It was the middle of winter, just before Christmas. I was doing pretty well at my job. Or so I thought. I was an Account Manager for one of the UK’s leading recruitment marketing agencies and looked after the biggest account in the business at the time (the BBC) and was kept pretty busy, whilst many around me were already experiencing the effects of the recession that had bitten some months earlier. Their clients were quiet. The phones weren’t ringing. The money wasn’t coming in. It was a bleak scenario. And, it was about to get bleaker.
There had already been several rounds of redundancies. Each time my 'team' had missed out on taking a hit. It seemed inevitable therefore that with departments around us losing people, our turn would come sooner or later. And come it did!
One afternoon, just after I came back from lunch with a colleague, my phone rang. My boss was on the other end of the line, but he wasn’t sitting in his office some thirty feet behind me. Oh no, he was calling from a different floor. Boom! That was the only sign I needed. My career to date, was to come to a very sudden end there and then.
As I shuffled down the corridor on the floor below, I rehearsed in my mind what I might say. How I would fight to protect my position within the company. After all, I was the busiest person in the agency. To get rid of me would be madness. Wouldn’t it? Like all the best laid plans and rehearsed speeches however, everything I wanted to say went out of the window. In fact, very little was said. We both knew what this meeting was about.
As I was handed a brown envelope containing the terms of my departure, I’ll admit there were tears, there was anger, there was the intense feeling of nausea to the pit of my stomach, there was even a degree of begging (when I saw Ricky Gervais play a similar scene in The Office years later it brought a lump to my throat. I knew that feeling). All of this was made worse (although looking back I can laugh now, thankfully) by an ex of mine (tip: don't do office romances) scurrying up to me in tears as I went back to clear my desk, to apologise for breaking up with me and having flaunted her new social life in front of me for the last few months. Really you couldn't make this particular afternoon up!
A hastily arranged meet up in a bar with my shocked colleagues and a few industry friends followed, but not before I had been grabbed by security and relieved of my building pass. There was very little dignity attached to redundancy back than. No tact. No sensitivity. No kid gloves. One day you were in, the next, you were out, never to darken their door again. No support, no career counselling, just you, a brown envelope and a bleak looking future.
Indeed, over the next few months, as well as undertaking a fruitless job search (we were in the midst of a recession) I went through the whole gamut of emotions. Anger, upset, apprehension, fear – you name it. I often couldn’t sleep at night at the injustice of it all. A mattress I had propped up in the corner of our bedroom used to regularly serve as a punchbag as I knocked seven shades of the brown stuff out of it in the middle of the night, imagining it to be the person who had wielded the axe on my career. Life, it seemed, would never be the same again.
Along with the indignity of having to ‘sign on’, all for a pittance a week (I'd been paying thousands in NI contributions for years, was this my reward for all that hard work?), I was ready to fight anyone who dared to question whether I was ‘actively seeking employment’. Believe me when I say I was a very angry young man! I felt cheated, let down, put onto the scrap heap without having done anything wrong. Perhaps worst of all is the stigma of it all, imaginary or, maybe in some cases true. The notion that "he can't be very good at what he did if they got rid of him" or, now being unemploeyed that I was lazy, a scrounger, one of life's chancers. All of that sits on your shoulders 24 hours a day.
Eventually, after several months of frantic job searching, I was fortunate enough to get back into employment. It meant taking a 25% pay cut and doing something I hadn’t considered as my next career move prior to my redundancy, but needs must, beggars can’t be choosers etc. etc. I then had to endure the endless lectures from my new and unaware of the reality of it all colleagues who, whilst never having experienced redundancy, were happy to arrogantly announce how they would "take any job, even shelf stacking or working at a petrol station" rather than be out of work. Oh, if only life were that simple! Over qualified, under-qualified, only there until a job you actually want crops up - there are many reasons why you can't just walk into your local supermarket and get a job stacking shelves if you have previously been working in a completely different business and at a completely different level - but don't let the reality get in the way of the incredibly warped theory folks!
It took a while, a long while, but I was lucky. I was able to eventually bounce back and get myself to where I wanted to be. But I will never, ever forget the despair, the hopelessness, the anger, the upset and the sheer gut wrenching feeling that that that one afternoon in my career brought me. It has stayed with me ever since, and will stay with me forever. To this day, I never forget how lucky I am to even to be able to make a living. When working for other people I never bemoaned my lot or made unreasonable demands. I never considered myself to be superior or more deserving of fast tracking or preferential treatment and I never took anything for granted or got annoyed by the trivial. Now, having worked for myself for the past 11 years I still don't assume it's my God given right to be employed full-time. Things could change. They could change for you, the reader too, one day, out of the blue. Maybe they have. Perhaps that's why you're reading this.
The only upside about redundancy, although I didn't know it at the time, is that it has made me stronger, more aware, more tolerant and more appreciative of what I have, not just in the workplace, but in my life in general. Leaky washing machine? Not a problem. Missed a train? So what, there will be another one along soon enough.
I certainly wouldn’t recommend it as a life choice, but I would say to anyone who is going through it or may have to face up to it in the future - there's every chance you will come out the other side a better, stronger, more knowledgeable, appreciative person than the one that went in to pick up that brown envelope (it's probably downloadable these days). You'll have more perspective and more empathy. Ultimately it will probably also make you happier both at work and in your personal life because suddenly the trivial, easily resolved problems of life won't matter to you quite so much.
And to those who simply assume that if you're unemployed and on benefits you're a scrounger, can't be very good at what you do or should simply go out and find another job doing anything just to fill the gap - dream on. It could happen to you one day, and when it does you'll quickly come to appreciate that this coloured view you have of people on benefits is far removed from reality. Redundancy invariably isn't a yardstick of talent or lack of it. It's purely a numbers game played at the top echelons of a company during times of corporate adversity - of which there is plenty at the moment. In every society there is a small percentage who have no intention of finding a job, but there is also a far bigger percentage who get written off unfairly.