Employee Layoffs — Cause and Effect… and Results

From a recent email press release I received:

WASHINGTON, DC, September 21, 2009 — The cost-cutting actions that employers have been making to deal with the economic crisis have contributed to a sharp decline in the morale and commitment of their workers, especially top performers, according to… Watson Wyatt and …WorldatWork.

Really. This is similar to those “duh” surveys funded by taxpayers like, “Scientists now claim that eating fat makes you gain weight.”

That this recession has left employees (and managers, executives, and board members) less confident about their status with their firm is no shocker. That’s not exactly “whouldathunkit” material.

No, there are two big deals in this press release that bear mention:

1. Your top performers may be more disillusioned than the others. This is important, so pay attention. Even – especially – in times of uncertainty and change, our top performers need to know how we feel about them. They need to know that we recognize them as such, and that we will do all we can – even if mitigated by recessionary economics – to develop them and help them grow.

2. Confidence in managers is lower than pre-recession. Now, part of this is to be expected – managers, after all, are the walking representation of the company, and confidence in those companies is waning. Bigger than that, however, is an artificial groundswell that managers handled cost-cutting poorly this year.

I say “artificial,” because I believe it’s untrue. Executives, managers, and HR professionals have been falsely demonized as being intentional hatchet-people, dealing “ham-handedly” and without care or skill in implementing some of the layoffs that many have faced.

John Hollon from Workforce Magazine believes this to be an accurate assessment. I believe he’s wrong.

I know of no one — including the greatest management minds of our time — who had the perfect contingency plan in place for executing abrupt cost-cutting in a nearly-unprecedented worldwide recession.

Harvard, Stanford, Yale, all bastions of leadership thought and insight, have had to lay off hundreds of staff. The vast majority of layoffs go as well as can be expected; people are, after all, losing their jobs.

To be sure, layoffs are painful, in the best of circumstances and with the highest of care. In my world, though, before hanging the albatross of shame around the neck of managers, I’d want specific (vs. anecdotal) evidence that they have somehow intentionally maligned their departing workforce en masse around the country. I don’t believe we have.

I believe managers, HR and otherwise, have struggled during this recession between the pull of keeping the doors open and maintaining some degree of employee engagement; it’s not been a simple effort, and frankly, I doubt there exists any way to lay off as many as have been required this past year and NOT have ill-feelings from departed and remaining employees. The numbers are just too great.

We charted new territory this past year — I believe the substantial majority of managers and organizations did as well as could be expected given the hand dealt.

Undoubtedly, some wish they could have a ‘do-over’ here and there. Hindsight, however, is the purview of academics and the media; it’s always 20-20, but is never at the disposal of managers — HR and other — in the field.

If only academics and media “experts” would share with us the precise way to rapidly reduce costs substantially in a “more-than-skillful” manner, we would all listen intently and then, hopefully, could reduce our apparently cavalier reliance on “ham-handedness.”

But that’s just me…


Kevin Berchelmann


  1. says

    Kevin – Good comments. I've seen big differences in how it is done, in the companies where people are simply instruments of production and those with cultures with a stronger human connection to their people. An easier task for those owners and Sr. Execs in the former category – tougher for those in the 2nd category. Regardless of the culture most leaders hate having to put people out of work.

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