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Downsizing 101

Downsizing 101

By Bruce Weinstein, PhD | BusinessWeek

June 24, 2009

Charged with giving the bad news? Here are your ethical responsibilities

Most discussions about downsizing focus on the legal, economic, or psychological issues raised by this practice. These are essential concerns, but we rarely consider how or why downsizing is also an ethical issue. The next two columns are an attempt to redress that problem. Here, we’ll consider your ethical responsibilities if you are the one charged with giving the bad news. In the second column, we’ll look at what you ought and ought not to do if you are the one being downsized.

WHAT’S IN A NAME?

Downsizing refers to a company’s decision to reduce its workforce for reasons other than poor performance, criminal conduct, or unethical behavior on the part of those being let go. The word is a euphemism meant to soften the blow as much for the company as it is for the soon-to-be eliminated. There is nothing wrong with making a difficult task easier to bear. In fact, there are good ethical reasons for doing so, as we’ll soon see. Still, there is no getting around the fact that downsizing is a type of layoff, with all that this implies. The ethical manager will keep in mind what is really going when he or she is charged with letting good people go.

WHY DOWNSIZING IS AN ETHICAL ISSUE

Anytime we’re faced with a decision that can affect the rights or well-being of others, we’re looking at an ethical issue. No matter how strong the justifications for reducing the workforce are or seem to be, laying off loyal and productive employees is an upsetting experience for all concerned, and those on the receiving end face not just financial but psychological injury.

How so? For many of us, the workplace isn’t just a place for work; it’s where we develop and maintain some of the most important relationships we have. During the week, we spend more time with co-workers than with our families, and for better or worse, work is how many of us define ourselves and give meaning to our lives. Getting laid off compromises all of these things, so managers should think of downsizing as a deep and painful trauma for those being let go, and not as a mere setback or reversal of fortune.

Yes, downsizing has legal implications, and it is understandable that companies want to minimize their liability when they downsize. Yes, there are economic matters to consider, which makes downsizing a management issue, too. But at its core, downsizing is an ethical issue, and the good manager is concerned not just with protecting the company’s financial and legal interests but also with honoring the dignity and integrity of the human beings who work on the front lines and who are the lifeblood of the organization.

DOING IT THE RIGHT WAY

I propose the following management guidelines for downsizing ethically:

1. Do it in person.

This seems obvious thing to do, but I’m surprised by the number of reports I’ve heard about employees who were downsized on the phone or by e-mail. Managers who use this method claim it makes the whole thing easier to deal with. Yes, but for whom? Certainly not for the employee being let go. As uncomfortable as it is to end someone’s employment, the right thing to do is to have a private conversation with him or her in person. The ethical principle of respect for others (BusinessWeek.com, 1/31/07) requires nothing less.

2. Do it privately.

Respecting others means honoring their wishes and values, and it is reasonable to assume that most people would prefer to have troubling news delivered in private. This means in your office, with the door closed. I’ve heard of managers who broke the bad news at the employee’s cubicle within earshot of everyone in the vicinity. Again, one would think that this would be a matter of common sense and common decency, but apparently neither is all that common.

3. Give the person your full attention.

Interrupting the conversation to take phone calls, check your BlackBerry, or engage in other distractions isn’t just rude, it tells the other person that the matter at hand isn’t all that important to you.