30. Wrecking Ball – Bruce Springsteen
“You’ll probably look back and think this was the best thing that ever happened to you”. If you ever find yourself talking to someone that has just lost their job, just been made redundant (what an appalling turn of phrase that is), then take it from me, don’t fall back on telling them that it might turn out to be a great thing. However well intentioned. Give them some time. Give them some empathy, some sympathy even, but don’t dismiss the awfulness of it in that sentence. Let them work through just how shit it is before you start up with the platitudes. And believe me it’s shit.
Just over three years ago I was about to leave the office late on a Friday afternoon. I knew my company was struggling – it would have been difficult not to know as I was responsible for understanding UK consumers, the market, and how we performed in that context. UK consumers were on the floor, the market had finally run out of technology innovation that had propped us up and kept customers spending, and even the weather had turned against us – the preceding Christmas wiped out in a flurry of snow. I also knew that something was going on. It was nearly the end of the financial year, which is often when these things happen, and I just had a sense that my time might be up. I’d been in the organisation for 13 years, part of the furniture, and was pretty well plugged in to all of the usual rumour, conjecture, and gossip that flies around a business. I wasn’t the only one that had suspicions.
I was due to be in Leeds the following Monday evening, invited to speak at a market research event, and so I stopped by my boss’ office to float the idea that I might just go directly up North rather than come in to the office. On reflection I think by this point that I already knew. I was just trying to fish for some kind of confirmation. He clearly didn’t want to give anything away. Presumably there had been some kind of agreement internally to “not spoil everyone’s weekend” and he was cagey. Eventually I somewhat bluntly asked him if I needed to be in the office on Monday morning. Yes, was the response. He knew what he’d just told me. I knew too.
Knowing is one thing but being directly confronted with it is another. It seems vaguely laughable now but there was a ridiculous mistake made over the weekend – the one that presumably was not to be spoiled. Meeting invites went out to various members of the Marketing team, ordered in a particular way (if you were near the end it was good, near the start was bad), on the Sunday, evidently with the intention that they’d be seen as everyone came in on Monday morning. Under normal circumstances we weren’t the type of employees that left our Blackberries alone all weekend, let alone in a time of heightened tension about our future prospects. So various of us saw the invites on the Sunday, saw the run of people summoned to the same room on the first floor, and drew our own conclusions.
I held it together until the Monday morning. I was in early as usual and one of the first people I saw was the new HR head, a woman that seemed to have expressly been brought in to do unpleasant work. She was well suited to it. There are lots of things, looking back, that I’d do differently if it all happened again. One of those things is that I wouldn’t have pleaded with her quite so desperately to tell me what was going on, only to be stone walled. I get why. I understand the professional obligation, the need to treat everyone the same, the requirement to protect the company’s interests and not say anything that might compromise the process. I get it but it’s utterly dehumanising. I wish I’d not said a single word to her. That stone walling, along with many other parts of what became “the process”, reduces you to the status of a line on a spreadsheet somewhere. You don’t really exist as a person anymore in the eyes of the organisation. You finally get to understand that age old Finance gag that directly rebuts HR’s “people are our greatest asset” line: people, on any balance sheet, will always be listed as a liability.
I didn’t have to wait very long for my meeting. It transpired that I wasn’t the only casualty in my team and so they needed to remove me first. To this day I deeply regret that the fate of the rest of my team was taken out of my hands, particularly as one of them was away on maternity leave at the time – but redundancy is no respecter of that. The ones that survived this cull all left within three months anyway; the writing was on the wall and I’m glad at least that I recruited and worked with people (great people) that had enough nous to bail out when they could. I don’t remember all of the details of the meeting; I just remember being very, very angry. In a bizarre way it almost helped that I didn’t particularly get on with my boss, it gave me a focal point for my rage and scorn. He didn’t necessarily deserve it, we were just different people, but that was where I directed all of my negative feelings.
