BBC News Magazine

Page last updated at 11:18 GMT, Tuesday, 23 February 2010

The people who sack people

Many companies want outside help with redundancy programmes

Elizabeth Diffin
BBC News Magazine

George Clooney is up for an Oscar for his latest film role in which he plays a man who fires people for a living. But what's it really like to sack people?

In the past 15 years, Janet Shearer has personally made thousands of employees redundant.

But Janet isn't some cold-hearted, cost-cutting chief executive. She's the managing director of a British firm that sacks other companies' employees.

Those who have seen George Clooney's latest film, Up in the Air, will be familiar with the job.

It's not rich tea and sympathy and being really fluffy
Janet Shearer, HR consultant

Clooney's character Ryan Bingham is a "corporate downsizer", PR-speak for somebody who flies around the country sacking people.

The character delights in racking up frequent-flier miles from his cross-country journeys. Clooney's portrayal has earned him an Oscar nomination - and given audiences a glimpse at an occupation that may sound unpleasant.

Every day Clooney tells workers - in cold, assembly-line style - that they are about to become unemployed. When Natalie, a young go-getter, wants to improve efficiency even more by scripted sacking via videoconference, Bingham shows her the emotions involved in ending someone's professional life.

Those scenes are portrayed by real workers who have lost their jobs.

Grim announcement

Even for those who have never been made redundant, the scenario isn't hard to envisage - an employee gets called into a room and informed they're surplus to requirements.

But when a downsizer gets involved, the grim announcement isn't coming from their manager or chief executive - it's from a stranger.

When Charlotte was made redundant from her company of 12 years, it caught her off guard. There had been whispers among employees that they were going to have to relocate or be made redundant, but the union hadn't said anything.

Sir Alan Sugar
Some people seem well suited to the task of firing people

Then she received a letter saying her job was at risk and got called into a meeting with Ms Shearer, whom she'd never met.

"[The management] don't actually care, that's your first thought," Charlotte says. "They're hiding behind their glass doors."

The business of ending someone's employment has the potential to be fraught on both sides of the desk

Ms Shearer says it's difficult to predict exactly how a person will respond to being made redundant.

She agrees that dignity and respect are key to handling the situation - and it doesn't hurt to have some tissues at the ready.

"It can be difficult, but you just try to see that you can support them," she says. "It's not rich tea and sympathy and being really fluffy… But if they wanted to grieve and let that out, absolutely."

Tied up in red tape

Charlotte, for her part, took Ms Shearer up on that offer.

"I don't do calm," Charlotte says. "I was very vociferous… [Janet] just sat there and let me get on with it. I went in there a bit hostile, really. I thought, 'I'm going to give her a rough time'."

George Clooney in Up In The Air
George Clooney is a downsizer with a human side

Even after first meeting, she notes: "I still wasn't sure. Give her her dues, she did try to make us feel good."

Small and medium-sized companies in the UK often bring in outside firms to help with their redundancy programmes, but they still continuously contribute to the process.

Chief executives at those companies have to defend themselves against allegations that they're too afraid to face the people they're sacking.

Carol Ann Guilford, the managing direct of HR Solutions, says although they may be afraid of making someone redundant, it's a different kind of fear.

"It's not necessarily [facing] employees," she says. "The red tape surrounding employment law is the thing that makes them more scared."

The executives aren't the only ones who get scared - employees who have been made redundant run the gamut of emotion. Many simply sit in shock.

Cold process

Just as Clooney is stoic making his grim announcement, corporate downsizers remain calm in the face of uncomfortable responses - the tears and suicide threats, the "why mes" and "who do you think you ares".

"When you first [sack someone], you always get upset," Ms Guilford says. "It's a very cold process and you have to manage it with dignity and respect. You can't have emotions involved."

The Trades Union Congress, which represents more than six million union members, doesn't encourage the outsourcing of redundancy programmes. They say involving an outside party could communicate a lack of responsibility toward workers and generate resentment.

