Casualties of Downsizing

From IEEE Spectrum Magazine, May 1996

I was scanning my daily email, trying to decide quickly by author and subject headers which messages could be deleted without being read. One particular header appeared in my mind to be highlighted. The subject said "Another award for RWL." Those are my initials, and being coupled with the magic word "award", the whole phrase quickly passed through the preprocessing filters in my mind, and was forwarded immediately to my higher levels of consciousness, labeled "highest priority."

Randomly choosing that particular message to read first, I was informed that a secret committee had voted me something called the "employee longevity award," as the only remaining person of my contemporaries still employed by the telephone companies.

I sat back in contemplation of this bit of morbid humor, and I realized its truth. Through a series of downsizings in the industry, I had become by default the last telephone techie. I was now the last engineer -- to coin a phrase -- for whom the Bell tolls.

I thought with nostalgia of all the friends who had joined the company when I did, full of enthusiasm and loyalty to each other and to the company that had created this extended family. One for all, and all for one, as D'Artagnan had once cried.

Alas, how the world has changed. Now I am reminded of my first experience riding a chair lift at a ski resort. Fortunately, a good friend who was an experienced skier accompanied me on the ride. I was very apprehensive about how I was supposed to get off the lift, but my friend assured me that he would explain everything when we neared the top.

The wind howled, the chair swayed, and I worried. At the acute angle of view looking upwards at the approaching peak I saw the riders disappearing over the top and the empty chairs returning downwards. It seemed as if the skiers were being consumed by the groaning machinery and crunching wheels at the top of the lift.

"What am I supposed to do?" I blurted urgently. My friend pointed calmly at the approaching machinery. "When we get there," he explained, "It's every man for himself."

Unfortunately, that is how it is between employer and employee today. The covenant has been broken, and when you see the crunching wheels approaching, it's every person for themselves. Hopefully, you have the skills to navigate the exit and the downward course. That means, for example, having current technical knowledge and expertise. I have pity for the poor general managers without marketable skills.

One by one my friends have vanished into the shadowy world of the recently downsized. "Resigned to pursue other interests," say the optimistic organization change notices. When quizzed, however, the departing employees are always vague about these other interests. Typically their silent acquiescence in this process has been purchased through a "package." I wonder, though -- what is the price of your pride in a career of contribution and loyalty?

When I run into these old friends, we shake our heads sadly. There is an air of resignation. This is the way the world is; it isn't worth speaking about. We are all finally powerless in the grip of the system itself. The wheels turn, and the lift ascends towards infinity. The tension in the vibrating cable portends an unseen force that is impossible to resist. Take the package, and take the vow of silence.

Perhaps downsizing is indeed the way the world works now, but it isn't a world that I claim to understand. I don't understand what happens to all those downsized people, or what the overall cost to society is. Mostly, though, I wonder: Is this really necessary?

Management says that they need to get the cost out of their business. Unleashed global competition has made this an imperative, they claim. It does seem to me, however, that there are two ways that productivity may be increased. Management has the choice of growing the business or decreasing the cost. The rush to do the latter is really an admission of failure in the former. In theory, I suppose, the displaced employees join another company whose management does know how to grow the business. But where management fails, employees suffer.

However, I don't believe in the caricature of management as greedy and incompetent. Virtually all of the high level executives that I know are highly competent and honorable people. Furthermore, I do not believe that their business decisions are motivated by personal compensation. I know this goes against business management theories, which attach great importance to structuring compensation metrics that are tied to performance, but executives that I know are simply trying to do their jobs the best they can with no thought of the impact on their personal compensation.

Even though executives are generally competent and honorable, they are, sadly, only people like you and me. These good, but ordinary, people are confronted by highly complex problems well beyond human description and analysis. In this unfathomable morass there is a tendency to seek simplicity and to be driven by fashion. The fashion this year may be, for example, "reengineering." You're not doing your job if you're not downsizing, say their friends. Perhaps you lack courage. Wall Street won't like your wimpishness.

Ah yes -- Wall Street. You perhaps wondered what unseen force turned the wheels, stretched the cable, and carried the endless procession of riders to the top. All the power behind our system has been attributed to the abstraction we call "Wall Street." "Wall Street demands this," we say of downsizing. Thus we ourselves are blameless.

The laughing people are carried to the top of the mountain by the surging machinery. Out of the swirling fog the empty chairs materialize for their return trip. They sway silently and unnoticed past the merrymaking occupants of the upgoing chairs.

What passengers formerly warmed the seats of those empty chairs? What casualties lie forgotten now on the slopes below? What people, whose past laughter still reverberates across the mountain, now wonder: was their lifetime trip up the mountain worth their effort and loyalty?

Robert W. Lucky