As its former head of human resources once told me: “If people are your most important assets, why would you get rid of them?”
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.
research paints a fairly consistent picture: layoffs don’t work. And for good reason. In Responsible Restructuring, University of Colorado professor Wayne Cascio lists the direct and indirect costs of layoffs: severance pay; paying out accrued vacation and sick pay; outplacement costs; higher unemployment-insurance taxes; the cost of rehiring employees when business improves; low morale and risk-averse survivors; potential lawsuits, sabotage, or even workplace violence from aggrieved employees or former employees; loss of institutional memory and knowledge; diminished trust in management; and reduced productivity.
As bad as the effects of layoffs are on companies and the economy, perhaps the biggest damage is done to the people themselves. Here the consequences are, not surprisingly, devastating. Layoffs literally kill people. In the United States, when you lose your job, you lose your health insurance, unless you can afford to temporarily maintain it under the pricey COBRA provisions. Studies consistently show a connection between not having health insurance and individual mortality rates.
The overwhelming consensus of downsizing research is that layoffs do not achieve their going in productivity goals. Survivors of most organizations are angry, depressed, anxious and fearful. They are not able or willing to take risks or focus on increasing customer service. At the very time organizations need them to be the most creative and energetic; they hunker down in the trenches, absorbed in their own toxic survivor symptoms.
Leadership in the post-layoff environment is a helping, not a controlling relationship, and requires reaching out, not closing down and hiding behind a facade of toughness and control. Organizations that have successfully helped employees rebound from the trauma of layoffs have required their managers to learn and apply basic helping skills.
I am very disappointed in management that resorts to layoffs as the easy solution to their failed leadership. Most of the time layoffs are an indication management does not respect people in any way, no matter what they say. Now, I do believe, it is possible that a company has been failed by past leadership and gotten into a position where layoffs are the right choice, but most companies choose layoffs as just another MBA spreadsheet “management” exercise and those companies pay a heavy price for such poor management.
When financial and economic realities reach the point that labor costs must be cut I believe a good option to consider is cutting hours (and pay) instead of people. Some people will have extreme hardship if the cut in hours and pay is significant, but once you get is a bad situation no answers are likely to be without problems. I would try to offer the cuts to those that want them first. I would likely take an unpaid sabbatical, if offered, and the organization was in financial trouble.
Another way of doing something similar is profit sharing (where costs go down when profits go down). You should be careful how such sharing is designed, it can create bad incentives if done incorrectly. Also by paying a portion of wages as bonuses that expense can be reduced when times are bad without layoffs.
Like many companies, Pella is looking to cut expenses because of the economic downturn. But instead of laying off more workers, the Iowa manufacturer of windows and doors is instituting a four-day workweek for about a third of its 3,900 employees. Chris Simpson, a senior vice-president at the company, acknowledges it’s an unconventional move… it doesn’t want to be caught short of experienced workers.
According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the number of employees who normally work full-time but now clock fewer than 35 hours a week because of poor business conditions has climbed 72%, to 2.57 million in November 2008, from 1.49 million in November 2007.
Hypertherm Inc. has never laid off a permanent employee in its 40-year history. A 20% downturn in sales in recent months led the closely held maker of metal-cutting equipment to eliminate overtime, cut temporary staff and delay a facility expansion, says Chief Executive Dick Couch.
Managers are transferring employees to busy segments from those with less work. The Hanover, N.H., company also may bring some outsourced manufacturing in-house to keep its 1,100 workers busy, Mr. Couch says.
Private companies, like Hypertherm, may feel less outside pressure to cut jobs and a deeper commitment to employees than publicly held firms, some experts say. Still, a few public companies — including Lincoln Electric Co. and steelmaker Nucor Corp. — also have no-layoff policies.
Good for them. Smart management practices that pay off in long term results. One thing I think some employees forget is the value of such respect for employees. When times are good it is easy to see the lure of higher pay, over long term stability. Layoffs are never good. If you work with an employee and cannot find a way for them to provide value after serious effort then letting them go is fine with me. But that shouldn’t have to do with the economy. That has to do with them not being able to fulfill their responsibilities. I am very suspicious of such claims though, normally management either needs to fix the hiring process or the employee management/development process. The system is the problem not the person (the vast majority of the time).
Longtime auto analyst John Casesa, who now runs a consulting company, says, “There’s not a company on earth that better understands the culture of engineering.” The strategy has worked thus far. Honda has never had an unprofitable year. It has never had to lay off employees.
The lean and compact Fukui, like all of his predecessors, is an engineer who started in R&D and later ran the subsidiary. While other auto chief-executives-to-be were punching keyboards in an accounting office, Fukui ran the company’s motorcycle racing operations. He’s still racing. He hikes the stairs to his tenth-floor desk–tenth floor so he’s in the middle of things at Honda’s 16-story Tokyo headquarters and a desk because executives at Honda don’t have offices. Honda doesn’t disclose executive pay in detail, but the sum of salaries and bonuses that Fukui shares with 36 board members, $13 million, is just about enough for the boss at a big American company.
I checked and Honda was also profitable in 2007 and 2008 fiscal year (ending in September) and no I see no evidence of any layoffs this year (when I look online).
Of all the bizarre subsidiaries that big companies can find themselves with, Harmony Agricultural Products, founded and owned by Honda Motor, is one of the strangest. This small company near Marysville, Ohio produces soybeans for tofu. Soybeans? Honda couldn’t brook the sight of the shipping containers that brought parts from Japan to its nearby auto factories returning empty. So Harmony now ships 33,000 pounds of soybeans to Japan. An inveterate tinkerer, Honda also set up a center nearby to develop better soybean varieties and improve agricultural processes.
Let’s say you, a Lean enthusiast, are named CEO of a mid sized manufacturing company. Let’s also assume your market has turned down and the constraint is clearly the market. Let’s also assume you need to improve operating income above all else. The final assumption is the company you inherited is not even good at mass production. They just stink at everything.
If you come into this situation and realize that you can implement some basic lean and six sigma principles and only need half the workforce to meet customer demand what do you do?
Layoffs are a failure of management. If the company has not been executing a long term strategy to respect people and manage the system to continually improve, manage for the long term, working with suppliers… it might be they have created an impossibly failed organization that cannot succeed in its current form. And so yes it might be possible that layoffs are required.
It is very easy to jump to layoffs as the “answer” though. While it is possible to construct a situation in which they make sense that such a hypothetical situation it rarely is the case that an organization is committed to lean and then makes layoffs. Instead they just think the same old way and mention the word lean since they see others doing it and layoff sounds like it is lean to someone that doesn’t know the first thing about lean thinking.
Does that mean a organization doing a great job of managing in a truly lean way may not find itself in a position where layoffs are necessary? No. Failing to predict and execute may have consequences and those may include layoffs. In your example things are confused a bit by separating the responsibility of getting into the mess from what to do next. Definitely, riding out a few poor quarters would be preferable. I have absolutely no question about that. Continue reading →