Today (16 September) marks 45 days to go before the end of furlough. As such it’s the date many predict will unleash a new wave of job cuts (with this being the minimum amount of time required for redundancy consultations with 100 or more employees).
Employers have been urged to explore all other options before making cuts, including reductions in working time, withdrawing job offers so existing workers can be redeployed within the business and staff taking unpaid leave. But nonetheless some redundancies will be unavoidable. Which means employers need to ensure they’re approaching this in a legally robust, fair and compassionate way.
We asked three people made redundant as a result of the economic downturn caused by Covid-19 how they felt their former employer had treated them*, and asked Josh Sunsoa, redundancy expert and managing partner at Sunsoa & Co, to give his professional assessment.
* Names have been changed to protect identities
‘Amir’, a recruitment consultant
“At my now former company, I was among the top 10 fee earners each year (out of more than 200 staff), but a team I was suddenly paired with was losing money, meaning technically the team as a whole was cost neutral. Lockdown occurred and even though my firm was hiring a manager above me to try and grow this team, I got a phone call on a Friday (a Friday!) to say I was on consultation. I was told there was no point looking around for other internal roles, because there weren’t any, and that I couldn’t talk to the rest of the business to seek any. It was so obvious a decision had been made to cut costs, using lockdown as an excuse.
“I explained I was willing to take a pay cut and that I’d found an area where they were short of people; I even suggested going on furlough, so I could be released when things picked up. But it all fell on deaf ears. I was told to accept a £7,000 settlement and that was it. When I told them this was what my bonus was due to be anyway, they tried to argue they wouldn’t be paying it.
“At this point I decided I needed help and got advice about due process. Suffice to say, I almost went to tribunal, and it was only after this, and a month of going backwards and forwards, that the business backed down, and substantially upped my severance. The whole process was very intimidating. I was pretty much told: ‘Don’t try and fight us, we have more money than you.’ It was a black period. I couldn’t sleep. My feeling was the business just didn’t have experience doing this.”
“I hear of unprofessional practices time and time again – but even more now. All of the 25 pro bono cases I’ve assisted on since lockdown featured similar experiences of people feeling intimidated and businesses hiding behind emails and just relaying the process. Redundancy is designed to be a face-to-face interaction. In this case it appears scaremongering went on too. With so many people being made redundant, I am guessing most will remember the departing brand legacy of how staff were treated in the final moments. When those at this employer making these bad decisions also move on, they may be stigmatised in the marketplace. I guess it's all karma; as my granny used to say: ‘What goes around, comes around.’”
‘Alex’, a freelance researcher
“I returned to work after taking five years’ out to have children. To get my foot back in, I accepted a role as a researcher on a freelance PAYE contract. Freelancers who build up 22 months’ full-time work are supposed to be moved to permanent contracts, but the can was always kicked down the road with a ‘we’ll do it soon’, and I didn’t feel able to push it too much. But I knew I was vulnerable, and when Covid-19 hit I got an email saying they were letting me go, and: ‘Don’t ask, because we don’t owe you anything.’ There were platitudes about hoping to ‘re-engage’ with me in June, but I could see it was rubbish, and I’ve not heard anything since.
“I was given two weeks’ notice and four weeks’ pay and that was it. It was just so cold, without any thought to the value I had added, and could still add. I was offered no duty of care, even though I’d been a longstanding, and effectively permanent, programme producer. There was no outplacement or retraining help offered. The whole process was clinical from start to finish, implying I had no rights. Since May I’ve had no work, and I’ve rinsed all my savings. While I’m hopeful things will pick up, it’s made me very cautious about what any future employer will have me sign up for contractually.”
“This is an appalling situation. Knowing full well Alex had been a longstanding contractor – which the employer had direct control over – it appears the organisation took unfair advantage of her plight. In these uncertain times all employers should be more reasonable than ever. We should all look within us and think how we are treating other human beings. Everything does not need to be a commercial strategy. Organisations should know their workforces and what is happening with all categories of workers to ensure the criteria of moving workers to permanent contracts are applied to all consistently and fairly. Even if businesses elect to exit workers, I suggest that, before they embark on such an approach, they remember the words ‘fair’, ‘meaningful discussions’ and ‘dignity’.”
‘Bella’, a publisher
“My MD had told us a week earlier that a restructure was needed to respond to the challenges of Covid so, to an extent, I was braced for something. I was senior, and relatively expensive. I was called by HR via Zoom and, while they didn’t put a foot wrong, it was really clinical instead of recognising the value that a human being had given – especially over such a long period of time. There was no reach-out thereafter to see how I was doing, and I felt they didn’t have an idea about where else I might fit in.
“Technically redundancy was voluntary, but the consultation process made it feel like it was something I had to take; they’d decided how many needed to go. I emailed to ask what they would offer me and for a copy of my contract but, while I got the latter, I didn’t get the former, and two weeks into my ‘consultation’ I was officially given notice of redundancy. As soon as this happened, my sense was they just wanted to get rid of me, and it was just a case of: how much would it cost?
“From this point onwards, it was all email, and no face-to-face contact. I feel HR was probably caught between a rock and a hard place. Having to go by the book probably made them feel they couldn’t offer any compassion. I was told to sign an NDA and that was it. My view is that, yes, I appreciate redundancy is a process, but businesses should release people into the market feeling good about themselves and their former employer.”
“This pandemic has unleashed and brought to the forefront another disease that exists in the world of work: being un-human. There are some employers that still have a stiff upper lip culture and cannot be anything other than process-centric. But HR should be conversational experts, not business clinicians. In any fair negotiation, all should come to the table on equal footing. Some employers are using Covid to justify appalling behaviours. Businesses should be more reasonable and engaged than ever as anxiety levels are at their peak. I’m assuming it will not be long before someone brings a test employment tribunal claim as a result of these current times. Ultimately it is the employer’s obligation to demonstrate procedural fairness and reasonableness.”