The tough times we're in remind me of the old days.
Many years ago, a company I worked for was going through yet another in what seemed like an endless string of "downsizings." The acronym BOHICA was in active use by a jaded workforce.
Back then, our corporate comms team got very good at communicating job losses because we had lots of practice. When the latest round of cuts would come out of HR (which was nicknamed Human Remains) we would produce a printed communication detailing the organizational changes and documenting the staff reductions, and face-to-face meetings with affected groups would be organized. At those meetings company leaders would do a presentation about why the cuts were necessary, what was happening and where the business was going. Then they would take some time to answer employee questions.
At one such meeting, which I happened to attend, the CFO was asked a pointed question by an understandably grouchy employee.
"When will this company start putting people ahead of profits?" he said, with a kind of grim desperation in his quavering, angry voice.
You could have heard a bean drop as the CFO paused before his reply.
"Never," he said.
His needlessly blunt point, of course, was that if the company were to take its eye off the bottom line and give something like preserving jobs a higher priority, there would be no profits...which would mean there would be no money to pay salaries...which would mean that, before long, there would be no people left to put ahead of anything.
Although there's an appealing simplicity to it, we all know that this old-school, one-dimensional business imperative is flawed, and putting profit above all else is not the way to build a healthy, sustainable company. Recent events in the global financial industry remind us that too sharp a focus on profits -- especially short-term profits -- can be bad for business, and for society.
The circumstances related to the current downturn are new, but the massive job losses and severe corporate austerity programs that accompany each trough in the economic cycle are not new at all -- nor is the need to communicate with beleaguered employees.
It's ironic that when times are toughest, our role as communicators is most valued and we experience some of the most meaningful and fulfilling times in our careers.
Fulfilling, sometimes even exciting, but often not very much fun. One of the hardest things I've found about communicating at times like this is the big disconnect between the negative impact of job cuts on employees and the positive effect they have on a company's share price. We spend so much time and effort preparing to give employees the bad news with all the sensitivity and respect they deserve. The same information, packaged in a media release, invariably ends up being excellent news to the market, which rewards the ugly short-term actions with a proportionately beautiful spike in the share price.
Some of us have been around long enough to know that the short term gain of downsizing is often followed by long-term suffering, especially when it is accompanied by poor leadership. The lack of trust, bad morale, high turnaround, low engagement and poor attitude to customers that characterize todays' workplace can be traced back to the short-sighted brutality of the downsizings and reorganizations that have ravaged much of the corporate world over the past 20 years.
This is not to say the impact of that brutality goes unnoticed when it occurs. As one of my favorite bloggers, Dr. Leslie Gaines-Ross, pointed out in a recent post, the elimination of 40,000 jobs at AT&T in 1996 led to an huge and instant increase in the company's market capitalization, but it also sparked widespread public fury and even prompted the U.S. Secretary of Labor Robert Reich to leap onto the dogpile:
“Does a company have obligations and responsibilities beyond the bottom line? Does a company owe anything to its workers, its workers’ families, the communities in which it does business? Managers who balk at executing the judgments of the market may fear with some reason that they will quickly face their own day of reckoning. And yet, I want to suggest to you that this restricted vision of stewardship may be ultimately disastrous for this country. And it may ultimately harm American business.”
Prophetic words, and we're all living with the outcome today.
The big question is, will the current crisis be resolved in a way that will lead to permanent and positive changes in the way leaders lead and companies operate? Will our society find a way to return some balance and humanity to the business imperative?
I believe these changing times will change business for good. And business communicators have an opportunity to play a strategic role as we go through this once-in-a-lifetime paradigm shift.