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Home » Coaching, Featured

Corporate Cutbacks — Victim or Victor?

Submitted by on January 25, 2009 – 10:39 pm
Every minute of every working day, people are being laid off — fired — retrenched. Is there a way to turn this potential catastrophe to your advantage?

Story by Wanda Hennig
First published: Cosmopolitan magazine, South Africa
I became a labor statistic the first time* at lunchtime one muggy Friday, just six weeks after beginning what had been “sold” to me as (drum roll here) “the most stimulating and challenging work opportunity likely to come your way in a decade.”

When I arrived at work on Day One in item number one of my totally new executive wardrobe, my bubbling enthusiasm was tempered only by a small whisper of trepidation. Would I rise to the occasion? Would I live up to the expectations of the employer who had actively headhunted me from a secure and sought-after position? In my new job, I had been given an executive title, and an open brief. I had staff awaiting my guidance. I had a brand new company car. The organization, I’d been told, was moving in exciting directions. They had chosen me for my “perceived image” and (flattery got them everywhere) “superior writing skills.” The only question (apart from the nitty gritties of salary and perks) I’d been asked before clinching the deal was, did I mind traveling? Wow! Couldn’t we take off right now?

Never before having worked for an organization driven by the efforts of a fund-raising team—and given the fact that they were a household “name” nonprofit with a pedigree in terms of a prominent back-up committee of businessmen and professionals—I never thought to question the financial position of my employer-to-be before I joined. Consequently I ignored what, in retrospect, were the telltale signs that began to unfold during the first week when I found myself—a communications director—with no computer on which to communicate. During week two there was great debate as to whether they could afford to provide me with a computer. In week three the subject of the computer disappeared from the agenda. The next discourse on the topic of computers came when talk turned to disposal of the assets.

‘Staying’ and ‘Leaving’

Along with me, 16 others—almost half the staff—were informed that they were being retrenched. We were told precisely who by way of a single sheet of paper on which were two headings, namely “staying” and “leaving.” The company’s out-of-state representative got what she later ascertained were her marching orders by fax, with no covering letter. We were informed that, all going well, we would be paid for the following month. A couple of days later, after the “scandal” had been leaked to the press, we were told legal and contractual agreements would, all going well, be honored. Twelve days later staff were, for the first time, given clarity on retrenchment pay and several more people were added to the hit list. The reason given for the dismissals was the sudden and unforeseen reduction of financial support.

Ah, well. We live and learn. And for the uninitiated, let me tell you: Retrenchment is an interesting lesson in life, legalities and human nature.

In one feel swoop, families and egos were torn apart. The organization involved, being of high profile and run on public funds, attracted media attention. Names were published and individuals became public property. Staff not initially affected were wracked with guilt that they were staying while colleagues were going. Men and women on the list were variously hurt, angry, stunned, resigned to their fate, humiliated, embarrassed and, in my case, bemused.

Ruth Greer-Christie, group managing director of C&S Personnel, a staff selection and recruitment consultancy, says there is a standard reaction pattern in the days following news of retrenchment.

First comes shock and disbelief. “How could this happen to me?” Next comes anger: “How dare they do this to me?” Then comes anxiety and stress: “How am I going to be able to pay my bond/overdraft/rent/car installments?” Hot on the heels of this comes self-reproach. “It must have been my fault. I wasn’t up to scratch.”

The Best ‘Man’ for the Job?

“If a person succumbs to these emotions, depression sets in,” says Christie, a professional career guidance counselor with a background in psychology. We’re talking in her office high above the hoot and screech of downtown traffic, decorated with a poster reading: “The Best Man For The Job Is Often A Woman.”

