By Paul Sheerin

You know that things are not good when the UK Chancellor dispenses with any attempt at political spin and polish to bluntly describe the “unprecedented” impact our economy faces, before adding the most obvious statement of 2020 that "not absolutely everybody can and will be able to go back to the job they had". No kidding.

It also confirmed something we already knew, a UK recession established after two consecutive quarters of decline for the first time in eleven years. It takes my own personal tally to six lifetime recessions and the third in my working life, and whilst I can’t remember anything of the first two, I can definitely agree with Mr Sunak that we are in something different here.

Much has been written about the delayed impact to unemployment from the job retention scheme, and the concern that we will see a progressively unvarnished view of that as the support reduces steadily from August to October. Unfortunately it’s certainly the case for our sector, as the conversations we have held almost exclusively turned to advice to companies from the largest to the smallest who are now having to take the toughest of decisions to ensure that their business can survive to sustain a level of employment, albeit less than the level we would all wish.

I shared my own recession count, and to that I’d add my personal redundancy count of twice, a figure I suspect is low for the career average a person might face in today’s labour market. Of those two the first carried no trauma, fitting luckily with a wider plan, the second very different and difficult in closing the Polaroid operation in Dumbarton after more than 50 years of operation, making my colleagues and myself redundant in the process. Polaroid had many redundancy programmes in its history as it shed an instant film and camera business that was no longer relevant to consumers in a digital age, each always with the goal of preserving the remaining viable business.

That theme of stabilising a business in unprecedented times makes it understandable that companies looking at an order book that has not substantially improved since lockdown eased, along with reducing furlough scheme support, will look to take cost out quickly to steady the ship. In that respect I have a note of caution.

A discussion point on a recent Scottish national tribunal user group suggested that our current condition could see a rise in employment tribunal claims, principally due to higher expected levels of unemployment leading to greater personal incentive to recover as much financial assistance as possible to see out tough times. Add to that a concern that due to the scale of downturn there will be companies conducting redundancies where the process required is unfamiliar to them in recent or in fact any times, and here arrives the caution. The object of such an unwelcome intervention is to financially protect the future of the business, whilst treating impacted people fairly and with respect, and employment law is very clear in the way that must be conducted. Getting it wrong will add financial risk at the time it is needed least.

The advice to companies is straightforward: pay absolute attention to your responsibility as an employer with regard to the law, and don’t let the time pressure to financially stabilise the business lead to throwing the baby out with the bathwater. Consultation on the impact of the proposed changes must be meaningful and with the correct groups depending on circumstances: Individuals, elected employee representatives or trade union representatives as appropriate. Ensure that your planning is thorough and allows adequate time for each step, avoiding the temptation to rush resulting in more haste less speed. One small error in the many stages of this activity will open the door to intense scrutiny of your entire process, along with the resultant risk that accompanies that.

Delivering change designed to preserve a business will enable survival, and potentially re-growth as demand returns, requiring a significant collective effort to deliver that. Colleagues will look at the way a company treated those who had to leave to meet that goal, and where they view that as fair and respectful it will undoubtedly aid the business recovery.

Paul Sheerin is chief executive of Scottish Engineering