Man holds fired sign
For many, being laid off is one of the most traumatic experiences in their lives

Richard Tadman, the managing director of Connect, a company that tries to help redundant employees find new jobs, also thinks that totally outsourcing redundancies makes the employer look bad - like they had "almost washed their hands of the process".

"It's a bad enough message without having a third party do it," he says.

But Ms Shearer, of JDS Human Resources, describes the third party as a "bridge" between the employer and employee, not a barrier. Although Charlotte says her initial reaction was that Ms Shearer was "working for them", she eventually felt the whole redundancy process was less daunting as a result of the consultant's help.

"If you go in with the management team, you go in with the hope you can negotiate," she says. "[Janet tried] to ensure you understand."

In the UK, strict legal protections mean that one false step could easily land an employer in a tribunal for unfair dismissal. So it's unlikely Clooney's rapid-fire style will be adopted anytime soon.

In fact, Ms Shearer says most downsizers do their homework about the company and worker.

Clooney's consulting sessions with dozens of employees in a single day would take much longer in the real world. Ms Guilford recently worked with a company that made 90 employees redundant. The one-on-one meetings alone took a month - and anything faster might be viewed as unprofessional.

Similarly, Clooney's high-flying lifestyle, hopping from one beleaguered company to the next, is quite different from the typical consultant's.

"I don't know anyone who just does redundancies in HR," says Judy Crook, of Right Hand HR. "I certainly don't fly around the country doing redundancies."

But one aspect of Up in the Air indisputably rings true.

"It's not about the individual, unfortunately," Ms Crook says. "It's about the job."

As for Ms Shearer, handling thousands of redundancies over the years could have taken its toll, but she's found a secret to survival - and the answer to one of the film's most pointed questions.

"Knowing you've been fair and done something in the best way lets you sleep at night."

Below is a selection of your comments.

I used to work as a personnel manager for a major retailer that was taken over by a competitor. There were many overlaps, both at head office, where I worked, and in stores. I survived the takeover, but the price was that I had to go around closing down surplus outlets and making the staff redundant. I was fortunate to be headhunted by another company, but unfortunately my new employer was also taken over by a rival and I faced repeating the experience. I resigned my well-paid job to avoid having to put more people out of work and changed to a poorly paid (by comparison) job as a teacher. My experience is that there is a personal cost to corporate restructuring that is felt by everybody involved - except the board members who get to give themselves huge bonuses for cutting wage-bills.
Jon, Caterham, UK

I think this job is very cold and totally horrid, having worked with the unemployed & even being on the other side working with employers. You can bring in HR specialist but the hiring/firing is the responsibility of the employer, and during redundancy it is even more important to show some empathy for your workers - without whom the organisation would have ended up at death's door even sooner. So companies take note, this is not the way forward, show some heart and act with some integrity.
Sabeena Aslam, Manchester, UK

I have been made redundant four times in 20 years. Each occasion has had its moments, good and bad:
1) Being made redundant on 23 December, the day after the company Christmas party, with no warning.
2) being made redundant from a large US company where the redundancy payment was based on salary, age and length of service. News came the day before my 50th birthday, on being told this, the "downsizer" changed the date of my release to provide me with a 50% increase in my final salary. A thoughtful touch.
3) En route to a sales meeting, being invited to meet my manager in a motorway services "for a coffee". Quickly done, but by the time I got back to my car, my mobile phone had been blocked, so that I was unable to call anyone with the news.
4) Being made redundant on 12 Sept 2001, and just being grateful that I was still alive.
Nigel H, Leicester, UK

I've sat on both sides of this table, and frankly I'm not certain which I'd prefer to be on. It's a horrible task to tell someone they've lost their job, especially if you know the person reasonably well, and even more so if you know the loss of income is going to be particularly painful. The reality is that it's not personal, but of course that's no comfort if you have families to feed and little prospect of replacing the income. Although it's never easy to accept this news, it's pointless begging for your job. My advice to anyone facing redundancy is to let the emotions flow at home, or outside. And approach the reality as a job in itself - the key thing to do is focus on what the ex-employer can do to help you find new work, and always remember to help yourself. Finding a job can be a full-time job, and should always be considered as such. Don't slack off... not until you have a signed contract. Good luck.
Nic, London

