by Magnus Shaw
Writing in The Drum this week, Phil Haselhurst describes how his determination to climb the career ladder brought him to grief. He had a decent job with an agency he liked - good team, lots of experience, satisfying work. But, not unreasonably, he felt a move may accelerate his development and reveal new opportunities. So he accepted a position with a fairly well-known digital firm. As is often the case, there was a short break between the end of one contract and the start of the next - and it was during this hiatus everything went to hell. In an unexpected phone call, he was told the new outfit had gone into administration, looked unlikely to survive and the job offer was off the table. Catastrophe.
In shock, Phil rang round for professional advice (he had, after all, signed a contract with his potential employers). The answer was unanimous. His new contract wasn't valid until the job began and employment rights don't apply until two years' continuous employment had passed. In short, Phil was navigating a brown creek without the necessary canoeing equipment.
I'd like to give you a happy ending and tell you the digital agency was reprieved, or Phil's former company welcomed him back with open arms. I'd like to, but neither of these things happened. Phil Haselhurst is still badly adrift with bills to pay.
I've never been quite as badly burnt, but I've come close. In the early nineties I moved from Nottingham to London to work full-time at a broadcasting company for which I'd been freelancing. I rented a very small flat, let out my Nottingham house and moved to the capital. Within a month, the business was in trouble and six weeks after the job began, I was out on my ear as bankruptcy delivered my employer a fatal blow. A very similar scenario played out at a Midlands advertising agency ten years later. Fortunately I hadn't relocated this time.
Clearly, this horrible turn of events has always been a possibility. But now the economy, and therefore the jobs market, is shot to pieces, I'm sure it is becoming all too common. In many ways it is a more frustrating, depressing and stressful situation than straightforward redundancy. After all, you have voluntarily surrendered a (presumably) reliable job and through nothing more than a desire to progress, found yourself in dire straits. They say every cloud has a silver lining, but it's difficult to see where the consolation lies in such a disaster.
Which makes me wonder if anything can be done to avoid this mess. And whether a dismissive "Bad luck, chum" is really sufficient compensation.
When offered a new post, particularly one which appears to offer exciting possibilities, it's hard not to be swept along in the anticipation. But it's always worthwhile examining the status of the firm making the offer. It's perfectly acceptable to ask a new employer how they see their future, how many clients they have, which are the essential accounts and which are more minor concerns. If it transpires the entire operation depends on a single piece of business (and this isn't uncommon), it would be wise to be skeptical. Almost every account moves at some point. It may be in ten years time, but it could be tomorrow. Not only that, but even the biggest client can go bust.
Any company that's in difficulty - especially small, independent enterprises - is likely to have County Court Judgements filed against them by disgruntled creditors. These are a matter of public record and, although it seems rather cynical, this is another check one could make. Your prospective employer would never know you had done this and it may just save you from making a very bad move. I'd also suggest a quick Google search. Has the firm won lots of new business lately, or are there reports of substantial losses? Their accounts will be lodged at Company's House, what do they reveal? None of this is foolproof, but you may uncover some truths which will help you make an informed decision.
The legal situation is obviously deeply flawed. I'm sure Phil was dismayed to find he had no protection when his new contract failed. This needs addressing. A signed contract should be effective from the day of signature, providing some cover if the hiring party is unable to honour the agreement. And little or no employment rights for the first two years is simply disgraceful. Full entitlements must be in place once a three month probationary period is successfully completed. Surely this is a just and worthy cause for any ambitious MP to pursue.
Finally, and most importantly, the burden of responsibility must lie with the employer. An agency which is unsure of their viability is acting extremely recklessly when it continues to offer jobs. In Phil's case, I find it hard to believe his new "employers" were appointing him in good faith. They must have had substantial doubts about their ability to give him secure employment. To hide these was unfair, callous and dangerous.
I feel for Phil. His laudable pursuit of a progressive career and a better future has led him to nothing but disappointment and anxiety. But worse, he has been the victim of a system so flimsy, it allows this to happen to anyone changing jobs.
To my mind, that is unacceptable.
You can read Phil Haselhurst's piece here >
Magnus Shaw is a copywriter, blogger and consultant.
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