Lay off the Layoffs

By Pfeffer, Jeffrey | Newsweek, February 15, 2010 | Go to article overview

Lay off the Layoffs


Pfeffer, Jeffrey, Newsweek


Byline: Jeffrey Pfeffer

Our overreliance on downsizing is killing workers, the economy--and even the bottom line.

On Sept. 12, 2001, there were no commercial flights in the United States. It was uncertain when airlines would be permitted to start flying again--or how many customers would be on them. Airlines faced not only the tragedy of 9/11 but the fact that economy was entering a recession. So almost immediately, all the U.S. airlines, save one, did what so many U.S. corporations are particularly skilled at doing: they began announcing tens of thousands of layoffs. Today the one airline that didn't cut staff, Southwest, still has never had an involuntary layoff in its almost 40-year history. It's now the largest domestic U.S. airline and has a market capitalization bigger than all its domestic competitors combined. As its former head of human resources once told me: "If people are your most important assets, why would you get rid of them?"

It's an attitude that's all too rare in executive suites these days. As the U.S. economy emerges from recession, Americans continue to suffer through the worst labor market in a generation. The unemployment rate dipped in January, from 10 percent to 9.7 percent, but the economy continued to lose jobs. There are currently 14.8 million unemployed, and when you count "discouraged workers" (who've given up on job seeking) and part-time workers who'd prefer a full-time gig, that's another 9.4 million Americans who are "underemployed." While the pink slips are slowing as the economy rebounds, the lack of jobs remains the most visible--and politically troublesome--reminder that despite what the economic indicators may tell us, for much of the population, the Great Recession hasn't really gone away.

Companies have always cut back on workers during economic downturns, but over the last two decades layoffs have become an increasingly common part of corporate life--in good times as well as bad. Companies now routinely cut workers even when profits are rising. Some troubled industries seem to be in perpetual downsizing mode; the U.S. auto industry, to take just one example, has been shedding employees consistently for decades. (NEWSWEEK is familiar with these pressures: its head count is down significantly in recent years.)

There are circumstances in which layoffs are necessary for a firm to survive. If your industry is disappearing or permanently shrinking, layoffs may be necessary to adjust to the new market size, something occurring right now in newspapers. Sometimes changes in technology or competitors' embrace of cheaper overseas labor makes downsizing feel like the only alternative. But the majority of the layoffs that have taken place during this recession--at financial-services firms, retailers, technology companies, and many others--aren't the result of a broken business model. Like the airlines' response to 9/11, these staff reductions were a response to a temporary drop in demand; many of these firms expect to start growing (and hiring) again when the recession ends. They're cutting jobs to minimize hits to profits, not to ensure their survival. As for firms that have no choice but to cut jobs, if your company is the 21st-century equivalent of the proverbial buggy-whip industry, don't fool yourself--downsizing will only postpone, not prevent, your eventual demise.

For many managers, these actions feel unavoidable. But even if downsizing, right-sizing, or restructuring (choose your euphemism) is an accepted weapon in the modern management arsenal, it's often a big mistake. In fact, there is a growing body of academic research suggesting that firms incur big costs when they cut workers. Some of these costs are obvious, such as the direct costs of severance and outplacement, and some are intuitive, such as the toll on morale and productivity as anxiety ("Will I be next?") infects remaining workers.

But some of the drawbacks are surprising. …

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