Redundancy: A conversation with Julia Gillard AC about saying goodbye and letting go

Perspectives

Redundancy: A conversation with Julia Gillard AC about saying goodbye and letting go

Leading in Small Bites

Redundancies are in the wind – the ill wind of COVID-19.  Large institutions we thought stable have started to falter, including airlines, universities and professional service firms.  And because this new wave of downsizing follows on from a quick succession of fiscal shocks (such as forced leave and pay cuts), and is being experienced in the context of broader fears about health and the economy, its impact is especially challenging to navigate.

Redundancy in normal circumstances evokes complex reactions from both survivors and “redundees”.  Survivors may experience a potent mix of relief, guilt or even envy.  In addition to financial insecurity, redundees may feel that trust has been broken and their social identity lost.  And in the context of COVID-19 driven isolation, which is already layered upon pre-existing societal stressors, both survivors and redundees are likely to feel extreme levels of anxiety and uncertainty.  What was hard, just became even harder.  What was stressful just became more stressful.  And the avenue to process these emotions, including via a physical hug and farewell drink, has been reduced to an impersonal Zoom call and at best an elbow-to-elbow tap.  

So how do we meet this moment with insight and compassion?  How do redundees say goodbye gracefully, and how do survivors heal and let go?  To help answer those questions, we interviewed former Australian Prime Minister, Julia Gillard AC.  Appointed as the Prime Minister 10 years ago, Gillard knows what it is like to work in an environment where change is constant and sometimes bruising.  Ousted in 2013, she has emerged from that experience to chart a brilliant second act.  Drawing on her lived experience Gillard offered words of wisdom, centering upon four themes: Feeling the emotional weight of the moment, reconfiguring workplace friendships, reimagining one’s future and leading through conversation.

  1. Feel the weight of the moment.  Redundancy represents a fundamental threat to  redundees’ and survivors’ well-being, and this fact needs to be acknowledged rather than brushed over: “For those who stay, number 1 is accepting that this is going to be different to the past.  We all crave continuity and when it is sharply different, there can be a wistfulness and nostalgia about the past.  But the people who thrive are the people who adapt quickly to the new reality”, said Gillard.  But adaptation does not happen without recognition of the tremendous wrench caused by abruptly losing daily contact with friends and colleagues.  “You’ve got to let yourself feel those emotions and process them rather than just push them to one side as if they weren’t happening”, said Gillard.  For those who are being made redundant, Gillard spoke of the deep hurt that is often experienced, even if one anticipates such an event might occur: “When you exit, it happens in a moment, and for me it obviously happened in a very dramatic moment.  It does hit you in the gut”.  With welcome candour, Gillard observed, “There is some loneliness in it.  And even if people are in circumstances where, in the business they work, there are many redundancies… it is still a lonely moment.  It is still about you”.  To feel the weight of this moment and recover, Gillard said she took time out to “let myself physically rest, let myself emotionally and intellectually rest.  And it was a bit of a grieving process”.
  2. Reconfigure workplace friendships.  Close personal relationships help people to work through profound moments, but redundancy disrupts the very relationships that form part of people’s support network.  So how do people address this conundrum?  Gillard reflected that there can be an initial awkwardness as redundees and survivors seek to reconfigure their relationship, shifting from the ease of contact facilitated by work tasks or serendipity, to something more structured and intentional.  She said, “Keeping friendships really matters, and I know for myself that I’ve still got very strong bonds with people that I worked with in politics and I really value those friendships.  But we have had to restructure them and give them a different context and texture than they had when we were directly working together”.  Underscoring the importance of maintaining friendships, Gillard observed that the context of COVID-19 makes the experience of redundancy particularly challenging to manage.  She commented, “In this time when people are in various forms of COVID isolation….I think the group dynamics won’t be there.  When redundancies have happened in the past people would be able to go and have a drink and maybe have a cry or whatever, and do that as a group.  But now people will be in their own homes trying to process this moment.  So it is tough.  It is lonely”.
  3. Reimagine one’s future.  For those who have been made redundant there is a heightened risk of feelings of helplessness and depression, however some seize redundancy as an opportunity to reimagine their next chapter, and, as per Krasz (2005), this is particularly true for those who believe they can take action to influence their own future.  Gillard was one who anticipated that when she was no longer at the top of her political career she needed to move on quickly.  While acknowledging that there are differences between her circumstances and others, she offered guidance that would be helpful to anyone who has been made redundant.  In particular, she said she used the time immediately after leaving politics to reflect on what mattered most to her, so as to enable her to make deliberate choices about her next steps.  She asked herself “What, from that moment in my life, did I want to keep? And what did I want to let go?....  So it was really boiling it down if you like to ‘what’s the essence?’.  What’s the thing right at the base of it that really, really matters to you and you want to take into quite different circumstances?”.
  4. Lead through compassionate conversation.  Survivors of redundancy not only feel the loss of their colleagues, but worry about higher workload, especially given the loss of corporate knowledge.   When asked about how leaders help to rebuild workplace cultures after a mass redundancy, Gillard suggested, “It has to be a moment where people are reassured that the change event, whether it has been experienced by some as a positive change event or it has been experienced by some as a trauma, that after the change event there will be new norms, new ways of coming together, new standards about inclusion.  So that people get a say in what this new normal is….  I think people best recover when they are given the sense, they will be able to shape their future, rather than having something fully formed just imposed on them”.  She also noted that while people “crave certainty” and therefore want to return to normalcy relatively quickly, they also need time to talk, so they feel themselves to be the architects of their own fortunes.  This observation seems particularly important given that both redundancy and COVID-19 are fundamentally disempowering experiences.  Hence, while leaders may want to move on quickly (noting that they will probably have engaged in lengthy deliberations ahead of the redundancy announcement), they need to give survivors time to process their emotions and co-design new work practices.  Gillard noted that “talking in the aftermath of big change can be difficult”, and leaders may fear the unpredictability about where the conversation will go.  Nevertheless, she said, “I definitely think letting the conversation flow, letting people say what they need to, actually discussing risks will help mitigate and manage them”.

“A job is more than a source of income.  It is a fundamental social role providing a source of identity, self-concept and social relations” (Brand, 2015).  Recognising this profound truth, it would be wise for organisations to anticipate the significant impact of mass redundancy on survivors as well as redundees as they face into the prospect of large-scale economic downsizing.  These experiences are always difficult, but even more so in the context of COVID-19.  Now more than ever, saying goodbye and letting go is not simply a matter of putting in place a quick redundancy process and offering outplacement services.  How organisations treat redundees in a moment that matters, and help to heal survivor wounds, is material to coming out the other side effectively.  Having been through a very public “letting go”, Gillard’s sage advice is welcome, timely and extremely helpful.

Juliet Bourke (Partner, Human Capital, Deloitte) and Sophie Roberts (Senior Consultant, Human Capital Deloitte) led Deloitte’s COVID-19 Leading in Small Bites series, along with Katie Webster (former Consultant, Human Capital Deloitte) and Melissa Fung (Analyst, Human Capital Deloitte).  Juliet’s last day at Deloitte will be 30, September, 2020.

Julia Gillard’s latest book Women and Leadership Real Lives, Real Lessons is available now.

Published: July 2020

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