Those who wear sacking cloth

12th January 1996 at 00:00
In the week when colleges discover the worst about their budgets for next year, Neil Munro finds out how one college went about shedding staff last session

"I made some tea, walked out and then just went home where I had three stiff gins. That was my coping strategy."

Caroline Jones, director of the business faculty at Falkirk College, was describing her experience of having to sack two members of staff last summer, the consequence of a Scottish Office funding settlement which left Falkirk some 5 per cent adrift in its budget.

The college decided it had little option but to make 35 staff redundant, 10 per cent of whom were lecturers. Only two were compulsory redundancies, but both were from the business faculty which meant the responsibility fell to Ms Jones.

Her experience last session, rarely told from a management point of view, is likely to happen more often to FE employers this year as fear of redundancies mounts in the wake of the latest Scottish Office budget allocations, (page five).

Ms Jones says the episode was "upsetting". "You were having to listen to intimate details of people's lives. One male colleague was actually crying at one point and I found that difficult to handle. The coffee was never off the brew."

Ms Jones felt closer to the issues than most since she was a former chair of the EIS branch in West Lothian College. Rather than evoking sympathy for the union, however, her background has led her to be harshly critical of what she believes was the EIS's failure to offer constructive support to its members while redundancies were being discussed (Falkirk is one of only two colleges not to recognise the EIS for negotiating purposes.) Maxwell Sharp, Falkirk's vice-principal, points out that the lecturing unions were offered consultation over the criteria to be used in selecting staff for redundancy but they refused to have anything to do with it. The words "turkeys" and "Christmas" no doubt sprung to the unions' minds.

The college had set up a selection panel composed of a "neutral" director of another faculty, the personnel director, staff development officer, director of the faculty affected by redundancies, and the head of the school within it.

Since colleges were novices in such matters, Falkirk drew on the experience of outside bodies including employers who had "downsized" such as the Clydesdale Bank. It then decided on its selection criteria - the adaptability and flexibility of staff, their performance and capability, qualifications, attitude, quality, potential and (in the event of a tie-break) staff attendance records.

As Ms Jones's ill-luck would have it, the two compulsory redundancies were to be sought from two of her faculty's schools - office and information technology and hospitality and tourism. "The path to my door grew more and more crowded with people looking for reassurance," Ms Jones says.

The mood turned more tense, however, as the two schools were identified. "I was scared when I had to walk in and tell them," she says. "Scared of how I would handle something I had never done before and scared the staff might become aggressive.

"I decided none the less that I had to do it myself, but it is an experience I hope I don't have to go through again. People forget managements have emotions too and there are inner conflicts."

At the interview with the first "victim," a female lecturer in hospitality, Ms Jones says she felt "a bit like a doctor telling someone she had a terminal disease and I had to pace the floor a few times before sending for her. " After Ms Jones confirmed the redundancy, the lecturer rose from her seat and slammed the door as she left.

The next interview was even more draining and threatening, Ms Jones says, as she was confronted not just with the staff member but representatives from the two lecturer unions and a friend. "She was shaking. I was shaking. I had to interrupt the process to get an extra chair. The person I was about to make redundant sat there and let me go through the whole thing: I don't know whether that was worse than the slamming of the door."

By that stage, she claims, the EIS rep was "bouncing out of his chair. I couldn't get out of the room because the path to the door was blocked." It was after this that Ms Jones went home and reached for the bottle of gin. Her memory of the next day was a strange quietness in the college. "After months when my room was like Clapham Junction, nobody came to see me."

The final moment of truth came just when the colleges were breaking for the summer holidays. Ms Jones recalls walking along a corridor where she met a student who was crying: he was looking for the hospitality lecturer she had just sacked. "I took him into my room and made him some tea - I was very good at that by this stage. He told me how the lecturer concerned had helped him, developed him, found him a job. You can imagine how that made me feel. He then left and I just burst into tears."

The college's personnel committee, to whom one of the two lecturers appealed, delivered a mixed judgment on the management's handling of the affair. The committee found that, "although it has been proved there was a need for the redundancy in the particular curricular area, there were deficiencies in the procedures followed."

"We screwed up," Dr Sharp admitted. The personnel committee said there had been a lack of consultation with the individual concerned over matters such as suitable alternative employment, and also inadequate evidence submitted to support the decision. It was "a terrific blow after spending hours and days trying to get it right," Dr Sharp concludes.

Needless to say the Falkirk management hopes not to "screw up" next time - and Dr Sharp is gloomily confident there will be a next time. The "cancer" of the Scottish Office funding formula is not going to go away, he says. "We've got probably one year's remission but the same problem is going to occur again in 1997-98."

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