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You Can Help Stop the Madness

June 1, 1996
Related Topics: Downsizing, Featured Article
Quick—identify the last time that a human resources issue was at the center of a national social and political debate. It hasn’t happened in a long time, but it’s happening now. On one side are politicians, union leaders, the media and a majority of John Q. Public, who characterize recent downsizings as nothing more than corporate cruelty at its most arbitrary and debilitating.

On the other side are executives, who argue that downsizings are necessary to keep America competitive, and the power brokers on Wall Street, who greet each fresh announcement with jumps in stock prices. In the middle somewhere—as usual—are reality and the HR profession.

Downsizing, even on a massive scale, is hardly new. So why the uproar now? Why was Pat Buchanan able to leverage fear and anger about lost jobs into a surprising hot streak during the Republican primary race? Why is a national news magazine running photos of high-profile CEOs on its cover and labeling them corporate killers? And why is the comic strip protagonist Mike Doonesbury—once a commune dweller—now wondering aloud whether he can execute mass firings by e-mail?

The answers are complex. To begin with, most experts believe that the current economy, in general, is healthy. This is a marked contrast to the massive downsizings that most people remember, which happened during a recession. This time the public believes that people are being let go in spite of, and not because of, the economy. This time, too, the downsizings have affected far more white-collar (and often managerial) jobs than ever before. That sting has been intensified by the widely held belief that most of those people have been unable to find meaningful or well-paying new jobs. And finally, many downsizings this time have been followed by news of record bonuses or salaries to CEOs or others, reinforcing the belief that the rich are getting richer at the expense of the average citizen.

The dialogue about all these issues has been driven by emotions as much as intellect. There has been a lot of talk about plunging morale, overworked employees and the economic pressures prompting more employers to run lean and, yes, mean.

Despite the overblown debate, however, some ideas have been all but ignored. First, not enough has been made of the fact that, more often than not, downsizings do not yield the expected business results. Usually, cutting jobs doesn’t even make good business sense.

Given that, too little has been said about the alternatives to downsizing. That’s where we come in. We work hard to recognize business realities, but as a group we see the glass as half-full much more often than we see it half-empty.

In the early stages of the AIDS epidemic we noted that you could lead by creating compassionate policies and by teaching employees. After the Los Angeles riots, we developed a grant program to fund efforts to break down the barriers to employment that were fomenting the anger in our cities. Each time, many of you took the lead and made a difference.

Some downsizings are no doubt necessary, but job loss on the epic scale of recent months is not. It’s time to stop the madness, and you can help do so. Our cover story includes several workable, proven options to downsizing. Take the lead in finding a better way to do business and to build the workforce of the future. Is there a better way to prove HR’s value?

Personnel Journal, June 1996, Vol. 75, No. 6, p. 4.

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