Age plays a big part in determining the severity of reaction to retrenchment,” says Christie. “For someone over 40 the effect is usually more devastating. Finding a new position gets more difficult the older you get.” Consequently the fear factor becomes an issue. Also, older employees have usually grown accustomed to respect. Suddenly they find themselves in the open job market where people don’t care. They’ve usually been retrenched through no fault of their own — the company has had financial problems or there’s been an economic downturn — but rapidly, confidence is lost. Depression sets in, which in turn is displayed in the interview. Employers pick it up as lack of competence. The person doesn’t get the job. And so the pattern is established.

“The younger person is generally more confident to begin with as he or she hasn’t invested in the job to the same degree and often, financial commitments are fewer. But suddenly, when the tenth interview comes and goes and still there is no joy, self-confidence begins to erode. “What’s wrong with me?” becomes the issue. Instead of being able to look at the situation for what it is — there are few jobs and a great demand for them — personal shortcomings are questioned. Stress starts feeding on itself and depression sets in. In the interview, the positive gives way to a depressed and worried self. The prospective employer is put off. It’s very sad, but it’s a cycle we see every day.”

The Human Condition

Shock, surprise, dismay and disbelief were major initial reactions of those retrenched along with me. Thembi Mhlongo, my erstwhile personnel assistant, summed up the general feeling when she said: “You know it happens but you never think it will to you.” Everyone I subsequently asked confessed at least one good reason why they never expected to be retrenched, ranging from the purely professional “my function is indispensable” to the social “he [the boss] and I were such good friends.” Clearly the objective reason (lack of finances) was avalanched by the subjective (my job, my competence).

Speaking to affected individuals revealed that their concerns fitted into the pattern outlined by Greer-Christie.

“Getting paid for one month or three months will make or break my life. I’m holding my breath. I’ve just tied myself into a financial commitment and my daughter is at a new school. I don’t want to disorient her and I don’t what to have to ask my parents to lend me money. If we only get paid for one month, I reckon I’ll have a 50/50 chance of finding a job. If we get three months, it will take off the pressure,” said Mhlongo, the single-income parent of a four-year-old.

“I didn’t tell my wife over the phone. I wanted to sit her down and break it to her gently as I knew she’d be upset. Personally, I’m worried. It’s difficult when you’re over 40 to get a good job in management,” said Fred Baker, 47, a married, single-income father with two sons at college.

“I didn’t tell my family because I didn’t want them to worry. I was going to find another job first, then break it to them. But they saw it in the newspaper. I’ll take a job anywhere. In Zulu culture retrenchment is seen the same was as dismissal or firing. It means you’re useless,” said Amos Mpetha, 43, a father with five school-going children and a mortgage.

“I was reluctant to tell my husband as my first reaction was guilt and I thought he’d think I’d done something wrong. In fact, he was very supportive. He wanted to know why they employed me in the first place when they didn’t have money to pay me. I find the response of relatives upsetting. They act like someone died. I don’t want sympathy. I have my certificates and I’m going to get on with my life. We budget from two salaries and if I don’t get a job quickly, there’s going to be a big financial dent,” said Joyce Thwala, 31, who has three children.

The Powers That Be

The way an organization handles staff retrenchment can either land a wallop capable of sending Mike Tyson reeling to the count of 10, or cushion the blow to a gentle jolt. It is a well-documented fact that many employers fall far short of the dictates of the law and, in some cases, get away with gross exploitation at the expense of employees who are ignorant of their rights.

Greer-Christie is one of several recruitment consultants nationwide who works in association with a qualified labor lawyer. “We can’t be experts on everything,” she explains. “We will refer a client for qualified advice if an unfair labor practice is suspected.”

Look at it this way. If you want a good cut, you go to a good hairdresser. If you want a tooth capped, you go to the dentist. Do-it-yourself is fine for the hobbyist but on specialist issues, consult an expert. This doesn’t mean you can rest on your laurels. Much as you tell your hairdresser what style you want and then maintain the curl yourself, so you advise your lawyer and take the initiative in the follow-up. You, after all, have a vested interest. Your lawyer is doing their job. An unfair labor practice is no black or white indiscretion, which is why it is wise to see advice if gut feel, or friends in the know suggest you have received shoddy treatment.

