Are Layoffs Bad For Business?

View of Wall Street, Manhattan.
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“Downsizing is killing workers, the economy – and even the bottom line.”

This direct quote from an article in Newsweek of 15th February entitled “Layoff the Layoffs” rather forcefully makes the point that contrary to conventional business wisdom, the constant cycle of cutting headcount as a primary means of cutting costs is tantamount to long-term economic suicide – not to mention the effects on the health of people.

According to the article, research clearly shows a link between layoffs and lower stock prices, with the negative impact on the stock prices worsening with the size and permanence of these layoffs – in spite of the widely-held view that layoffs will boost stock prices through showing effective cost management.

Another debunked issue is that of productivity – in fact productivity per employee does not rise, no doubt due to morale issues – while a study of companies in the S&P 500 showed clearly that companies that downsize remain less profitable than those that don’t.

Adding to the profitability falls, of course, are the costs of laying off staff – both direct (severance pay, etc.) and indirect (morale, rehiring costs when things pick up, and so on). These are always woefully underestimated, as is the extent to which companies embarking on wholesale layoff programs have to rehire – at inflated cost – key staff who elected to “take the package.”

In fact, McKinsey studies over the years have shown that company executives believe that less than 40% of corporate transformations in their businesses are “mostly” or “completely” successful.
Conversely, companies that choose to find ways to weather the periodic storms are the first to recover, and do so far more strongly that those that have made significant across-the-board cuts.

Of course, there will always be times when cutting staff is unavoidable in a business – it may even be the thing that will save it from total collapse. But when this time does come, all the experts agree that it should be done in a transparent, open manner, with cuts being made in defined areas, rather than simply across the board – the all-too-frequent approach of an uninvolved management team. Getting everybody from the CEO down personally involved will get the best results, as happened with the well documented case of Malaysia Airlines a few years ago.

Hopefully this message of transparency, involvement and engagement will start to get through to company leaders as well as to the stock market and investment analysts that so many company leaders are guided by. As I mentioned in my blog post, “Leadership for the New Business World,” a new set of skills are necessary for the successful business of the future – skills that will rebuild the faith of communities in their leaders. In fact, it’s interesting to see how many of the top-rated companies in Fortune’s “Top 100 Companies to Work For” list this year have weathered the storm without across the board layoffs, with many showing positive growth in staff and even in their businesses, too.

Certainly, companies that retain their staff, and take the opportunity to hire key new ones, retain all the critical “institutional intelligence” and are best positioned for the economic upswing, as I mentioned in my blog post, “Will your business survive the upswing?

There’s no doubt – Layoffs are bad for your business, especially when handled without due care, attention and precision. Conversely, a covenant with your staff to be open, fair and honest with them at all times will go a long way to securing the long-term, profitable future of your business.

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5 responses to “Are Layoffs Bad For Business?

  1. Also, in followup to Catarina’s point – normally layoffs happen to the staff of a company, not the execs. When it happens to the execs it’s called something else entirely and, as you say, often has a positive effect on the company/other execs.

  2. During the recession, NZ Post behaved in a way which I thought exemplary – instead of mass layoffs, they instead cut back the working hours of most of their staff, allowing them to keep staff on without collapsing the business (there were a few layoffs, but not many at all)

    • Thanks, Aimee – there were quite a few companies taking this approach during this recession, which was encouraging. Hopefully they will see the results of this policy in improved customer service in the years ahead.

  3. Good points but I do believe it varies from case to case. When, for instance, Saab in Sweden cut executives the remaining ones actually produced as much as they had when they were a bigger team. There’s an exception to every rule.

    • Hi Catarina – that’s a good example of a specific targeted retrenchment exercise and they can work. The problem is in the broad-based, indiscriminate ones where the executive team remain distant from proceedings. It is these that kill morale, productivity and lead to lower earnings, stock price, etc.

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