Just now I agreed to take a voluntary pay cut of 10 percent.
I can't afford it.
The decision was not, of course, in any real sense, "voluntary." The only sense in which is was voluntary was that I allowed the company to extract the money from me without the hassle and expense of resorting to legal measures.
Make no mistake, my employer will cut by ten percent the pay of all employees in the UK office, whether we volunteer for the pay cut or not. They claim that they do not know what they will do. I don't believe them.
My employer is a privately-held US-based magazine publishing company. They do not reveal financial figures, even to employees. The company is heavily exposed to the automotive and advertising industries and to the North American market. I don't think anyone questions their claims that advertising revenues have fallen sharply over the last six months.
Back in February, the company closed three magazines, all of which had been sustaining losses for some years. One of them was based in the London office where I work. We lost a dozen or so people pretty much overnight.
In March, HR staff went into each office and looked at employment counts and the headcount. Pretty much every office lost a few people. In mid-March the US parent announced a pay cut of 10 percent for all US-based employees. US employment law offers little protection to employees in comparison with UK or German employment law, so that cut went through unchallenged.
The following day, all staff in the UK office were offered the opportunity voluntarily to accept a 10 percent pay cut. A process of consultation began.
That happened to be the day I closed the magazine, so I was under some pressure to ensure the pages were free from mistakes and do all the other stuff that goes with producing a magazine.
I did not devote much thought or planning to the proposed pay cut. I took it that the consultation was a real consultation and if I simply told them, 'no' that would be the end of it.
Five stages of grief
They say that people going through an emotional crisis go through five stages. Denial is the first of these stages. I guess that's where I was in those first couple of days.
Next day I had to prepare for a long overseas trip, so I pushed the pay cut to one side of my mind and concentrated on the here and now: what to take, how to prepare for the visit; who I was suppose to see and when.
Next day (a Saturday) I flew out to Singapore, arriving early on Sunday morning. What with time zones and suchlike, I was not really thinking about the pay cut, so focussed on the meetings scheduled for the following few days.
As it happens, I worked very hard over the following week, starting at 8am and finishing at 8pm, then working in my room until 10pm to 11pm. I saw nothing of Singapore, beyond an hotel room, the metro system and an exhibition centre.
The second stage of grief is anger.
During that week I thought a bit about the company's proposal; how hard I was working on my own time and how much I give to the company over and above my contractual requirements. I became angry and resentful about how the company was abusing its position. I may have sent a few angry emails to the HR staff at my company.
After anger comes negotiation.
In my anger I tried writing a note which highlighted my commitment to the company and the extent of my efforts to save the company money and deliver outstanding value. I suggested flexible working; I proposed home-working; offered to extend my contractual hours rather than cutting pay. I proposed that with the pay cut, the hours are cut as well. I proposed a company-wide ban on business-class travel; a ban on employees using company cash to fund their sports club memberships. I wrote a string of suggestions, and sent them to the company.
The company totally ignored this exercise in creative thinking.
When negotiation does not work, depression sets in.
By this time, I had finished my period of working, and was on holiday with the rest of my family. I was not good. I lost sleep; I worried about the money; I thought through the various options open to me and then worked out how the company was thinking. I used the web to explore UK employment law.
First, neither employer nor employee can make unilateral changes to a contract of employment. This makes sense. If I, as the employee, want a pay rise or to cut my hours, I can't do that without agreement from my employer. Equally, they can't extend my hours or cut my pay without first getting my agreement. So the contract can be changed in any way, but only if both sides agree.
Where the employer wants to impose a change in contracts, they may not, unless there is a clear business reason. This is the loophole which I expect my employers to use. If the business reason is clear, then they are allowed to cancel my current contract -- effectively sacking me -- and then re-write it in any way they please, and then ask me to sign the new contract. I can either agree to the new terms or refuse, and thus lose my job. I guess I might be able to sue them for unfair dismissal or some other breach of employment law. However if they can prove they followed the rules, my chances of winning are slim.
And besides, in the current climate, who wants to lose their job to win a moral point?
I asked them if they have sufficient business reason to cancel contracts and re-write them. They pointed to a 30 percent decline in revenues, with revenues for the year projected at 50 percent.
Switching perspective for a moment, I started to look at the issue from the employer's point of view. First, their actions in the US proved beyond any doubt that they are serious about pushing this pay cut through. I am convinced that by the end of the process, all staff will be paid (at least) 10 percent less than last year. If the law allowed them unilaterally to cut UK pay, then they would have done that. This consultation process is only to meet UK employment laws. I cannot imagine for a moment that the company has any intention of modifying its behaviour or decisions as a result of the consultation process.
Thus the choice seems to between sucking it up and accepting their proposal on the one hand. The other hand holds the prospect of having my contract of employment figuratively torn up and re-written with unspecified penalties.
Did I mention that in 20 years of employment with this company I have seen them repeatedly act ruthlessly toward their employees?
So my question is whether the refuseniks will be penalised with (for example) a 15 percent pay cut or some other draconian changes to their contracts. In response, the company helpfully declines to answer, saying that they do not know what they will do.
Faced with the option of cancelling and re-writing contracts, my boss claims that any new contracts would only have a 10 percent cut. There again, he said that no-one would be sacked for refusing to agree to the proposal, but then declined to put that assertion in writing.
This answer is given on legal advice. We, the employees must not face any coercion when faced with the proposal. The decision to accept the pay cut must be of our own free will, untrammeled by concerns about job security, or threats of punitive cuts in employment conditions.
To that extent, the law which is supposed to protect employees in fact makes life more difficult. I have repeatedly asked what will be the downside to declining the proposal, and repeatedly been told that they cannot answer my question.
Fear. It's not one of the steps on path of grief, but it is a classic management techniques of bullies and totalitarian regimes.
Instead of simply being hit with a pay cut which I cannot afford, I am forced into voluntarily accepting the cut, for fear of something worse happening.
Once more, I look from the company's perspective. My employer wants this to go through. Will they reward those who agree to the cut, will they penalise those who don't? None of us knows, and the company refuses to give any clues. All I do know is that my most junior employee is on a wage which barely allows him to live in London. He is likely to turn down the proposal, on the grounds that he, truthfully, cannot afford to take the cut and also buy food.
I dread to think how he will cope if my oh-so-generous employers decide to slash his pay by 15 percent, 'pour encourager les autres.' I suspect he will have to quit and claim constructive dismissal.
So, to avoid worse consequences, which may not be spelled out under UK law, I have agreed to cut my pay. I deeply resent my employer; my boss and the company.
The fifth stage of grief? Acceptance. I don't think I'm there yet.
Goodwill? I have none left.