· 3 min read · Features

Uncommon sense: The unpleasant side of the job


The system of firing people - suddenly and without negotiation - is brutal and intolerable.

It's been a while since human resources managers have had to deal with the more unpleasant side of their job - getting rid of employees.

You don't hear much about that at talent management seminars. In fact you don't hear much about it at any seminars - at least not those to which they send invitations to journalists.

But there's no mistaking the buzz as the economy worsens and the financial directors hand down their budget cuts. You can slash expenses, get rid of the potted plants, sell off the car park and convert the staff gym to a seminar suite, but when you get down to the paperclips and Post-it notes, you know that people are next.

But hang on a minute. Weren't some of these people you are pencilling in for the chop the very ones you were describing as talent only months earlier? That's the problem with talent, it can be expensive. Who needs flair when your very survival is topping the agenda?

Suddenly it's all hands to the pump. Last year you couldn't walk past a building site without hearing discussions in Polish and two or three other central European languages. Today you can't walk past a building site.

As the building companies retrench and the Poles book their one-way flights to Warsaw, there is going to be some long, hard scrutiny of workforces across other sectors. Who goes first? Naturally it's the temps and the contractors. That's partly what they're there for, isn't it?

Forgive me if I sound a little cynical. It's just that I have been fired four times this year already and it's all become rather wearing. It also makes me something of an expert in the black arts associated with redundancy and dismissal. The last firing was mid-column. I was typing away, when the telephone rang and the voice on the other end of the line said: "I'm afraid I have bad news, you're losing your column. We can't afford it any more so we're giving it to a staffer."

For whom was it bad news? Him? Me? The newspaper? The readers? There is some presumption in such a subjective remark. It was news, yes, but bad? Well that depends on how you view change.

Fundamentally this is why change is so difficult to handle. It explains how Spencer Johnson, author of Who Moved My Cheese, raked in millions for a book with the silliest of titles and simplest of messages. But I had read it and I can see cheese when it's about to move.

Subliminally it might account for the book contract I had agreed only the preceding week. It probably explains my lack of surprise when my firing happened but it didn't make the news any easier to take. I had been feeling flush before that phone call, surfing the crest of a bumper year for earnings. But even the best of surfers know they are going to get dumped at some stage. In HR I have met managers paring away at their teams, knowing that they will be the one who is asked to turn off the light as they walk out of the door.

Why do we go along with a system that has grown to tolerate, even expect, such brutality? I have yet to meet the HR manager who enjoys cutting staff. Even where they understand the necessity, the process is always draining.

One thing I have noticed about firing people is that it is usually done suddenly and without much negotiation. The decision has already been made. Recruitment, on the other, hand can take months, with much agonising discussion. The reason for this is that we have not yet shaken off old assumptions about work - that people, when you recruit them, are going to be around for some time. We take the same optimistic view of business. Yet we can't even make those assumptions about companies, never mind their workforces, these days.

I think we need to stop looking for that moving cheese and look at the cheese itself. There are big holes, it's mouldering and much of it is crumbling. Who wants cheese like that?

- Richard Donkin is employment columnist at the Financial Times