Network, Network, Network

It is a fact of life that as soon as one becomes an initiator of change instead of a passive recipient, the world looks brighter. It is also important to remember that any perceived stigma attached to retrenchment is self-induced. If you see yourself as a failure, you’re heading for defeat. If you see yourself as a success, you’re halfway to being a winner. Retrenchment is no longer dealt with in hushed tones. It’s part and parcel of the current social and economic scene.

I was overwhelmed at the personal support I received after the retrenchments were made public. This went some way toward counterbalancing the awkwardness of finding myself a pawn in a game I had no desire to play. On the strength of retrenchees’ names being published in newspapers, several people received job offers. The bush telegraph must have sweeping reach because I got calls from right across the country and as far afield as London from concerned friends, acquaintances and former employers.

Greer-Christie stresses that networking is the first vital step in dealing with a retrenchment. “Contact everyone who might be able to offer you advice or leads,” she says. “And make sure your tools are well polished. Your resume must be professionally presented, as a shoddy, outdated one will close doors. Select companies you would like to work for, telephone them and make an appointment to see the personnel managers. Visit placement agencies. Contact former employees who respect you. If you keep busy, you’ll stave off depression. And be prepared for a long, hard slog.”

An inspiration to me was the coping powers of women co-workers. In a single 10-day period, Thembi Mhlongo had a large sum of money embezzled, she was mugged and robbed at lunchtime — and then she was retrenched. Within a couple of days she had bounced back, was applying for a computer course to add to her skills and exploring every job option she could find. Education coordinator Jenny Smith was soon investigating the viability of opening a poodle parlor while painting pots to sell at a local flea market and applying for a waitressing job to tide her over. Joyce Thwala was pounding the pavements answering every secretarial ad that came her way. And personal assistant Wendy Jones was temping while trying to decide whether to move into desktop publishing — or to take the opportunity to start a family.

The Road Ahead

Change carries with it all the risks of the unknown and the unexpected and most people find it threatening, particularly when it is thrust upon them. After the trauma of a retrenchment, it is essential to look ahead and open oneself to change.

Experts agree that losing a job can be the best thing that ever happened — if you can view your setback as a challenge and not as a catastrophe. A recent survey in Britain showed a high correlation between retrenchment and subsequent business success. Many achievers interviewed said that while retrenchment initially came as a shock, it made them leave jobs they would not have had the courage to relinquish and take risks they would not otherwise have contemplated. Many pinpointed retrenchment as the single major contributor to their good fortune.

Christie is a perfect example. She started her successful recruitment consultancy after she was retrenched from a similar agency. “I did all the work. The director squandered the money and as sequestrated. I did the rounds of the employment agencies looking for another job. What I really wanted was to sit down and talk about what happened to me. I wanted someone to hear how depressed I was feeling — to help me find something new. But nobody was interested in so much as passing the time of day. To them, I was just a number and my concerns were irrelevant.”

She felt there was a gap in the recruitment market for someone who was prepared to listen. “I wanted to put my mouth where my money was,” she quips. And at the age of 28 with virtually no savings to her name, she launched C&S from a small third-floor office with two desks and a telephone in Port Elizabeth. C&S stands for Christie and Schultz, Schultz being the maiden name of her childhood friend, Kathy Hale, who moved from Johannesburg to join her. Three years later Christie moved the head office to Durban. Hale still runs the PE branch. In other major cities the pair are represented by consultancies.

The key to coming out a winner when you lose your job, Ruth stresses, is to use the opportunity to your advantage. Evaluate your skills and rethink your goals. Losing your job could be a blessing in disguise if you learn from your retrenchment, use it as a stepping-stone and grow.

* I was subsequently laid off / downsized / retrenched four more time. The first time was in South Africa. The next four were all in California.

[Some names have been changed in the interest of privacy.]
© — Wanda Hennig, 2009

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