First-Class Coach: Uncivil service

The threat of cuts is de-energising my department.

by Miranda Kennett, an independent coach
Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

Q: I joined the Civil Service as a graduate and after 10 years have reached quite a senior position. The news that a large number of jobs are to be axed in the department is having a de-energising effect on me and my staff. I'm worried we're not doing our best work, just when we must prove we're worth our salaries.

A: Given what's been happening to the rest of the UK economy, the fact that the public sector is now sharing the pain of downsizing may spark a certain Schadenfreude among managers in the commercial world, who've been grappling with this issue for the best part of two years.

It's a tough call for any manager to handle the threat and reality of redundancies, and particularly so for civil servants. A large proportion of public servants have, like you, never worked anywhere else. Many bright and capable people, who would be an asset to any organisation, have opted for the apparent security of public-sector employment. They have accepted roles that are less dynamic and less well-paid than they might expect to earn in the private sector.

For them, advancement has been structured and formal - there has been a ladder to climb. They have no experience of the hurly-burly of private-sector recruitment, will never have had to write a 'selling' CV, or track down the headhunter who is the gatekeeper for the kind of job they'd like to do next. So the prospect of being jobless and forced to compete in a new arena is likely to be disturbing.

What's making it worse is the high uncertainty that surrounds these job cuts, and the agony has been prolonged by the Government's belated decision to reduce the terms of severance pay before further cuts are made. Though some departments have been clearly designated for pruning, many others still don't know the criteria for selection for redundancy, though there is a general sense that some action is imminent.

So what can you do to improve morale and get yourself and your people back on track and showing yourselves to best advantage? Fear feeds on lack of information, so ask your boss or HR department for an update on when redundancies are to be made and what the scale of them is likely to be. Then share as much of this information as you're allowed to with your team. Reassure them that you will keep them in the loop as further news becomes available, and that you'll do what you can to make sure that decisions on redundancies are made fairly. Keeping communication going is vital, even when the news is that there is no news.

Then focus on your own future. If you can get yourself to a position where you seem calm and confident, it will help others downstream not to panic and to feel more resourceful. Start by accepting the possibility of redundancy, and think through how you will cope if it happens. Although this seems like colluding in creating an undesirable outcome and making it more likely to happen, facing the fear and devising an action plan will help you feel more in control of your destiny. You'll also have started evaluating whether there might be benefits to this change in your employment.

As part of the consultation process for redundancy, you may have to justify your value to your department and, whether you stay or go, it's worth having a carefully prepared CV that encapsulates all that's good about you. Sift through your experience and identify your skills and the tangible evidence of what you've achieved - though the Civil Service ethos of generalising achievements, rather than attaching them to individuals, may make it hard to isolate your own contribution. Create a second version of your CV for applying for jobs in the outside world. It is probably safe to assume that private-sector recruiters aren't very well up on how things run in the public sector, so you may need to spell out why a particular achievement was significant.

Once you've gained clarity about your future, encourage your team members to do their own evaluation of their job, what they like and dislike about it and what they might do if they no longer worked in your department or for the Civil Service as a whole. They are not obliged to share their thoughts with you, and it might be better that they don't, so that if you are subsequently involved in the decision process on redundancies, your judgment isn't clouded by knowledge of their personal circumstances.

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