Silver Linings Playbook: Finding Your Way Through Redundancy

A positive spin on a tumultuous time

10.10.19 — or “Ten-Ten” is a day that will stay with me for a very long time. It was the day that we were told the Dyson Electric Vehicle Project or “Automotive Category” was to be shut down. The murmurs beforehand, the ‘last minute meeting’ with everyone on the project that had actually been planned for weeks. The contractors being ejected from the building just before the main event, with the release to the rest of Dyson & then the world hours later. A heartfelt speech by Ian who’d led the program for the prior three years, heavily scripted legalese from everyone else.

The immediate realisation that the work you’d done that day was absolutely pointless, before the more sombre thoughts that everything you’d done for the last three & a half years was maybe pointless too?

The hurried farewells to everyone that you can see, emotional, awkward especially among those who aren’t redundant & can’t quite fathom what you are going for. The weird drive home.

I have worked in a company that has carried out four major restructurings in as many years, involving hundreds of redundancies each time. I was directly affected by one of them and emerged mostly unscathed, but many friends and colleagues were less fortunate.

As lockdowns have caused severe changes to the world’s economy, businesses have had to ‘pivot’ and adapt. Others have completely shut and most have had to tighten up on costs. This means there are lots more redundancies happening, so I thought I’d share my thoughts. But first… I’m reminded of the old economics joke:

What’s the difference between a “recession” & a “depression”? “A recession is where you lose your job, a depression is where I lose mine!”

Redundancy initially feels horrible. You are stuck in a maelstrom of emotion. You are officially no longer ‘useful’ to somewhere you’ve chosen to spend a significant amount of your time and energy. People naturally search for belonging, for communities, for acceptance. To be told you are no longer part of the group changes everything.

It can feel like a personal blow. Why me? How has this person who everyone knows doesn’t do much work avoided the restructure, while I haven’t? I’ve given so much to this place and they are just throwing me out the door. It is one of those events that likely stays with you for life.

For some, you are told individually, for others you are told as a collective unit. Either way, it is a huge moment, but weirdly it is often one that goes by in a blur with very few memories retained about the details of what exactly happened other than the main fact that you no longer have a job.

I think this is caused by the shock and emotional overload of the moment. With my limited understanding of neuroscience, I can’t give you a detailed description of what exactly is happening in your brain at times like this — but let me know if you’ve had the same experiences.

By the time you get given the envelope (in these Covid times email attachment!) that determines the terms of the redundancy, your brain has usually got over the intense shock of the initial news. From then, I remember vividly what I received, the nondescript brown A4 envelope with a cold formal name & job title on the front. Unlike every other heavy legal terms and conditions document, I can still describe much of the contents. I remember the nervous HR advisor that gave it to me, with her eyes bleak, burying herself in the admin, “51 down, 449 to go” — hiding from the emotion until the work day is over.

That night, I barely slept. Your mind goes on overdrive. Designed around the loss of a loved one, but equally applicable to sudden job losses, the change curve developed by Kubler-Ross in 1969 is entirely relevant to what you go through. Denial, anger, blame, confusion. You feel it all. That’s good.

  • Denial: “They’ve made a mistake. They’ll call tomorrow and cancel all this, has no-one looked at the numbers?”
  • Anger: “AAAAAAHHHH! [Other incoherent but raw emotion]”
  • Blame: “If only we’d changed the structure sooner… why did no-one say anything earlier?”
  • Confusion: “What do I do now?, Who even am I?”

And after an indeterminate time, on through to acceptance.

Generic, but entirely relevant. Based on Kubler-Ross (1969)

It’s not personal. You are not your job. You still have an identity and you are awesome.

For me, this is where I find it really interesting. Redundancy can turn out really well.

It is not the case everywhere, as some places you leave with nothing & limited prospects of new jobs to go with that. I’m lucky to be in my twenties, with no dependents and no mortgages to make decisions harder.

I have seen a few of my ex-colleagues struggle or accept sub-standard jobs for their skills, mostly because of the inherent age-ism of today’s corporate world, where any people over 55 are seen as “past it”. Often this is down to insecurity of hiring managers, nervous of hiring people with “too much experience” who could and probably have already done their job.

That is a rant for another day, self perpetuating hiring policies not moving with the times. Whatever your views on the most recent two presidents of the USA, one thing to note is they have both been well into their 70s. I can guarantee that their job is more stressful than yours.

In a world where people live well and are healthy long into their 80s, it baffles me that big corporates do not see how people’s usefulness does not drop off a cliff at 60. One day, I’ll help you change it… For now, see the film “The Intern” for fictional evidence of this point!

I’m also not really going to cover the added fear that comes with redundancy once you’ve just had a kid, or signed on to an ambitious mortgage. Others are far better placed to do that. While not directly addressed today, if you’ve lost the job that was barely keeping your family afloat to start with, and the payout is a limited statutory one, much of this will still be relevant: you get the same dislocation and fear, but a lot less of the options and the time cushion to plan your next move.

