If you’ve ever lost a job due to no real effort on your part, then you’ll understand the pain that goes with receiving a redundancy. You may see it coming, especially if your organisation is losing loads of money and whole departments are being mothballed, or it could come as a complete shock. As I have never been fired I can’t comment on that circumstance, but I do think being made redundant isn’t that far off, as at the time it felt a lot like I was being fired, but through no fault of my own.
An industry in flux
When it all happened, I was working full-time as a graphic designer in a mid-sized advertising agency. My very first job. One thing to know is that this industry is in a constant state of flux as clients move from one agency to another. The agencies themselves, from the ones I have seen, are expensive to run. There is rent. There are wages. There’s work perks. These include things like onsite baristas, free booze on Friday afternoons, funky office fit-outs, ping-pong tables, you name it. Of all them I would suggest the rent is the worst offender, but having an impressive office space in a great location tells potential clients that you mean business and you have your finger on the pulse of the industry. That, and the swathe of industry awards some overload the receptionist’s desk with.
Nothing about that is out of the ordinary or wrong, and I don’t have a beef with agencies for it. You just have to know going in that clients will come, and clients will go, and that also means the money will come, and the money will go. One thing that makes advertising equally exciting and awful are account pitches. A big, beautiful and lucrative account will become available and agencies scramble to pull together a pitch of their brilliant ideas and abilities in order to win over that amazing client and get them to sign on to that agency for the ride of their lives. Oh, the ideas we have! The markets we could open up! This will put your brand on the map, I’m telling you now! Do we have a brand refresh for you, or what!
New clients are very exciting. But losing them, not so much.
One agency I know locally lost their biggest one and it gutted their staff and profitability because they hadn’t diversified enough by having another large client to get them financially through a scenario like that. The other agency that won that account brought a lot of that staff over to their agency to work on the same client, as their experience, it seemed, was worth keeping. A thriving agency one day becomes a ’boutique’ agency overnight, with only half a dozen staff where they may have had thirty.
That’s the nature of the industry. Clients come and go. For many reasons. Many. One is the client just wants a change and a new identity for their brand so once their current contract with Agency A is up, they pitch it out for tender to get as many contenders as possible vying for their account to get the best. Agency A can pitch for that account to renew the relationship, but there is also the likely chance that Agency B with their fresh eyes and enthusiasm will win out. Makes sense, and keeps the industry on its creative toes. But for the little guy, it can mean redundancy.
Welcome to your redundancy
And that’s exactly what happened to me. A longstanding client, one that brought in about a quarter of the workflow into the studio, put their account up for tender. The sneaky thing was that our agency had just put together a rebrand for them and when we pitched and lost that account, that client took that new branding with them to the new agency and had them roll out the new look and feel. Sneaky!
But I didn’t care so much about that. What I did care about was that I suspected one of us designers was going to lose their job, because I knew that client brought in a lot of $$$. What was surprising was that it was me. I was brought into the boss’ office, with the head designer for support, and told the bad news. I think I surprised them with my response, I was kinda positive about it and saw it as a great opportunity to change direction. I had helped my Dad delve into the stock image industry and thought I’d like to do the same. I saved my cry for after that meeting as the emotion and reality of losing my job hit me like a bus.
I have to say though, as painful as it was to lose my job and also have to work the four week’s notice (if I decided to leave it meant only getting my annual leave payout), my redundancy was a blessing. I had felt for a few months that it was time to leave but I was too scared to quit my job, it was my first one and it seemed the only way to get me out was to force me out. Luckily! I am so glad I left. I had worked there for over two years and it had served its purpose to launch my career. Never stay at a job out of fear of the unknown. It’s just not worth it. If you don’t leave on your own terms, you may be forced to when you’re not ready.
Stock imagery is a topic that I won’t get into here, but I will just say that it was fun to get into but unfortunately I had come in a few years too late and it wasn’t providing me with the kind of income that I would like, a.k.a. full time income. I was fighting a very uphill battle, one that would last only a few months.
I needed money. I needed to support myself. Only God knows how I was able to get through that time, my parents couldn’t afford to support me, but somehow at least my car payments were always paid. Always. Dunno how. But besides that, I had nothing.
A real low came when in desperation I handed my resume in to a local gift shop that I went to all the time. I was obviously not suited for a job in retail but I didn’t know what else to do. What an awkward moment it is when even as you hand the resume over you know it’s not going to happen. It’s just embarrassing for everyone involved.
