An emergency siren soared and a thousand plus employees filed out of their office buildings in a quiet panic. Was it a terrorist threat? A crazed employee? Baffled engineers, administrators, and HR people meandered on the company grass. Finally, after 20 eternally long minutes the vice president’s voice spoke calmly on the sound system to the massive and confused crowd.
He stated, “Please know that there is no immediate threat. I repeat, there is no threat to you or Twenty First Century Aerospace. We asked you to evacuate due to a financial crisis that we are facing. The recession has hit us hard, we are doing deep cuts, and that is where you come in. This evacuation is our abrupt way of announcing a downsizing. Although it deeply pains us, 257 employees are being eliminated effective immediately. As soon as I finish my announcement, please return to your respective buildings. If your e-Card is still functioning and opens your building door, then you are still employed. If it no longer works then you have been downsized effective immediately.”
Several employees yelled out, “If we’re fired, what about our office belongings?” Vice President Gadford Smith replied, “no worries, if you have been downsized you will not be granted entrance to your office, again, but rest assure that all office belongings will be professionally boxed and shipped to your address of choice with delivery within 5 business days.”
A look of disbelief and shock spread across the sea of 21st Century faces as employees assembled single file and they found that their e-Cards either still worked or were no longer operable. Sighs of relief were mixed with agonizing grunts and hostile, vile language, wild facial expressions, and primitive nonverbal behaviors.
Within 24 hours employees labelled this once in a lifetime incident “the devil’s downsizing.” The shocking, scud styled mass firing resonated deep and hard. No warning, no cushions, no semblance or inklings of emotional intelligence or concerns for human capital. The 21st Century brand took immediate and frequent social media hits. The internet was buzzing. Disgruntled and “ruined engineers” unloaded their indignation and wrath.
Why the “devil’s downsizing?” Many of the traumatized and suddenly jobless aeronautical engineers had initially bought into a millennial startup that espoused servant leadership and a collaborative team culture. As one engineer put it, “I entered a company that preached family culture and a supportive organization committed to camaraderie and team work. They didn’t tell me that the devil was lurking and he could unleash his venom at the first sign of a recession.” When interviewing this same engineer I found out that it was the wild turnaround and hypocrisy of 21st Century leadership that devoured and destroyed his faith. What about ethics, morality and corporate social responsibility? He went on to explain that if he had been suddenly eliminated by a company whose culture was authoritarian and dictatorial – that would not have hit him so hard. Apparently, the buzz among eliminated engineers was that 21st Century was “a demon wearing a PC smiley face.”
Beyond question, the 21st Century brand took repeated hits on the web – impacting its golden worldwide image. Translated into dollars or euros it is fair to state that the ongoing price paid for this downsizing was substantial.
As a bottom of the 9th inning consultant who was asked to quietly and unobtrusively do some damage control I quickly discovered that the downsizing took on many faces in the corporate trenches. For 21st Century leadership the downsizing was “an edict of glory, a perfect, direct and unexpected hit that eliminated any prospects for internal employee sabotage.” Several interviews with key players revealed that the executive board’s thinking was that “the typical downsizing fondled employees with extensive notice time allowing disgruntled engineers to silently undermine and sabotage operations as part of a vendetta of revenge.”
Ironically, 21st Century was hardly shooting from the hip. This seemingly shotgun, gunslinger styled downsizing was carefully strategized and the culmination of several months of executive board meetings and heated argumentation, debate and decision making. They very consciously elected to opt out of any inkling of humanity, warning, or support for those unlucky ones. They were particularly vocal about “those foolish and naïve companies who approach a downsizing like the good divorce.” The unanimous conclusion reached was that all divorces and downsizings were bad and inherently nasty. Why pretend?
Unfortunately, the flawed thinking of the board was apparently not exactly within the scope of my consultation as they viscerally rejected my attempts at revisiting their decision making and manner in which they executed the downsizing. Suffice to say I had to rethink this consultation in mid-stream and settled for an “agree to disagree” advisory role. It was an ethical challenge.
On a final note, I discovered that the executive board floundered when it came to the internal residual effects of their downsizing. They repeatedly tried to explain away and provide embarrassingly philosophical 2.0 explanations for what the employees insisted on calling the “devil’s downsizing.” What could 21st Century say to remaining engineers who kept perpetually looking over their shoulders and expected to get knifed in the back? Who was going to be next? After the devil’s downsizing 21st Century could never be trusted again. As stated by the senior engineer who survived the downsizing but didn’t trust them an inch, “21st Century is a dastardly company with a smiley face.”
Serious in-house fallout from the demagogue styled divorce streamed in in the form of formal grievances. Ousted engineers consulted with counsel and sought some semblance of justice and justification. Was “ethics” just a six letter word? I served as a consultant on a number of the grievances and attempted to negotiate restitution and apologies for the daggers felt by fired engineers. In several cases I was involved in working out satisfactory apologies and settlements from 21st Century. In two cases the engineers proceeded with formal litigation. Through all the attempts at damage control, the 21st Century brand continued to take hits. Only so much could be negotiated and salvaged after the damage had been done. I rest my case. I ask businesses and Fortune 500s to reflect on this thoroughly toxic 21st Century devil’s downsizing. Is the route you want to take? Or is there another way to strategize a mass exodus?