Sacking people is becoming even easier – and dealing with the stigma can be difficult. But, as Laura Marcus writes, there are ways to survive and find new employment
It’s very difficult to get sacked in the UK – or so many commentators would have you believe. Employers are tied up in knots of red tape while employees have the upper hand. The idea that “make it easier to sack people and the economy will magically revive” was even included in the recent Queen’s speech and consultation is still under way to see if all employee protection should be removed from companies with 10 or fewer staff. Moreover, hardly noticed, from 6 April, the period during which an employer can fire you without recourse to an industrial tribunal, went up from one to two years.
David Blanchflower, professor of economics at Dartmouth College, New Hampshire, USA and a former member of the Bank of England’s monetary policy committee, says the UK ranks third worst for employee protection according to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) survey of 30 countries and 10 emerging economies.
“There’s absolutely no evidence to support the idea that sacking people boosts the economy,” Blanchflower argues. “This is nonsense, with nothing to back it up.”
It was not difficult to find people who’d been sacked, contrary to the oft-expressed view that you just can’t sack anyone, even if the evidence is anecdotal – and that’s before the government looked into making it easier.
Emma Hart*, 28, was stunned, when, out of the blue, she was called into the office one day in March and fired. She worked in a senior management role for a small marketing company and had received excellent appraisals.
“No reason was given,” she explains. “I was just told to clear my desk and clear out. I’d only been there 11 months so they didn’t have to give a reason. Nor could I take them to a tribunal.
“I was truly shocked at how easy it is in this country to get rid of people. No employment lawyer would take on my case as I hadn’t been there long enough, but if I’d met the time qualification I would definitely have had a case.”
Hart says her own resilience has been the major factor in bouncing back from being sacked. “I kept all my contacts from previous roles so I could go to them for freelance work. I’ve also had strong support from friends and family. Lots of people said how much they admire and respect me. That helped me through.
“It’s worse than redundancy, because everyone knows that’s not your fault and it’s usually carefully managed. If you’re sacked – and everyone thinks it’s so hard to sack people – there’s a real stigma and you question yourself lots. My advice is to get back out there and take anything you can get just to restore your confidence.”
Sometimes people can be sacked because they’ve been set up to fail. That’s how it felt for Vivien Rose*, 33, when she was fired. “What the company advertised and interviewed for was an all-round admin person. What they wanted was a purchasing data-inputter – a very fast one.
“The woman who managed me was a terrible bully who made me stand up in the middle of the office and yelled at me in front of everyone. And the company wouldn’t tell me where their HR department was so I could get a copy of the employee handbook.
“I remember phoning Acas in the snow outside because there wasn’t anywhere private. A few days later I was crying as I waited to cross the road on my way to the Jobcentre. A bloke asked why I was crying and I told him. He said he’d been sacked before, and that I would be OK, I’d get another job, not to worry. That was so kind. Made me feel heaps better. That was my turning point.”
Like Hart, Rose found temporary work at first. “They didn’t care what I’d done before, or why I wasn’t doing it any more. I got a few extra entries on my CV so I could then say to my next employer why I’d left my last job without fibbing – it was temporary work. I think an employer won’t mind if you’ve been sacked once, if you show that you can work for other people afterwards. It’s people who keep getting sacked that set a pattern that is going to scare a company off.”
Should you tell a future employer you were sacked from your last job? Yes, says the TUC’s head of equality and employment rights, Sarah Veale, because they might find out anyway, and then you’ll look dishonest.
“Employers appreciate honesty. They’re frightened of people who fib on their CVs. What better way to show you’re honest than admit you were fired from your last post? If you say you’ve learned your lesson and you’re a reformed sinner who realised you were in the wrong, it could go in your favour.
“Some of the best people were once sacked. Often those who give the most value are employees who have the maturity to face up to their mistakes and move on. Employers are human. Most of them want a good relationship, and it’s perfectly possible, even in this economic climate, to admit you were sacked and get another job. You might well appeal to a good employer.”
Many famous people have been fired, then gone on to become highly successful, including Vogue editor Anna Wintour. For some people, being sacked made them realise they weren’t cut out to be an employee. This is what happened when Sean Jones* was fired from two architect jobs.
“The first time I got sacked I worked for a small firm run from the owner’s house. I had no proper notice. There was no discussion. I just came back from the site to find all my stuff in a cardboard box with the boss hiding behind a locked door upstairs. It knocked me back. The way it was done was cowardly and wrong but, reflecting on it now, I think that job coincided with a bout of undiagnosed depression, so I may have been a pain to work with.
“After that experience I think I went too far the other way and was too eager to please. I couldn’t settle and was fired again. I now know I have a minor form of bipolar disorder. At work I could be loud and bumptious (and productive), but then acquire clouds of gloom and anxiety.
“I suppose that bosses might see the first as insubordination and the second as laziness. The only long-term solution for me was to set up my own practice, which I’ve done and which has been very successful. Of course, that’s not possible for everyone.”
Some future employers will accept that you were simply in the wrong job or that it was very badly managed, says Angela Baron, an adviser at the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD). “If you were dismissed because you weren’t performing well, there may have been perfectly good reasons for that, such as you didn’t receive sufficient training or induction. Or maybe the job became bigger and impossible to do.
“If you don’t want to say outright that you were sacked you could say the employment came to an end. Often an employer and employee will reach an agreement about what they’ll say. Many employers will be happy for you to fudge why you left, because they don’t want a reputation as a place that hires and fires people willy-nilly or talented people won’t want to work for them. If you were fired for no obvious reason, but you’ve had previously good appraisals, keep the evidence.”
Baron has warm words of reassurance about the job market, dire though it can sometimes seem. “There are still many skills in short supply and competition for good talent remains fierce.”
In some lines of work, being fired goes with the terrain. Musician and author Rob Beattie (below) freely admits he’s been sacked from every singing job: “The most memorable was from a restaurant where the manager and I hadn’t seen eye to eye for a while. He was also a musician and couldn’t understand how I played the same songs every night to people who didn’t really listen.
“One night things came to a head and he slapped some money on the table and yelled, ‘Don’t come back!’ I now play with the Alter Eagles, an Eagles tribute band, and we’re very successful. Often these things are just subjective. What one person loves another hates. After a while, you learn not to take it personally.”
To find out your employment rights, visit the Acas (Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service) website (acas.org.uk) or the TUC’s site (tuc.org.uk). There is also further help available at Worksmart (worksmart.org.uk). Join a union – even if your workplace doesn’t recognise it, you’ll have access to legal advice.
* Names have been changed.
The honest approach
The head of a medium-sized gardening supplier tells us why she decided to hire a young woman who admitted she’d been sacked from her last job.
“Christine* turned up at the interview and was honest straightaway. She explained why she’d been sacked from her last job and what had happened. She’d been fired by a large company where she worked in a public-facing area. She was abused by a member of public, it upset her and she walked off.
“I didn’t think that was a fair reason to sack her. She didn’t do anything dangerous. And better to walk off than whack them or scream abuse back. To me it would’ve been unfair dismissal. There was no investigation and I much admired her guts for telling us the truth.
“She gave a very good interview and did an excellent written test. When you take people on, it’s largely on trust. She trusted us enough to come clean so we decided to trust her back. It was the best thing we’ve ever done and she’s since been promoted.”
* To protect their employee, this employer has asked to remain anonymous