A truly postmodern shafting

October 29, 2004

Restructuring can hold unpleasant surprises. Get a lawyer fast, says Valerie Atkinson

If someone were to compile a list of the rituals and routines observed by staff in their first half hour at work, it would include some of the following: remove coat, rucksack, pyjamas (only the very absent-minded); check emails (only the e-literate); make coffee/tea/hangover remedy (only the very optimistic); access internet for news, porn and job vacancies (not necessarily in that order); go to lunch (only academics).

Searching for a new job is one of the most common activities, especially after the year's promotions round. Many institutions have their own vacancies website offering incumbents an early crack of the whip. Imagine the delight of finding the perfect opening, with some fabulously fancy title such as facilities executive or operations director. You have the qualifications and the experience; the job seems almost identical to your own. Hallelujah. Then you realise it is your own. At a deceptively small salary. You have been restructured. You are now part of a privately financed offshoot of the academy, where cutting costs is obligatory.

Restructuring is pretty much the same as modernising: a postmodern way (why don't they call it postmodernising?) of creating a situation in which the employee is about to be shafted. And if you are a non-academic professional, you may well end up with a vast spread of additional responsibilities at your current rate of remuneration; or with a set of undesirable tasks that everyone else has refused, at a lower salary.

What do you do if this catastrophe befalls you? It is still reasonably probable that you will be given the bad news in person; although even senior university types are learning how to send text messages. They will avoid the words "bad news", especially if they have had management training. Instead, you are liable to be told: "We have a splendid new opportunity for you... on the Hebridean campus" or "you are so good at attracting grants/overseas students/industrial dosh, we've decided you deserve performance-related pay."

Should this happen (especially the latter), smile sweetly, then run like hell. Go to your trade union representative, Citizens Advice Bureau or an employment lawyer. Get everything in writing (bosses can write, they are just reluctant to commit to paper). Keep a copy of every email, however trivial. If you have a better existing contract, just say no.

Like many of my kind, I have been restructured repeatedly since I started out as a junior secretary. Along the rocky road to something resembling recognition, I have become a technical typist, code-breaker, personnel manager and number-cruncher. I am now a feasibility engineer. By mostly fair means, and with only occasional setbacks such as giving birth, I have retained an upward, albeit painfully slow, trajectory overall.

Others are not so lucky. Across the sector, the impact of restructuring, delivered in unfamiliar corporate terminology, leaves staff confused and defenceless. Many allow themselves to be elbowed out, to make room for cheaper, more malleable personnel, rather than face the humiliation of downgrading. Those who are left find themselves having to take on other people's jobs as well as their own. Meanwhile, no one knows exactly how much money has been saved, and how much squandered, in the process of reorganisation.

University top-up fees are bound to accelerate market forces. Many individuals will become part of an "efficiency drive". They may find themselves only loosely coupled to university payscales, pensions and conditions, or booted out unceremoniously. It is already happening. For when profiteering creeps into an institution ill equipped to handle it, integrity and loyalty become concepts as meaningless as the jargon used to underpin the relentless invasion of cold commercialisation.

Valerie Atkinson is departmental administrator at York University.

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