How To Be Assertive When You’re Made Redundant

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The redundancy process is fraught with anxiety and stress. If you’re overwhelmed with emotion, it’s difficult to efficiently assert yourself.

We’ll show you how to embrace difficult emotions, build resilience, communicate logically and be assertive without feeling guilty, so you leave the redundancy process on your terms.

Emotional assertiveness

When your livelihood and stability is threatened, it triggers extremely distressing emotions.

That’s not unusual – you’re biologically disposed to defend yourself against danger, in any form, even if you’re in a professional environment.

The stress of redundancy tells your body it’s in danger and releases hormones to help you to react quickly to survive. It sends you into fight or flight.

What is fight or flight?

You can’t escape the stressful meetings, emails and interviews that go hand-in-hand with redundancy.

You can’t reason with the effects of stress, either.

Whenever you’re confronted by a stressful situation, whether it’s at work or otherwise, your body experiences ‘fight or flight’.

The fight or flight response causes your heart to pound, your intake of breath to be sharper and for your blood pressure to rise. You may experience vertigo and feel dizzy, or you may become very angry or tearful.

Fight or flight is controlled by the emotional centre of the brain, the Amygdala. At 560 million years old, it’s the oldest part of your brain – it wasn’t wired to handle the professional, emotional complexity of redundancy.

Yet, it’s the first on the scene and dictating what happens when you’re confronted by stress.

Take back control

When you’re made redundant, the logical part of your brain is smothered by hormones released in fight or flight.

If you can delay important conversations until you feel calmer, it gives you a level playing field to negotiate.

“The problem is that our emotional brain is quicker than our logical brain – 80,000 times faster,” explains our Head of Leadership and Management, Andrew Wallbridge. “It hijacks everything that we do.”

Unless you can be disciplined and curb your instincts, your primal survival impulses are about to drive your professional decisions.

Strike a balance between emotional reaction and logical response

“Learning to ignore the emotional brain and access your logical response is possible with rehearsal,” explains Andrew “but it’s an exercise in self-control.”

“Biting your tongue now gives you power, so you can respond carefully when the logical response kicks in around 200 milliseconds later. But it will feel like an eternity – the red mist will rise and you’ll get brain fog.

“If you snap and speak using only your emotional brain, you’ll be cheeky, obnoxious or flippant. What you need to be is logical, reasonable and structured.”

But that’s not to say your logical response to redundancy can’t draw on your emotions.

“You can be assertive about your emotions. It’s okay to say, ‘I felt betrayed’, or ‘the company response annoyed me’. Notice that it’s removed – you’re not upset now, but you were in the past, even if it was just a few seconds in the past.

“Putting some time and space between you and your difficult emotions allows you to wear your heart on your sleeve, carefully. It’s considered and businesslike.”

Sharing how you felt does two things:

  1. It gives your employer the opportunity to alter their approach in a way that suits you and to operate with more empathy and patience, for example adjourning for a break
  2. It gives you time to organise your thoughts, think about what you need to know and decide what to do next

If they grant you a break, you should go and get some air – a brisk walk will help you to escape stress, calm your anxiety and reduce adrenaline. You’ll get your logical decision making back and it’ll be easier to navigate the tricky conversations on the horizon.

Before you go back in the room, (or continue on a video call, or through email), think for just a short while about what you really want:

  • Would you like to keep your job?: The answer to this question determines how much vigour and energy you’ll put into the fight
  • What severance are you entitled to?: This gives you a benchmark to negotiate from, so you won’t accept an unfair amount
  • Would you like references?: You may want to maintain the relationship with certain staff members that aren’t connected to the redundancy process
  • Do you need certificates for the training you’ve completed?: You’ll need to ask specifically for these and to see your PDP, but it’ll depend on the goodwill of your employer. We’ll show you how to ask for what you want later on.
  • Would you like copies of specific emails that recognise your hard work, or internal awards you’ve won?: Great for your confidence, nice for your personal achievements file but also evidence for future job applications

What happens if you listen to the emotional brain?

“We’re more biased towards the emotional brain,” explains Andrew. “Think of the age-old image of an angel and a devil on either shoulder. The Amygdala has both and unfortunately, we tend to listen to the devil.”

If you listen to the emotional brain, ancient primal emotions run the show for a short time. But, you’re only human and your employer will be more prepared for tears and tantrums than a cool customer.

Crying at work

It may bring you to tears. Redundancy is a triple whammy of grief, tragedy and emergency that sends your body and brain into survival meltdown.