Then came the dreaded thought. The dole. Should I apply for unemployment benefits? I felt sick at the thought but had to seriously consider it. I’m not saying that government help and unemployment benefits are wrong, just that I resented the need. I’ve always paid my way, I’ve never needed a handout. I’ve helped my parents out financially and they’ve repaid the favour, but never, ever, had I ever had the need for significant financial support even though my life hasn’t been one of affluence. The conversation I had with the Centrelink operator about my financial situation to gauge my candidacy was, shall we say, about as fun and shameful as being caught in a public place after forgetting to wear clothes. It was awful. I felt disempowered, worthless, and a total failure. The moment I had to explain that I literally had like four dollars in my bank account was horrible, especially the sound of surprise from the operator, like I should have had this conversation months before.
Then came the worst and most awful piece of intelligence about qualifying for the dole. The Separation Certificate. The piece of paper signed by your ex-boss that says you have severed ties.
I never got one. I didn’t think I would have needed one when I left my last job, I didn’t even know that they existed. In theory I should have gone onto the dole the first week out, right? Receive government help while I look for work? Of course, it makes sense, and it’s totally a fine thing to do if you need it.
But I didn’t want to need it.
But if I wanted to qualify for the dole I would have to go back to my old boss, months and months later, and get him to sign a piece of paper.
What a horrible prospect.
I could barely scrape together enough money for a burger, a tank of petrol, anything. My friends took me out for a dinner and paid for me and while it was the sweetest, most generous and wonderful thing and I applaud their hearts of generosity, every fibre of my being was appalled. I was embarrassed. It was a very touching thing for them to do and I will always speak blessings on their heads for it but I was ashamed.
Ashamed that I didn’t have any money. That my friends knew it. That I hadn’t been able to create success outside of the industry that at the time, I loathed.
I went walking, as I often do, to think and pray. I thought about swallowing my pride and just going back to my ex-boss and getting one simple little signature from him. So simple. Pride is dangerous, I knew this. Pride will get you into trouble if you let it stall your progress in life. I didn’t want this to happen to me so I was willing to be ashamed and without my pride in order to survive.
Going back to my ex-boss would have been admitting defeat. To let him know, all that time later, that I didn’t have what it took to make it outside of his company. The thought of doing that was unacceptable. On that walk I remembered something else. One very important quality that I realised I wanted back and suddenly refused to let diminish any more.
I remembered my dignity.
This wasn’t pride, this was dignity.
I had lost it, and wanted back what ground I had conceded.
The Certificate? I refused to do it. Flat out. No way. Never was I going to do something so undignified. The chance for that was way back on my last day of work, that’s when I should have gotten my ex-boss’ signature on that form but not now. It was too late, I was on my own. I’m wasn’t going to let him know that I was in need, maybe that sounds like pride but it felt more like self-worth. I didn’t need a handout even though on paper I did. I was going to guts it out and get back to work.
Pull yourself together
A challenging low isn’t the kind of thing you’d want to face, not when the stakes are high and so are the bills. There’s a pressure point where you must decide what you’re made of, decide what matters to you and decide what you’re going to do about it. I may not have control over everything but there was a heck of a lot I did have control over and I had the power to move forward, so I chose to identify what those things were.
No, I didn’t have any money to support myself but I made darn sure my head was in the right space so I could make the right decisions about how to fix it. I discovered that I had a number of choices open to me, to think that there were none was a lie that comes as an appendage to self-pity. It dresses itself up in a way that has you thinking you’re worthless and without options, because you have no talent or skills to offer anybody. Why on earth would you languish in a place like that? What a buzz-kill. And what a way to keep you from achieving anything. Forget that panic about the future and you’ll discover the things you can do. They are there. Look for them. They are little things, like letting go of self-pity. Mine was to pull myself together and get back to work. I was a good graphic designer and I had to remind myself I did enjoy it, hard work is just a part of life so get used to it! It became the career I decided to go with because I just knew I could do it. It made sense and even though it was a massive challenge for me, deep down I had to acknowledge it was my path.
I’m not sure how I survived, it is a bit of a blur, but I made it through that time. I decided to do temp work as a designer, and that led me eventually to another full-time role. A challenge for an introvert like me especially one in their mid-twenties with only one full-time job under their belt, but doing temp work in-between full-time gigs has been one of the best things I’ve ever done in my design career, getting such varied experience in lots of different workplaces was so good for my skills.
I made it out of the hole. I remembered myself, my drive, my ambition, my self-reliance. Deep down, I just knew that a handout wasn’t the right path. It was an ill-fitting feeling that comes with realising what the wrong thing to do would be, then making that decision to not do it is the most freeing feeling in the world and you walk a little taller, even though your physical circumstances haven’t changed. In those freeing moment the sun feels a little warmer, the colours a little more vibrant, the air a little fresher. Try it sometime and see if I’m not right.
It’s all about the battle of the mind and I felt powerless, when in reality I had all the power in the world. Power to make my own way in the world. That’s just how I’m built. It’s a fit for me. The stretch is where I thrive. The handout is where I languish.
It took a while, but eventually I realised I was not my redundancy.