What probably irks people about this is not only that their employer doesn't have the guts or respect for them to tell them face to face, but is blowing enormous sums of money that could have kept them employed, in hiring some "consultant" to do it for them. I don't think any employer would be that happy if an employee sent someone in to resign on their behalf, so it shouldn't be acceptable the other way round either.
Ian White, London

Providing the consultant isn't just delivering the message and compensation package etc, then it can be seen as fairer - eg: if they are responsible for overseeing the selectivity criteria - then at least you know it isn't a manipulated decision from your manager.
Hazel Smythe, Milton Keynes

I have been an HR Manager for six years and redundancies are the worst part of my work. Last year I managed three rounds of redundancies, including members of my own team. I can understand why companies choose to bring in external consultants as it can be a very personal matter in a small business, which is not the intention of the process. As Ms Crook says, it is about the job not the person. I always lived by "do unto others as you would have them do unto you". Unfortunately redundancies can be a miserable fact of life but treating people with dignity and respect, allowing them to vent when required, whilst keeping your own head to help them, means that it doesn't have to be a completely negative experience. There needs to be genuine consultation, and if that happens, my experience has been that most employees will feel that as much as been done as possible to avoid the dismissal. And after all of the meetings are over and the P45s issued, there is the inevitable survivors' guilt for those left behind - including the HR team. No one enjoys it but you can do the best possible job and take some comfort in that.
Allie, Cambridge

Over the last six years, I've had to fire a handful of people for reasons of incompetence. It's horrendous. EU legislation designed to protect the employee means that you can't just take someone for a coffee and a chat about how it's not working out. Instead you have to do a brutally cold process that far from protecting the employee, crushes them and their self-esteem. The law in this area needs revisiting - it's currently quite inhuman.
Daniel Graham, London

I've been made redundant twice - once the young boss described it as the "Gorky Park" option when he met me in a street and walked me to a park where he handed over a letter which told me I'd lost my job - ironically the terms were actually quite good, just the locus and mode of delivery was appalling. The second time was a full corporate affair, HR, line manager and junior Partner all waiting for me in a room - position identified as redundant, five weeks consultation to look at alternatives. None offered at the end of this time. Neither was a pleasant experience.
Nigel, London

I was made redundant from a job a couple of years ago. My boss called me into his office along with a complete stranger then proceeded to avoid eye contact with me the entire time while the stranger fired me. I was appalled.
Ellie, Leeds

I've just been made redundant at a school along with eight other members of staff - all we got was a three-minute phone call, the principal didn't even have the decency to do it face to face. One month later, I'm still waiting to be told what redundancy package I'll get after 10 years service. I once had to make redundant 880 night shift workers in the Middle East, but at at least I did the decent thing, and called them in in groups by department.
Chris B, Crediton

Some 30 years ago I was tasked with closing a shipyard repair facility at Bromborough. About 200 skilled workers were summarily made redundant by absent directors. These were the skilled men who ensure the fleet worked and earned profits to support others. All they saw was an implanted southerner to do the miserable task and thank them. Directors absent, yard deserted and machinery abandoned. This scenario was repeated in Southampton in three years. I left almost immediately but only after a one-sided interview with the MD. It is impossible to forget the anguish caused by such actions by absent decision makers.
Keith Stout, Fareham Hampshire, UK

Years ago, I survived a 50% cut in my department. After a weekly staff meeting, half the people had yellow PostIt notes attached to their office doors like flags waving in the hallway. My door did not have a flag. Each said, "Come see me, M". After the first person exited M's office, it was clear what those flags meant. I found a different position in the company and moved into it less than a month later. I believe all the people let go were better off than staying with such a poor manager. It is years later now. I never allow anyone on impacted teams to know who is and isn't being let go until they know first. They are told individually, personally, and never in a group. I'm happy that I haven't had to fire anyone in years.
John P, Marietta, US

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