It’s nothing to be ashamed of and it’s common. A survey by Monster found that 8 in 10 people have cried at work.

Weeping in the privacy of your own home is one thing, but what about in a one-to-one meeting, or when you’re cleaning out your desk?

There’s no need to be embarrassed – your employer is aware they’re putting you in an upsetting situation and will have anticipated how you’ll react.

Feeling angry at work

You might not like the situation, but you have to accept what’s happening and respect the person delivering the news – they’re likely only the messenger.

Redundancies are a business decision. It’s not the same as getting the sack because you’ve performed poorly. If the red mist rises, remind yourself of that.

Anything you do in anger at work won’t reflect well on you when the atmosphere diffuses, so do all you can to keep a cool head.

Active listening

Thanks to fight or flight, you might get stuck on the overriding message (‘you’re at risk of redundancy’) but miss the important details (‘this is what’s happening next’).

You can lift some principles from Active Listening to help you absorb what’s being said.

Active listening partly encourages you to engage positively using Egan’s SOLER method. It’s a non-verbal counselling approach which is used to reassure the person you’re listening to that they’re being heard – nodding and maintaining eye contact are two examples.

But, it also describes how you can be an active part of the conversation by asking relevant open questions (even if it means they repeat what’s already been said) and asking for clarification if any aspect of the process is unclear.

However, it might be difficult to speak up in the heat of the moment for several reasons:

  1. Your employer has controlled how they deliver the news to limit the risk of an aggressive reception
  2. You feel too overwhelmed to find the right words or the right opportunity to speak

You need to pick your moments to speak and find the confidence to throw your voice into the arena.

Should you be assertive with your employer?

When you’re initially told about redundancy, you are at a communication disadvantage because:

  • You haven’t been able to prepare with a script and it’s quite possible your employer has rehearsed every word
  • You’re surprised, whereas your employer is well informed

But just because you’re at a disadvantage doesn’t exclude you from the redundancy conversation.

To get a useful response from your employer you must ask targeted questions, but will it seem like you’re being challenging, or will they punish you for being provocative?

“When you’re assertive at work, the emotional brain could interfere again,” explains Andrew. “You’ll feel like, ‘I shouldn’t have said that’, as if you’re being unfair or mean. But actually you’re being logical and clear by saying exactly what you need.”

You shouldn’t be scared to ask for what you need, whether that’s certificates, references, careers advice or even a fairer severance.

Your employer, if prepared and following a redundancy process, should have a full grasp of the facts, support from HR, have followed the process and company policy. Nothing you ask will surprise them.

Forget about being difficult – go for it, find out what you need to know.

How to ask difficult questions

How you ask for what you need will determine the clarity of the response, so let’s look at different types of question you can ask when you’re made redundant.

Open questions

Open questions normally start with who, where, what, why, when or how. If you ask an open question, whoever is hosting the meeting has free reign to speak broadly about the redundancy process.

To keep them focused, use a qualifier. For example, ‘can you briefly tell me why the company is making redundancies? What will the redundancies achieve?’.

Chances are, your employer will cover the broader company information in their opening speech. If your job specifically is at risk, you’ll want to know more about how it’ll impact you personally. It’s time to ask some reflective, probing questions.

Probing questions

To get to the point and to retrieve vital information about the process, pay, lost benefits (like bonuses, pension, or shares) and notice period, use specific questions to find out how their redundancies impact you:

  • Why is my role specifically at risk?
  • Who is making the final decision about my role?
  • What can I do to try and save my job?
  • Who will be responsible for my duties?
  • What are the alternatives to redundancy?
  • What notice are you giving me?
  • What will be included in my last paycheck
  • When is my last payday?
  • What is the redundancy package?
  • Who can give me access to my PDP and training certificates?
  • Who can I speak to about transferring my pension?

If you feel that your employer’s redundancy process is unclear, or you feel clueless about how it applies to you, you’re fully within your rights to ask ‘How does that apply to me?’

Unpacking complicated language

In following the letter of the law, your employer might use complicated legal-ease to explain the situation. That type of language is at worst intimidating but often cryptic and confusing. It’s disarming if your usually very friendly HR rep starts reciting the employments rights act – how can you respond to that?

If it makes you feel threatened, it’ll activate your emotional brain so you need to keep calm and wait for your second response.

If you need clarification in plain-speak, prompt them to describe their thoughts in a different way:

  • What do you mean by that?
  • Could you give me an example?
  • How will this affect me and my role?

