Platt Perspective on Business and Technology

Dissent, disagreement, compromise and consensus 32 – the jobs and careers context 31

This is my 32nd installment to a series on negotiating in a professional context, starting with the more individually focused side of that as found in jobs and careers, and going from there to consider the workplace and its business-supportive negotiations (see Guide to Effective Job Search and Career Development – 3 and its Page 4 continuation, postings 484 and following for Parts 1-31.)

I have been successively addressing each of a set of workplace issues and challenges that can arise for essentially anyone who works sufficiently long-term with a given employer, that I repeat here in list form (with appended links to where I have discussed them) for smoother continuity of narrative:

1. Changes in tasks assigned, and resources that would at least nominally be available for them: timeline allowances and work hour requirements definitely included there (see Part 25 and Part 26),
2. Salary and overall compensation changes (see Part 27),
3. Overall longer-term workplace and job responsibility changes and constraints box issues as change might challenge or enable you’re reaching your more personally individualized goals there (see Part 28),
4. Promotions and lateral moves (see Part 29),
5. And dealing with difficult people (see Part 30 and Part 31).

And while all of these issues can arise and can need to be addressed in combination with others on the list, they can also all be seen as separate and distinct jobs and careers issues that can call for largely separate negotiations to resolve. I have in fact discussed them separately up to here as more stand-alone topics. But I added one more issue: one more increasingly common challenge to this list that of necessity involves all of the above, simultaneously, and more. And that is:

6. Negotiating possible downsizings and business-wide events that might lead to them, and how you might best manage your career when facing the prospects of getting caught up in that.

I added this example of a negotiations-requiring workplace situation last on this list, because navigating this type of challenge as effectively as possible, calls for skills in dealing with all of the other issues on this list and more, and with real emphasis on Plan B preparation and planning, and on its execution too as touched upon in Part 23 and again in Parts 30 and 31. And my goal here is to at least begin a discussion as to how you might better approach this challenge or its possibility. And as a starting point that means more clearly stating what downsizings are, as cause and effect driven processes.

• You cannot effectively negotiate absent an understanding of what you have to, and can negotiate about. And knowing that calls for understanding the context and circumstance, and the goals and priorities of the people who you would face on the other side of the table. And as a crucial part of that, this also includes knowing as fully and clearly as possible, what options and possibilities they might and might not even be able to negotiate upon.

I begin this first step discussion for addressing the above Point 6 by acknowledging that I have personally been caught up in two downsizings so I write from direct experience here, and not simply from the perspective of abstract principles. And I have seen them play out when I was not an in-house employee or manager too. And that perhaps-relevant piece of my own workplace experience shared, I begin this posting’s main line of discussion by at least briefly outlining some of the details of the heart of this challenge itself: what downsizings are and what leads to them.

