Academic journal article The Qualitative Report

A Necessary Evil: The Experiences of Managers Implementing Downsizing Programmes

Academic journal article The Qualitative Report

A Necessary Evil: The Experiences of Managers Implementing Downsizing Programmes

Article excerpt

This paper presents the findings of a phenomenological study, which describes the experiences of human resource (HR) managers implementing a downsizing programme in a steel manufacturing organisation in India. Data were collected through conversational interviews. Following van Manen's sententious analytic approach, the core theme of "a necessary evil," emerged, which indicates that while participants were pained by their task of having to terminate workers and deprive them of their livelihood, they believed that they had no choice in the matter if they had to ensure the competitive position of the organisation and their own survival as employees. The findings of the inquiry provide insights into a virtually unstudied area and raise questions about the role of HR managers in contemporary organisations.

Key Words: Downsizing, Implementors, Dilemmas, and Coping


Downsizing refers to the planned elimination of positions or jobs with an intent to cut costs and to improve organisational performance (Kets de Vries & Balazs, 1997; Kozlowski, Chao, Smith, & Hedlund, 1993). Alternatively termed as rightsizing, reorganisation, restructuring, and rationalization downsizing, which is a techno-structural OD (organisation development) intervention (Cummings & Worley, 2002), ranges from a mere headcount reduction to a part of a continuous corporate renewal process through which the organisation is reinvented. Companies feel compelled to downsize because being "lean and mean" is believed to strengthen competitiveness (Leung & Chang, 2002), with global benchmarking and revolutionary transformations in information and communication technologies being other reasons (Kets de Vries & Balazs). Yet Kets de Vries and Balazs maintain that downsizing endeavours work only if they challenge the overall way in which an organisation does business rather than focusing on perceived internal efficiency. Reducing head count causes organisations to lose human capital and organisation memory, and be left with unhappy and overworked employees who often have to do tasks for which they are not trained (Kets de Vries & Balazs). Broader approaches which affect work processes and alter business practices have more positive long-term impact. This divergence in approach probably accounts for the mixed evidence about the presumed benefits of downsizing such as lower overheads, increased productivity, better earnings, and decreased bureaucracy (See, for example, Henkoff, 1990 or Tomasko, 1992). Notwithstanding the dichotomy, downsizing remains an attractive choice for many organisations since it gives the impression that decisions are being made and actions are being taken (Kets de Vries & Balazs).

Though several studies have been conducted on the phenomenon of downsizing, Shaw and Barrett-Power (1997) highlight that most of these inquiries focus on the organisational level of analysis (See for instance, Cameron, Freeman, & Mishra, 1991, 1993; Freeman & Cameron, 1993) rather than on micro-level foci such as individuals and work groups. Shaw and Barrett-Cope postulate that this is so because downsizing has always been defined in terms of its function for the organisation. However, actions associated with downsizing are initiated and experienced by individuals and groups. As such, more information is needed to understand downsizing at a microlevel. The present paper works towards this end by describing the experiences of managers implementing downsizing programmes in a private manufacturing firm in India.

The Micro-Level Impact of Downsizing

Individuals employed by a downsizing organisation could be either victims (those who are separated from the organisation), survivors (those who remain with the organisation after the downsizing process is completed), or implementors (those involved in executing the downsizing programme in the organisation). For all these individuals, the single most important issue associated with downsizing is the breach of the psychological contract (Kets de Vries & Balazs, 1997). …

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