Today, like most days, I’m focusing on the positives. Depending on the country and industry that you work in, redundancy gives you a clean slate and a springboard to change tack completely. Your salary is paid for a few months, you are free to do anything.

“You never know what worse luck your bad luck has saved you from.” Cormac McCarthy, 2005

After redundancy, for most people the amount of choice is paralysing. Barry Schwarz wrote a book in 2004 called the “Paradox of Choice — Why More is Less”, which talks about how people are paradoxically made less happy by having ‘too much’ choice. I recommend it if you haven’t heard of it before.

When I went through my own redundancy, my learned uncle called it FOBO — Fear Of Better Options.

That comment resonated thoroughly with what I was going through.

It can be crippling. There is fear involved — ‘Will you ever get another job’? But the options list can be long. If you are anything like me, we spend our work days too busy to think about the future, blinded by the day-to-day ‘task-list’ and focused on the next thing as the days blur into weeks blur into years.

Redundancy gives you a chance to stop and evaluate that. It’s daunting to think that big, and many people are out of practice because traditionally thinking fully about the future is something that you only do as you leave School or University, or maybe when you get married.

Looking at how often new technologies or cultural changes are completely upending what we think we know, the world appears to be speeding up rapidly. Eminent thinkers such as Dr Carol Dweck focus on how people should develop a ‘growth mindset’, continually learning, responding rapidly to change. Many of the monumental changes that we’ve gone through in the last 50 years have been difficult to deal with and adapt to. From my experiences of a whirlwind last few years around the world — it’s not changing any time soon.

Redundancy can help you break out the bubble you’ve made for yourself. Time is the ultimate limiting factor in all human decisions. At the moment, we have a fairly fixed lifespan. So how should you spend it?

To help simplify things, I have made some generic, non-exhaustive options lists; divided into Monetary and Life reasons that will hopefully resonate if you’ve been affected before. It should also give you an idea as to what people may be going through if you know of friends going through it.

I started with ‘monetary’ because even the option of receiving a redundancy payment can completely commercialise your relationship with a job — taking development & life out of the picture & making you focus only on the $$$. It is a sharp shock: many years of service and attachment to a business simplified down to one all important employment contract, with your existing salary (not the future hope of what ‘will’ come!) and the terms of the redundancy, putting your value to the business in just one all-important number.

For Monetary Reasons

  • You could find a far better new job, as well as taking the tax-free payout (in most countries).
  • Many of my friends from “Ten-Ten” appear to have done this and I look forward to seeing their creations on the road in the next few years.
  • You could find a less good new job, but still get the pay out to use as you like.
  • If available/ if the company has used a blunt instrument to decide on the restructure — you could take a job still in the same company that gives you more experience and forget the payout you’ve ignored
  • You could plan to find a new job quickly & then realise it takes much longer than expected to get the one you want, as you spend through the pay out that was meant to go towards savings / an awesome holiday / new house.

For Life Reasons

  • You could take it as a wake up call that life is about more than making shareholders happy and spend some time with your family, without the worry of working 8–6 five days a week.
  • You could take some time to retrain, realising that what you’ve been doing is “not the real you” and taking the opportunity to do that course you’ve been thinking about for years.
  • You could go travelling (even during COVID) — just pick your country carefully & don’t expect to get through many borders. There are many countries globally that are highly dependent on tourism that would be very glad to see you. Many of them have young populations and are less at-risk to Covid-19 as a result.
  • You could pick up that side-hustle you’ve always wanted to do & see where it takes you. See Duo-Hue or @stringsbycara as good examples of people following their passions after big life changes.

Wherever you are when you get hit by the redundancy discombobulator, I think making a simple aim really helps:

  • Whatever you do with redundancy, try to achieve one thing as a result. Whether it is a dream holiday, finally finishing fixing your bathroom, teaching your kids how to ride a bike, starting your own business, it doesn’t matter. This means that when you are asked about redundancy in future, it will have a positive connotation not a negative one. This can change your mindset and your happiness levels very quickly.
  • Get on LinkedIn, it can be very powerful in these situations. Don’t pour out your whole life story (I’ve seen so many do this), but simply state your situation and your network, even if small, will respond.

If you’ve got a friend that has been made redundant, don’t feel sorry for them, re-frame it as an opportunity:

“I’m not sure I ever felt embarrassed as many do, but people feeling sorry for me made me feel like this was a truly terrible thing that I had no way out of. They were wrong.” (Anon. — No longer redundant, 2021)

Please let me know your experiences. I’d love to hear about all your changes after redundancy. If you’ve started a business, awesome! There’s a reason Uber & Airbnb started during recessions. I look forward to seeing the next wave of 2020-Lockdown inspired companies as well as hearing updates from all those also affected by Ten-ten.

Lived in Kenya, UK, & now Singapore. Love meeting people, reading, & playing sport. Enjoy everything from Entrepreneurship to Education to Ecology.

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