• In principle, this is simple and straightforward. Essentially any business that grows in scale beyond that of a single proprietor owner has at least some hands-on working, non-managerial employees. And as a business grows in scale it generally takes on managers who supervise them and coordinate their efforts towards the resolution of larger tasks than any single individual could carry out on their own. And next level up managers come onboard too if this trend towards growth continues. And payroll and benefits expenses can and often do rise in scale and significance to become among the largest ongoing expenses that most businesses face. So if a business has a set-back in its incoming revenue and they have to cut back on their expenses, staff and directly staff-related expenses are usually one of the first possible places considered when cutbacks in expenses paid and due are on the table.
• This can mean last in, first out and certainly in business contexts where seniority of employment has to be taken into account. Businesses with a strong union presence often follow that approach. But this type of retain or let-go determination can also be skills-based, or location based if for example it is decided to close a more peripheral office that might not have been as much of a profit center as desired or expected.
• Downsizings, while more usually driven by revenue and expense imbalances, can also be driven by pressures to phase out old systems and install new ones that might be better fits for the current business model in place. Think of staff reductions there, as they can arise when a business decides to outsource a functional area and its work, making it unnecessary to keep the people who have done that in-house as ongoing employees. To take that out of the abstract with a specific example, there was a time when large numbers of businesses had their own in-house teams for developing and maintaining the more technical side of their websites and online presence. It is now much more common to outsource that type of specialized work to third party providers that only do this type of work and that can more cost-effectively provide these services. And that widespread change in organizational perspective and priorities lead to a significant numbers of downsizings for people who had worked in-house in Information Technology and related departments, and with those businesses shifting their in-house focus there, essentially entirely to a more Marketing and Communications or other content-oriented focus.
• But to be blunt, and I will add a lot more candid than most senior managers are on this, downsizings are not just about cutting down on staff to reduce redundancies and to bring the business into leaner and more effective focus for meeting its business performance needs. Downsizings can also be used as opportunities to cut out and remove people who have developed reputations as being difficult to work with, or for whatever reasons that the managers they report to would see as sufficiently justifying. They are used as a no-fault opportunity for removing staff who do not fit into the corporate culture or who have ruffled feathers higher up on the table of organization and even if they would otherwise more probably be retained and stay.
• People can be and sometimes are fired with cause. But a business that pursues that path needs to be able to back up any such actions with fact and evidence-based reasons that they could offer to justify those dismissals. Otherwise they run a risk of facing unlawful termination law suits, and with a distinct possibility for that happening if they operate in any of a great many legal jurisdictions.
• Downsizings, on the other hand are entirely no-fault in nature, at least as formally defined. They can and do sweep up skilled workers who have proven their value to the organization and who have supportively fit into it and contributed to it. They can and do sweep up people the business would otherwise want to keep on-staff and long term. But downsizings can also be used, and are used to get rid of people who do their jobs and at performance levels that would mitigate against their being fired per se, but who at least someone in management would like to see leave anyway. All such a manager would need there is the cover of their business seeing need to enter into an actual downsizing, for reorganizational purposes.
• The point that I have been leading to in the past three bullet points of this list is simple in principle, even as it is complex and largely opaque in the details of any given actual downsizing events. People are let go for any and usually all of a complex mix of reasons with that including financial need on the part of a business, with that meaning dismissal of good and desired employees, with that meaning reduction in or elimination of functional areas in-house that could more cost-effectively be outsourced, and with that meaning “housecleaning” out employees who while effective at their jobs, do not fit there. And ultimately, all of these decisions are judgment calls on the part of managers who are involved in carrying these actions out. I will come back to this point and its possibilities, later in this series when I begin to discuss negotiations in this context. But to round out this bullet pointed list of downsizing-clarifying points, and to bring this point itself into clearer focus, consider the following scenario: the CEO of a business that has suddenly found itself in severe fiscal stress tells the C level heads of its functional arms on the table of organization that all of their departments and services are going to have to make reductions in scale, sharing the pain. No one service or functional area will simply take the hit there. So word goes down through middle and lower management that they have what amount to quotas to fill, and then they have to choose who is to be let go. If you work there and can see this coming, what can you do and how can you best present and represent yourself if you in fact want to stay working there? That is where your negotiations and your skills at that enter this narrative.

There are of course, more possible reasons and rationales for downsizings that I could have raised in my above list; my above-offered outline of what downsizings are is just a simplified cartoon representation of a more complex and nuanced process that is essentially always riven by pushback and challenge. Just consider my last bullet point and its “share the pain” example. Every senior manager and certainly every C level officer who is challenged to make their share of these cuts will want to argue the case for why their services should be spared, or at least allowed to make smaller cuts.

I will consider at least one more reason for downsizing at all as I continue this narrative, which I will identify here in anticipation of discussion to come. And it is one that I have seen play out first hand so I know from personal observation how real and how impactful it can be. A new, more senior manager who wants to do some personal empire building within their new employer’s systems can use a downsizing and reorganization in their area of oversight responsibility to put their name on how things are done there. Consider this a confrontational career enhancement tactic, and I will discuss it in that context. And consider this as an arena where a prepared skilled employee or manager can negotiate their own circumstances with this type of empire builder too.

And with that noted, I have at least laid out the basic issues leading up to a downsizing here, and the basic issues of who gets swept up in them too. I will continue this discussion in the next installment of this series where I will begin addressing preparation and response options that hands-on employees and managers can use when facing these types of possibilities.

Meanwhile, you can find this and related material at Page 4 to my Guide to Effective Job Search and Career Development, and also see its Page 1, Page 2 and Page 3. And you can also find this series at Social Networking and Business 2 and also see its Page 1 for related material.

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