Phrases to avoid

With adrenaline directing your behaviour and your employer speaking in an uncomfortable and cryptic way, it might derail your attempts to get to the truth.

You may start asking questions a bit like this as a reaction to their approach, tone, or body language:

  • So you admit that I’m not getting my full notice?
  • You’re not suggesting that I’m losing my bonus, are you?

These are leading questions which are charged with ‘gotchas!’ and disbelief.

If you feel threatened, or like they’re treating you unfairly, that will lure your angry questions out into the open. It could even happen because they won’t make eye contact with you

Return to your probing questions, for example, ‘why have you chosen to shorten my notice period?’ Or, a more simple open question, ‘why have you chosen to do that?’

If they’re being unhelpful, secretive or evasive or you can’t keep your feelings under wraps, sit back. For the moment, the best thing you can do is listen and follow up in writing later.

If you can get a handle on the facts, however unfair they are, it gives you a sturdy ground to challenge the decision whether that’s internally or through an unfair dismissal tribunal.

Speak confidently in a group

Usually, the conversation surrounding your redundancy will happen one-to-one but, it’s down to your employer’s discretion. You could be paired up with another colleague, or they might break the news to a larger group.

Again, you’re at a disadvantage because you don’t have the time to sense check your feelings and thoughts with your peers before you publicly air them.

There might be a lot of anger and distress in the room. People speaking over one another. Your employer could shout over them. Or there might be silence. It’s an intimidating atmosphere.

There’s jeopardy if your voice is singled out. It goes back to our caveman days – we just feel safer hiding in our tribe. You might feel like you’re sticking your neck out unnecessarily, or something you say could be used as an excuse to dismiss you and keep others.

But your voice is pivotal in this conversation. It’s your job and your interests that you want to protect. Your point of view is no less valid than anyone else’s.

By taking action and speaking just once, you’ll feel more confident to do it again. The first question will be the hardest to ask, so you could start with an open question before probing it.

You don’t have to speak your mind in a rush. Write down your questions as your employer is speaking and save them until the end of the meeting. Hopefully, your employer will open up the floor to hear from you. If not, your first question is: ‘When can we ask questions?’

Even if you have a lot to say, you can still be an advocate for other people in the room. If their hands are raised, you could say something like ‘I can see there are other concerns to be discussed, so I’ll be brief with my remaining thoughts.’

If there’s just two of you and your colleague is very quiet, you could direct a question to them: ‘Is there anything I’ve missed?’

Assertiveness in email

Whether you ask questions in person or not, it’s best to put your concerns down in writing and send them officially for a response.

To speak effectively in a redundancy email, present your thoughts in concise sentences and don’t allow your narrative to be clouded by how you’re feeling.

  1. Put your purpose as the subject line
  2. Within the email, reiterate its purpose in a polite, short sentence. You don’t need to explain why you need the information, only that you need it
  3. In a numbered list, ask your probing questions

The way you format your email should encourage a similarly transparent and uncluttered response, which will be easier for you to understand and follow. It may look like this:

Subject line: Questions about my role during the redundancy consultation

Dear HR,

Following our meeting earlier today, I was hoping to get some clarity around our redundancy process and how it applies to my role, which has been identified as at risk.

  1. How did you conclude that I should be at risk?
  2. What was your selection process?
  3. What alternatives to redundancy are being considered?
  4. When are you due to announce who will be made redundant?
  5. Will there be a re-interviewing process?
  6. Who will be responsible for my duties during the consultation period?

Thank you in advance,

Appeal redundancy and collate assertive evidence

Your employer will have an appeals process so you can contest your redundancy.

ACAS advises that if your employer doesn’t have an appeals process, you should write to them and explain officially why their decision is unfair or unjustified.

Whether you go through the official channels, or it’s a free-form email or letter, use this as an opportunity to focus on all the good you did while in their employment.

It’s time to be assertive about your achievements. For most people, selling yourself is a really uncomfortable thing to do. But, even if it doesn’t reverse their decision, it will give you some confidence back and you’ll be more prepared for the next round of job interviews.

  • List every project you worked on for your company. What was the return on investment, or outcomes of those projects?
  • Have you improved processes to become more lean or efficient? What was the saving?
  • Did you win awards or accolades, individually or as a team?
  • Did you ever act as a spokesperson for your company? Did you improve its reputation?
  • If in sales, how many clients did you on board and what was their value?
  • Did you do complete any training courses? How did they benefit the business?
  • Were you responsible for training staff? Can you name some success stories?
  • Who trained you and how much corporate memory would be lost if you were to exit the business?

