I’m sorry Mr. Barrett, your position has been made redundant. Redundancy is a word quite familiar to health and safety people, we use it in good times, and we fear it in bad times. And I think we always have the wrong end of the stick, for all the wrong reasons.
Hey, it’s Andrew, and this is Safety on Tap.
Since you’re listening in, you must be a leader wanting to grow yourself and drastically improve health and safety along the way. Welcome to you, you’re in the right place. If this is your first time listening in, thanks for joining us and well done for trying something different to improve! And of course, welcome back to all of you wonderful regular listeners.
This is a tough time for many of us
Many of you in the Safety on Tap Community will have been made redundant as a result of the Covid-19 economic downturn. I am really sorry. I am sorry because I know what it’s like to be doing it tough. I know what it’s like to have our upper-Maslow level focus on nice things and dreamy goals ripped away, our gaze forced towards and locked onto the basics like paying the bills and buying food. To have your sense of identity as a worker, as a provider, shaken.
I want you to know that this community is here for you. We established the Together Platform over at together.safetyontap.com as a way to provide people like us, to connect virtually, to share our requests and insights and care and support for each other. I encourage you to head over there, feeling a sense of connection when the connections you did have at work are gone, is really important for our mental health. If you head over to the show notes at safetyontap.com/ep150 you can see a bunch of links to helpful information and support services.
My reflections today are not personal or critical of anyone who is, or has ever been made redundant. I am here to help you all to grow, and drastically improve health and safety along the way. So, this conversation is about your growth, and hopefully will reduce the chance in the future that you are made redundant, because in a job, in meaningful work, is the best place for you to be.
When the goal is redundancy….?!
Many of us will have said in the past, or maybe quite frequently, that ‘our job in health and safety is to make ourselves redundant’.
When I have said this, which I probably heard from someone else and thought it was nice and pithy, what I meant was my goal is to enable safety to be a sustained outcome of work, where the capacity to create safety did not require my input. More of me would not have meant more safe. I think that’s what I meant anyway.
There is no doubt that most of us who take health and safety seriously have a deep and kind of moral connection with the goal. We believe in it, we are emotional about it, either as positive advocates, maybe fierce defendants, or anxious drivers of continual improvement.
And yet our experience is almost totally opposite. Those of us who have been involved in job redundancy, are never at the goal – in fact, the times when an organisation needs good health and safety support are often the ones when the health and safety people are asked to leave.
Today I want to talk about the way we talk about redundancy, to reflect on the irony which is emerging about redundancy, and to suggest a more constructive way for us to talk about our place in the world.
You are never redundant
I was working at Pacific Brands when they closed down the majority of their clothing manufacturing operations in Australia. Iconic brands like Bonds and King Gee would no longer have any Australian made apparel. The way that large rolls of fabric get turned into a comfy pair of underwear or a pair of tough cargo pants is exactly the same wherever they are made. A human being sits at a desk with a sewing machine, and they take pre-cut sections and sew one to another. Almost always, one person did one of those tasks, day in and day out. Sometimes they could do a number of tasks, and that was the extent of the job rotation moving from a gusset to a waist band.
I have these very visceral memories which became highlighted when the announcement was made, that the work of these people, mostly women, was now redundant. In Unanderra, the sewing mill there had one family who had four generations of women working at the same time. These women were hunched, many from non-English speaking backgrounds. They spent their days with their heads bowed, eyes squinting, and for the older workers, which was most of them, the decades of experience also meant decades of damage, the knuckles on their hands enlarged and arthritic.
The thing is that their work was not redundant. Even they themselves were not redundant. The job they worked in was redundant. And the difference is important.
A definition of redundancy
The ordinary dictionary definition of redundancy is “a state of no longer being needed or useful, superfluous”.
So let’s go back to this very well intentioned assertion that health and safety people aim, or should aim, to become redundant – as a goal, as an aspiration, as a measure of success.
Insights from Large Scale Redundancy
At the large scale, like during Covid-19, there are two useful insights about redundancy that emerge.
First, redundancy is almost always not about you. Covid-19 is a good example, but even before this, restructures, mergers, market changes, disruption….there is always a much bigger reason for redundancies than just you. The equation is usually quite simple. The business needs to cut costs. Labour, the cost of people, is in most businesses the largest single cost. So on paper, that is the place where it seems most logical to take cost out, which ultimately results in a stack of redundancy letters.
This builds on the core work of Drs. Drew Rae and Dave Provan and their colleagues who have done some superb academic work to point at this elephant in the room of health and safety: things done in the name of safety which have nothing to do with safety.
The first insight here, is that even if it seems like it is about you, it’s far more likely that it’s not about you. You are not redundant, the job which takes X amount of money from the business in return for your labour, that’s what’s redundant. Your pay is being redeployed.
Second, when we are looked at on paper as a cost, we are already in the firing line because we are a cost-centre, not a profit centre on the books. We do not generate income or have a close tie to revenue generation or cost-saving. That’s a shame, because we have the opportunity to directly save the company real money in terms of workers compensation costs, or the cost of training or equipment where we can get involved in those things. Money talks.
Insights from small scale redundancy
At the small scale, when it isn’t large swathes of people being made redundant, but just a few, maybe just you, we can uncover some different insights.
This is the situation which amplifies the ‘it’s not fair’, ‘this is bullshit’, reaction.
