have do things you don’t agree with; it’s not like your personal life where you usually have a choice. You need strong allies to get you through those times; someone who you can still show the real you to without fear of being judged.

Eventually I too was made redundant. The blow was delivered fairly, but without the personal touches I’d attempted when I was the bearer of bad news. There were no words of encouragement about the future, no swapping of personal email addresses or invitations to get in touch should I ever need anything. That was always something I’d strived to do with the staff members whose contributions I’d most valued; handing over a personal business card and promising to be a long-term reference is a lasting gift you can give to someone whose life you’ve turned upside down. I didn’t take it to heart – I knew it was just business, but it reaffirmed my belief that people want to be treated like human beings rather than names on a list.

The biggest lesson I’ve taken is that life outside the office is more important than any job.

It’s so easy to let work consume you. Before you know it, you don’t know where the lines are. These days I keep work and home 100% separate. I put in the hours when I need to, but when I leave the office, I no longer belong to the organisation. I’ve trained myself not to think about work until the next day, about a job that could end in the blink of an eye. I’m still ambitious, there are still things I want to achieve, but I’ll always know that there’s a Saturday and Sunday version of me that must be nurtured, so that the Monday to Friday version of me can be a better person in and outside work.

The everywomanIncognito series allows women to discuss personal aspects of their career development in complete anonymity. We welcome submissions from everywomanNetwork members on a range of topics. Get in touch if you'd like to find out more about Incognito or would like to suggest a story.

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