The official line was that I was in a period of consultation – a month – as my role had been deemed redundant. That’s always the distinction: it’s the role, not you personally, that is redundant. The business doesn’t need that role anymore. It’s not a reflection on you. It’s not personal. Except, of course, it couldn’t be more fucking personal. The role doesn’t pay your mortgage. The role doesn’t give up its time and energy and emotionally invest in a place, in the people that work there, in the work that it does. The role doesn’t have to go out and find a new role: it’s redundant. You, of course, do. And you, of course, are inseparable from the role and are the one that is really now deemed redundant. Don’t ever let them tell you it’s not personal.
“Don’t go to Leeds”. I remember he said that. Told me – not unreasonably I guess – that I probably wasn’t in the right frame of mind to drive for three hours and deliver a presentation on engaging businesses with customer insight. At my very best I’m not good at being told to not do something. Sheer bloody minded stubbornness is not necessarily my most appealing character trait but there it is. I wasn’t anywhere near my best. “Don’t go to Leeds” was like a red rag being stuffed in my face and, in that moment, I would have crawled on my hands and knees through broken glass to sodding Leeds and delivered that presentation just to spite him, spite the company I’d given 13 years to, and to try and retain some sense of myself as a professional, employed, person.
I went to Leeds. Delivered a great presentation to the good folks of the Northern branch of the Market Research Society. Didn’t breathe a word of what had happened until afterwards when I couldn’t keep a lid on it anymore. I think they were a little surprised. I was exhausted. It had been a pretty draining day.
I was one of the lucky ones. That’s what I tend to tell myself now. The business I left folded a couple of years later, collapsing after a private equity buy out that, whilst difficult to prove, looks a lot like it was designed to close the business and walk away with a profit. Some people made money on a business that failed: none of those people were the ones that worked there. So I was lucky because I got paid off. I more or less walked straight into another job too. But I don’t remember feeling particularly lucky sobbing in the toilets at the office when it all got too much during that month of “consultation” or when I pretended to be working from home because I couldn’t tell our child carer what was going on or when colleagues I’d known for years – had worked directly for in some cases – couldn’t bring themselves to have any words for me. You find out who your friends are I guess. For every person that suddenly seemed unable to even look at me there was another who would take me out for lunch. For every process and policy demon in HR there was others who, in simple terms, put the human back into human resources (they know who they are). I was particularly touched by the generous spirit of my research agency network who, without exception, were wonderful at a time when there was genuinely nothing in it for them beyond being decent people – I couldn’t commission any work for them anymore.
About a year after I went through the redundancy Springsteen released “Wrecking Ball”, an angry riposte to the banking crisis induced recession and consequent human cost. Inevitably it’s the record I have co-opted as articulating my powerless anger about what happened to me and about the subsequent collapse of the business I worked so long for. It’s a big fuck-you of a record, especially the title track (the video at the start of this post); a giant musical middle finger extended to an abstract set of bankers who dealt in abstract trades that had anything but abstract repercussions. For me it’s more straightforward: you got rid of me, I’m not going to let it beat me.
I walked away – or more accurately was made to walk away – from my job with a decent chunk of money and didn’t need it to tide me over until I found another one. But there was a cost. My redundancy wasn’t the only thing that tipped me into depression 18 months later but it was undoubtedly one of the things. It was almost like a bereavement and I don’t think I’d worked it all through until I took my 6 month sabbatical some 30 odd months after the event. Some of it is still probably working its way through now. And, as I say, I was one of the lucky ones; I didn’t have to bear the financial cost as well as the emotional one. I have nothing but empathy and respect for all my former colleagues who had to deal with both.
So, no, even in retrospect I wouldn’t say that it turned out to be “the best thing that ever happened” although in a roundabout way it was one of the triggers that made me write again so perhaps, eventually, I’ll look back on it differently. For now it’s still a big old wrecking ball that clattered through my life and the dust from the damage that it caused is still settling.