I have an old friend who has found themselves in this situation more than once. The story that they continue to tell themselves, is that the problem was out there – it was them, they are bastards, they just don’t get me, it’s not fair.
A hairdresser who you go to, and you aren’t happy with the small talk, won’t be losing sleep over you not coming back. A restaurant at which you didn’t like the food for the price, won’t miss you when you go down the street next time you are out for a meal. When you leave a job, and the reason is more than you want to leave, rather than you have a better next job lined up, you don’t lament that decision.
The restaurant, the hairdresser, the crappy job – the way to think about these decisions, is ‘it just wasn’t for you’.
The food might have been crap for the price. The chit chat during your cut and colour might have been not your cup of tea. The job or the boss or the culture might have sucked. All of those problems, those shortfalls in what reality should be, are still very real.
It wasn’t for you, you weren’t for them
Let’s spin this around.
You might suck at one or more aspects in your professional practice. My friend who is always pointing to something or someone else in situations like that, cannot entertain the prospect that maybe they should take a look at themselves. Was there anything about them factored into that redundancy or this job loss?
I realised that attention to detail was a problem for me early in my career in some occupational hygiene consulting, so I stopped doing that work. I wasn’t for it, it wasn’t for me.
I also sucked at conveying a simple compelling message to senior managers to make change, without the use of fear. I worked my ass off to improve that capacity, that skill, those results.
Being a loud and effusive person did not help when I interrupted people concentrating on very delicate tasks on a production line. I adjusted my behaviour for the context but I didn’t change that part of who I was and how I mostly showed up in the world.
When a redundancy comes around, channel this sentiment. You just weren’t for them. But that doesn’t take you off the hook for reflecting deeply on why – on the decision to improve the things that make you better, more effective, or leaving the things which should stay the same, that just meant you were a square peg in round hole. Sometimes we need to stay square. But there is almost always an opportunity to reshape ourselves as professionals, to do a better job.
Stay engaged, but not complacent
I’m not suggesting that you get all cold and calculated over your work, never emotionally engaging in a brand or a mission or a group of co-workers. Quite the opposite. Sew these things into the fabric of your being, and mourn them when you become disconnected from them.
Be anxious about surprises, about threats to your financial stability. Pay attention to signals that things aren’t going well, and actively manage what you can control in that situation. Plan for contingencies, including the R word. But not just for yourself, for your co-workers, for the future successor in your role, for your senior leaders and for the workers who you seek to serve. Don’t leave them in a pickle.
But the job, being made redundant from a job? Don’t waste negative energy on that bit.
You are not redundant. Your skills are not redundant. Your potential impact is not redundant. Your passion and commitment is not redundant. The world needs them now more than ever.
You just weren’t for them.
A final criticism of our aim to become redundant
Last bone to pick. I know of exactly zero people whose job has been made redundant because they reached their spruiked goal of health and safety being so well embedded in a business that they were no longer needed, useful – superfluous. Speaking of this need to anticipate change and be proactive, it is simply impossible for that kind of redundancy to happen, it makes no sense for us to talk about it like this.
I’ll give you four reasons why it makes no sense.
- Workforces, management, business activities, and their context are never static – these things are always changing, always in a state of flux. You are fooling yourself if you think you can embed safety approaches and systems and culture which will be fluid enough to continue to serve these over time. Impossible. Work, and health and safety, are infinite games. Saying ‘my goal is to make myself redundant’ suggests it is a finite game, which is dangerously wrong.
- The options available to us to manage risk and improve work are every changing, technology, systems, materials. Many of our legal systems create obligations to continually assess what is reasonably practicable for health and safety. This needs ongoing scanning of what’s out there, experimenting, evolving.
- We are in the business of change. Of enabling people and organisations to move from a current state to a new state, and to anticipate and respond to external change. Yet the status quo is a powerful thing, a force we constantly battle with. Even in the most successful change efforts, the need to fight off the inevitable slide back to the status quo is still there.
- Redundancy generally has a negative connotation, and I think it’s more negative than we realise. And when we say it like ‘my goal is to make myself redundant’, it kind of implies to whoever we are talking to, that the next unspoken part of the sentence is ‘when you dummies finally pick up your game and do what I tell you, everything will be good’. I don’t think whoever hears us say ‘my goal is to make myself redundant’ ever benefits from us saying it.
- If our job is to stop things going wrong, we only have a finite number of things to deal with. Sure, that has a theoretical redundancy at the end of that goal (don’t even get me started on zero). But if we flip it over, and make our job about improving work, that is an infinite game. Not only is that more appealing for a long career, improving work is actually where health and safety gains live, not in a focus on reducing bad things. This makes us a value-adding resource.
A new way to talk about an aspirational goal
How do we talk about ourselves then, if Andrew Barrett is suggesting that we remove the word redundancy from our vocabulary?
This is the way I explain it to the people I work with:“One of our shared goals, should be to build your capacity, so that over time the reason why you got me to start working with you, is not the same reason why you got me to stay. If we do this, then I will continue to support you to adapt to ever changing circumstances, as you shape your future instead of waiting for it to happen to you”
Building capacity. Supporting adaption. Shaping the future.
I think that’s a far more appropriate, and far more appealing line, than ‘my job is to make myself redundant’. Thanks so much for listening. Until next time, what’s the one thing you’ll do to take positive, effective, or rewarding action, to grow yourself, and drastically improve health and safety along the way? Seeya!
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