Get out of bed and into a new life

October 22, 2004

Losing a job can be a crushing blow, but if you take care and get all you are owed, you might see new opportunities once you have picked yourself up, says Harriet Swain.

So, you've lost your job. No need to keep a stiff upper lip.

Being made redundant is a Big Deal. It's OK to crawl under the duvet and refuse to come out. It's OK to make a wax model of the vice-chancellor and stick pins in it. It's OK to think irrational thoughts about the hopelessness of your future.

Phillip Hodson, fellow of the British Association of Psychotherapy and Counselling, says it is important for people facing redundancy not to belittle their job and what it means to them, to recognise that what they are going through is like a bereavement and to respond emotionally. "It's not just a practical, technocratic decision," he says. "You need to grieve a bit."

You also need to emerge from the duvet at least long enough to join a union, if you aren't a member already, and to make sure that it is doing its stuff. One lecturer threatened with compulsory redundancy who eventually negotiated voluntary severance advises getting the regional union official involved early. "Local union reps are either very busy or very inexperienced. In a serious situation, it is important to have advice from someone who has been through this before and is robust," he says.

Local officials may also be worried about rocking the boat when their own jobs or promotions are at stake.

Nick Tiratsoo, 53, was made redundant from Luton University in 2001 and is now a senior research fellow at Nottingham University Business School. He advises writing down everything that happens in the redundancy process, keeping every piece of paper that relates to it and checking all the figures placed before you. "It is my belief that a large number of universities claim that people are made redundant for economic reasons when the case is not there, or they don't have the information to make it effectively," he says.

Making sure the university has a sound business case for making you redundant, and that it has been done in the right way, is vital. This is where a union comes in. Employers must by law consult with recognised trades unions about redundancy; they are also obliged to try to find alternative employment within the organisation for redundant employees. All such employees have the right to legal advice paid for by the employer.

Roger Kline, head of universities at lecturers' union Natfhe, warns against believing the rumours that fly around when redundancy is in the air and being panicked into moving to another department or job without taking advice. That department may not be safe itself, and the job change may carry pension and job security implications. He also stresses the importance of taking someone with you - preferably a union representative - to any meeting with a manager to discuss your future.

Malcolm Keight, deputy general secretary of the Association of University Teachers, says that he would normally advise against accepting the first redundancy offer made. Often threats of compulsory redundancy can be turned into voluntary redundancy with agreement on terms between the two parties.

However, it is also important not to be too naive. One lecturer who faced compulsory redundancy says he had assumed that his job was safe and therefore ignored all deadlines involving offers to leave voluntarily.

Don't assume that because the business case for the redundancy doesn't stand up it won't happen, he says. Gwen Evans, deputy general secretary of the Association of Teachers and Lecturers, says academics should look for changes in recruitment patterns, keep an eye on happenings in their department and be prepared to think the unthinkable.

Once all the legal and financial wrangling has finished and the emotional impact has lessened, it will be time to move on. You may need help from friends, family or professional counselling organisations to do this, or you may not. In any case, Hodson says, you should eventually be able to say to yourself: "I understand why it happened. I can accept that it happened. I can see that it may have advantages."

Shaun Tyson, professor of human resource management at Cranfield School of Management and author of Executive Redundancy and Outplacement (Kogan Page, 1993), says that many of the executives interviewed for his research looked back on their redundancy as a helpful experience, an opportunity to reshape lives that had become unsatisfactory.

He advises spending time with a careers counsellor or someone else able to help with decisions about re-entering the jobs market. These decisions can be particularly difficult for academics, he says, because many have skills that would be useful for jobs outside academia but may not recognise them.

He suggests thinking about yourself as though you were a corporation and drawing up a sheet of your strengths and weaknesses. He also recommends taking more practical advice on job-searching, such as learning how to construct a CV or be interviewed.

Networking is essential, he says. Talking to colleagues, indeed anyone you know, and then contacting the networks of your network can throw up valuable opportunities.

Finally, it may be encouraging to remind yourself of research carried out by Joel Brockner, a psychologist at Columbia Business School, in the mid-Eighties. He identified the problem of "survivor syndrome", the misery of those who survive a swath of redundancies and have to cope with the workloads of those who have gone while remaining terrified of losing their own jobs. You may be better off as one of those who got away.

Further information:

Charles Handy, The Empty Raincoat: Making Sense of the Future (Random House, 1995)


  • Grieve
  • Contact your union
  • Don't be panicked into hasty decisions
  • Make sure you have been made redundant for the right reasons
  • Don't assume that because you are working part time, on a fixed-term contract or are on maternity or sick leave that you have fewer rights than other people
  • Network

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