Barely a week has gone by in the past six months without a new report of redundancies at the large accountancy firms. Recruitment consultants have seen a slow but steady stream of newly-redundant accountants looking for work in an already depressed market. But while the concept of an accountant on the dole may be a new one, redundancy is not the end of the world and, as long as you follow the rules, need not be a handicap to your future career.
'Employees move around much more these days and employers recognise that,' points out David Hughes of Executive Connections. 'Both sides accept employment as a transient arrangement and redundancy as a fact of life.'
Even so, an accountant thrown into the recruitment market as a result of redundancy must be prepared to face a small amount of prejudice. 'You have to assume that any interviewer is suspicious of the word “redundant” and sees it as a euphemism for “underperforming” or “not very good”,' says Ross Hetherington, managing director of Hays Accountancy Personnel. 'It's very important that you are prepared for questions about your redundancy at an interview and have documentary evidence, if possible, to back your story up.' There are, of course, many reasons for redundancy, many of which are no reflection on the employee's abilities - the company may have had a 'last in, first out' policy, for instance, or had suffered an Andersen-style implosion. 'References become very important after redundancy,' says Hetherington, 'particularly someone at your previous company who would be prepared to speak to a prospective employer.'
Redundancy can be an enormous shock and in its aftermath it is very easy to make a wrong decision. You may decide to take time off to readjust, comforted by summer weather and a fat redundancy cheque. Explaining a break to a future employer, though, could be difficult. 'My advice would be to get back on the horse at once,' says Steve Carter, managing director of Robert Half International in the UK and Ireland. 'It is tempting to spend your redundancy money on time but it is also important to remember that the best time to look for a job is when you want one, not when you need one. The more you need the money, the weaker your bargaining position.'
That is not to say that you cannot take time off - David Hughes points out that all employers need is a good reason for a career break: 'If your personal circumstances allow you to, go travelling and come back in March next year when the market will have picked up again. The only thing to avoid is a prolonged period of unemployment without a good reason for it.'
Temporary contract work can be a tempting alternative for newlyredundant accountants as it allows them to earn money and experience while looking for their next permanent move. 'Contract work will help your confidence and it allows you to talk at an interview about what you are doing now,' says Ross Hetherington. 'And of course there's often a good chance of a permanent job at the end of it.' But Steve Carter warns that contract work should be approached thoughtfully. 'It can often lead to permanent work so you should choose your contract carefully - is it where you want to end up?' A temporary contract, he adds, restricts your job-hunting hours significantly but if you want to build a reputation you should be sure that you can commit fully to the contract work and complete the work to your best ability. 'The client will want their pound of flesh, remember,' he warns.
Another important point to remember is that contract work does not necessarily mean interim management. 'A lot of accountants are interested in interim management but the market is dominated by high-end specialists,' says Carter.
Most of all, it is important to keep your self-confidence high and a chat with a recruitment agent about your options will probably help. 'This isn't a long-term situation,' says Carter. 'People with good skills will always find work. And anyway, it's my experience that employers always lose more people than they budget for in a redundancy, so they often end up hiring again a few months later. The market will rebound.' Hetherington agrees: 'We're seeing this as a seasonal blip. We're very positive that recruitment will pick up again well before the end of the year.'
Be prepared for questions about your redundancy.
If your redundancy is the result of a specific event, have evidence ready to back your story up.
Get good written references from previous employers.
If possible, go to an interview armed with a contact name from your former employer who would be prepared to speak on your behalf.
Beware of lengthy unemployment without a reason. Consider contract work but choose your company carefully.
Don't hold out for your dream job.