As in your emails, set out your thoughts clearly in a bullet point or numbered list.

These are all achievements to be celebrated. If your employer still can’t see your value, wear your achievements with pride. Put them on LinkedIn, head up your CV with them and tell every recruiter who will listen about the value you brought to your last company.

It’s your determination to be successful that defines who you are, not the employer that let you go.

How to negotiate your severance package

If you accept your severance package, you won’t usually be able to take your employer to an employment tribunal later down the line. Before you accept, make sure you’re happy the package is reflective of your notice period, bonuses, shares, holiday and even commission before you sign on the dotted line.

If your package is, in your view, unfair, being assertive can help you to resolve the problem without it needing to go to tribunal.

#1 Clarify your reasons for negotiating

Yes, you’re owed it for the work and service you’ve already committed. But, the severance will also protect your finances in the short-term, affording you the flexibility to find the right next role. Be fueled by that reason, name it aloud, and stay steelily determined.

#2 Make sure you speak to the right person

If your redundancy is being handled exclusively by a junior member of the HR team, they aren’t in a powerful enough position to re-package your severance. Be assertive and say that to the junior member of team – it’s not mean, it’s clear: ‘I need to speak to the person who has the jurisdiction to make these decisions.’

Get the contact details of the head of HR, or one of the senior management team (if they’re connected with the redundancy process) and ask the right person to get the job done.

#3 Have the facts to hand

Earlier we outlined how to focus on your achievements to appeal a redundancy decision, but negotiating your severance is also a critical moment to wheel out that list of accomplishments and quantify how much value you brought to the business.

Again, tell your emotional brain to pipe down – it’s not boasting, or big-headed. These are factual statements about what value you’ve brought to the business. It’s logical that you should receive fair compensation for your services so be assertive.

#4 Use all communication channels

If an email remains unanswered, call in. Or even better, schedule a video call.

Write yourself a script with the bullet points of what you want. Be polite, but direct and use active listening to reassure them you’re paying attention.

Maintain eye contact and keep reminding them of your purpose – the severance should reflect your service, but also keep you financially secure in the here and now.

#6 Ask for certificates, documentation and evidence of other achievements

You need to be brave enough to ask, so dig deep and find the courage. The worst they can say is ‘no’.

If you’re struggling to find the words, you could talk about why you want them:

  • ‘I worked really hard to achieve the qualification and would like a copy of the certificate as a memento of my achievement.’ If they won’t give you a copy, you can always contact the training provider who delivered the course.
  • ‘I’d like to have a copy of my PDP so I can grow my career and strengthen our industry.’
  • ‘The email from my manager reminds me of how well our team worked together. I’d like to have a copy to remind me of how well that project was managed.’ You can help make the request easier by supplying the subject line and which folder the email was kept in.

How to communicate with an aggressive employer

Try not to worry about an unexpected sting in the tail. Redundancies are a business decision, not a personal punishment. You should receive a fair severance package and be treated fairly unless your company has gone into liquidation and there are no funds coming into the company.

All this advice is golden if your employer is reasonable and honest.

As if losing your job wasn’t hard enough, there are some unpleasant tactics that are an unfortunate by-product of change culture.

if you’ve been unfairly selected for redundancy it can lead to other problems, like hostility, harassment, passive-aggressiveness, ghosting and gaslighting, as you start to challenge it.

All ignite your emotional brain, which makes navigating these horrible confrontations even more fraught and complicated.

In these situations, your voice alone often isn’t enough because they are determined to silence you. You’ll be shouting into the wind and you need help.

You need support and sometimes, official representation, so your message lands loud and clear, so you can protect and preserve your self-worth and confidence.

Employment tribunals

An employment tribunal will comb through your employer’s redundancy process to see if your dismissal was by the book and fair. Citizen’s Advice explains more about the process in its guide.

Before you get to the tribunal, you’ll instruct a solicitor to speak for you. If you contacted your employer with questions over email or letter, and appealed the decision in writing, your solicitor will be able to communicate your point of view. But you will usually need to present evidence and answer some questions.

Picture of Andrew Wallbridge
Andrew Wallbridge
Andrew is TSW's Head of Leadership & Management. He’s coached and mentored leaders and the senior management teams at international brands.
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