This is a story of finding your feet and then having the rug pulled out from under them. At the time, it broke me, but now – with the gift of hindsight – I realise it was the best thing that ever happened to me.
As a planner, I’d worked at a number of agencies, sacrificing my output to get the title. My refusal to compromise meant working at good – but not necessarily "the best" – agencies. I jumped around, chasing promotions, hungry to progress, and then it finally happened: an agency I had fan-girled since forever got in touch. The next thing I knew, I was one of them. I was chuffed; I finally had the title and the potential of decent output at a well-recognised agency. Now was my time to bed in.
It was great – until I got made redundant.
Our obsession with work, particularly in an industry that glorifies all-nighters, means that what we do forms a large part of who we are. Without a job, I felt like I’d lost a large part of my purpose (let alone pride). I was dumbstruck when they told me and I went home and cried down the phone to my mum.
Turns out, redundancy happens to everyone at some stage – not that it makes it any less shit. So it’s not so much whether you’ll get made redundant, but when. And thanks to a looming recession, the "when" feels closer than usual these days.
As is so often the case in this industry, my redundancy wasn’t the last. Months later, more were cut. When times are tough, you of course have to make tough decisions – "it’s not personal, it’s just business", as the saying goes. But there was one factor that united every employee made redundant: we were all women.
Not only did our male counterparts remain safe, after the cuts they were later promoted. While they kept their jobs and got paid more, all we got was a non-disclosure agreement. Thinking back on this situation now, I see a real danger that business cuts and redundancies can sometimes harm the diversity within workplaces.
Now, during the Covid-19 crisis, there is already some evidence that the tough decisions that many agencies have been forced to make could be setting the industry back in its progress on diversity. In Campaign and Creative Equals’ first Covid-19 Inclusion Pulse, the survey showed that women and minority groups were more likely to report higher levels of psychological stress, unfair treatment at work and concerns about long-term job security.
Here is what I learned from my own experience.
1 Take a witness to your redundancy meeting
During your redundancy process, you’ll have a number of meetings between yourself and your employer. For these meetings, you’re allowed to bring a witness. This witness is usually a colleague, but with permission it could also be your partner, your best friend or your mum.
Bringing someone along with you doesn’t make you weak; it makes you smart. During my meetings, I was so numb and embarrassed, I failed to take in most of the information that was discussed. Although I’d received advice before entering and went in armed with a bunch of valid questions to ask, my energy was focused on getting the questions out without my lower lip wobbling as opposed to getting their answers. Your witness will be able to sense-check any information, take notes or at the very least be your emotional support.
2 The HR department exists to protect the employer first
Naively, I didn’t know this. This isn’t a slight on HR, but when there are three parties that need to resolve something and one party is paying the other, naturally there’s a vested interest. One resource I wish I’d known more about is HR Uprise, an Instagram account made up of anonymous HR staff who ultimately want to end workplace harassment, but share a wealth of knowledge on workplace issues and policies.
3 Review why you’ve been selected*
*Advice from a lawyer
Does the agency’s explanation stack up? Why are you being chosen and not someone else? Are there more recent joiners who aren’t being fired? If so, why not? If the redundancy isn’t genuine or they select you unfairly (or for discriminatory reasons), you may have a claim in the employment tribunal, which will give you more bargaining power.
Consult an employment lawyer if you think things are seriously amiss, so that you don’t lose out on your rights. Any extra payments you can squeeze from the agency at this stage will mean a lot when your monthly pay cheque dries up.
4 Tell everyone you’ve been made redundant
Say it with me: being made redundant is not your fault and it is nothing to be ashamed of. Being honest about your current situation is not only better for your mental health (goodbye, shame and denial), it’s also better for your job prospects, because every employer knows redundancy is about finances and not how good you are.
Since I was made redundant, I’ve seen a number of people announce their redundancy publicly (be that on Twitter, Instagram or LinkedIn) and watched the offers roll in. This is an industry that revolves around people and, believe it or not, people are willing to help. But if you don’t tell them you need it, they can’t offer it.
At the time, you might not think this, but being made redundant makes you an attractive hire – you have no notice period, so in a list of other candidates you’re the one who can start first. And in an industry with small margins and quick turnarounds, this can work in your favour. More than that, it avoids the sometimes awkward conversation of explaining why you’re leaving your agency.
Once you’ve been made redundant, you’re a free agent – you have no strings attached (apart from any agreed restrictions that might be in your contract). You can attend interviews at any time. It sounds small, but availability during the hiring process saves your prospective agency time and money. If they hire you directly, it may also save them expensive recruitment fees, improving your chances even more.
5 A settlement shouldn’t mean settling
Let’s talk negotiating strategy. First, get your ducks in a row: check your contract and company redundancy policy to figure out what you’re entitled to. With an understanding of the fundamentals, you’ll know where you have wiggle room and where you’ve got leverage. This is your time to set your terms, and if your agency made any promises prior to this process, get it in writing.
There are a few questions worth asking, such as: can I keep my phone or laptop? (Assuming you’re following their terms on intellectual property.) And in your settlement package: how much of it can be paid tax free? (It won’t cost the company anything and it’ll mean more cash in your pocket.) Will they pay you for your untaken holidays? Also, will they make you work through your notice or pay you instead of doing that?
Have an experience you think should be shared? Help our industry take action by writing to firstname.lastname@example.org
Untold Stories collaborated with Shilpen Savani, solicitor and partner at law firm Gunnercooke, to provide a legal perspective