At the Heart of the Downsizing Decision – People

July 27, 2021

At first blush, Walt Harrigton’s article entitled Reduction in Force: When the Ax Fell at USGS, (The Washington Post Magazine, 5/19/96) looks just like another story about the downsizing phenomenon.

Surprisingly however, the focus is not on the agency, but on the employees.

Reading their words about their thoughts, feelings, and fears magnifies the fact that although the decision to downsize is often an outcome of financial concerns such as profitability, ROI, and market share, at the heart of these decisions are the lives of real people with real feelings.

Underscoring the importance of addressing everyone’s needs, both those who will eventually leave, and those who will stay to take the “new” organization into the future, is Harrington’s statement: “Nobody’s life will ever be the same.”

Making decisions like who stays and who goes, how future work will be done, ad how to move forward with respect, dignity and hope for the future, are all difficult challenges for employees and managers. And although so many firms and government agencies have made the decision to implement some type of change, executives should not expect employees to “just deal with it” without help.

As the management challenge is changed by these events, so are the required leadership skills.

Assessing current skills to carry out these functions with sensitivity, compassion and honesty helps management in setting process expectations. Where weaknesses are determined, training should be provided. Training might also be appropriate for employees making the transition to manage their own careers, update job search skills, or develop self-confidence and independence from the old culture of dependency.

At times it becomes uncomfortable to read the intimate details of the pain and fears these employees lived. They believed they were a family of good, close friends, and then one day, due to nothing they could control, the bottom fell out and they awoke to the painful reality that their organization was just as vulnerable as nay other organization. Their manager had never fired anyone. In the end he left his management position. Now he lives with the pain and rejection of employees who used to be friends personally accusing him for their dismissal. He also laments that he didn’t know what to do or how to go about asking it any better than it was.

Organizations investigating downsizing, should seek assistance not just from those experienced in financial analysis. Just as important should be attention to the emotional, gut-wrenching work on the people side. Assistance can come form in-house human resource staff, consultants, books and training.

Utilize a variety of methods to make the process as “people-focused” as possible. In the end, the organization and the people that know it will all be better served.