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Organizational Culture

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Downsizing And Organizational Culture

Thomas A. Hickok

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Abstract

In this article Hickok argues that, ultimately, the most prominent effects of downsizing will be in relation to culture change, not in relation to saved costs or short-term productivity gains. In particular, the author notes three observations in relation to the impact of downsizing on organizational culture. First, it clearly appears that power has shifted away from rank-and-file employees in the direction of top management/ownership. Accompanying this change is a shift in emphasis away from the well-being of individuals in the direction of the pre-eminence and predominance of the organization as a whole. Second, it appears working relationships have changed away from being "familial" in the direction of being more competitive. Third, the employer-employee relationship has moved away from long-term and stable in the direction of short-term and contingent.

The author suggests five simple question areas that organizational leaders who are interested in probing the moral and spiritual dimensions of downsizing might usefully consider. These include ensuring the fundamental decency of the approach being considered, engaging in appropriate dialogue, thinking through the consequences for those who may be adversely affected, having ready explanations for multiple constituencies, and offering a realistic opportunity for a better future for the organization and the organization's stakeholders.

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Downsizing And Organizational Culture

Introduction

A noted scholar recently assessed downsizing as "probably the most pervasive yet understudied phenomenon in the business world" (Cameron, 1994). While we have become numbed by the near daily accounts of new layoffs, a New York Times national survey finding is perhaps more telling: since 1980, a family member in one-third of all U.S. households has been laid off (New York Times, 1996). By some measures, downsizing has failed abjectly as a tool to achieve the main raison d'etre, reduced costs. According to a Wyatt Company survey covering the period between 1985 and 1990, 89 percent of organizations which engaged in downsizing reported expense reduction as their primary goal, while only 42 percent actually reduced expenses. Downsizing for the sake of cost reduction alone has been castigated intellectually as short-sighted and neglectful of what resources will be needed to increase the revenue stream of the future (Hamel and Prahalad, 1994).

A truer and fuller understanding of the forces shaping and thrusting downsizing forward today comes from an appreciation of increased global competition; changing technologies, which in turn are profoundly impacting the nature of work; increasing availability of a contingent work force (Fierman, 1994); and shifting balance of power among organizational constituents away from rank and file employees and in the direction of shareholders and the chief executives who serve as their proxy. When we conceptualize downsizing within these broader frameworks, it becomes clear that we are speaking of downsizing both as a response to and as a catalyst of organizational culture change.

This article will later provide a formal definition of "organizational culture". For the moment, it is suggested that culture is to an organization what personality is to an individual. As with personality, change takes time and may be hard to discern, especially for persons inside the organization. This article will argue that, ultimately, the most prominent effects of downsizing will be in relation to culture change, not in relation to saved costs or short-term productivity gains. Key drivers of organizational culture will tend to shape an organization's approach to downsizing. For whose benefit does the organization exist? What are the basic assumptions among people who work in the organization? What are the basic assumptions the organization and the employee make in relation to each other?

Establishing a direct link between downsizing and organizational culture is not an easy matter, however, as the following example will demonstrate. The Chief Executive Officer of Apple Computer recently bought himself more time with disgruntled shareholders by promising to take forceful action on a number of fronts, including downsizing. The executive cited "five crises: lack of cash; declining quality; a failed operating system development project; Apple's chaotic culture; and a fragmented strategy" (Markoff, 1997). How do you connect downsizing, which is one of a number of actions being taken, with corporate culture, which is only one of a number of "crises" being solved in a manner and to a level that establishes a positive relationship?

Another reason that it is difficult to draw a specific link between downsizing and organizational culture is that there are many different variations and approaches to downsizing. A distinction has been made between proactive downsizing, which is planned in advance and usually integrated with a larger set of objectives, and reactive downsizing, which would be typified by cost-cutting as a last resort after a prolonged period of inattention to looming problems by management (Kozlowski et. al., 1991). Work force reductions can range from forceful in nature, i.e., involuntary reductions, to the milder approaches, such as resignation incentives and job sharing (Sutton and D'Aunno, 1989). There are different ways of deciding "who stays, who goes" from the outwardly arbitrary to criterion-based (Brockner, 1992). There are different modes of planning, ranging from secretive sessions to open discussions and solicitation of ideas from employees. There are different standards of notice of terminations, including relatively harsh same day terminations as well as more generous 90 day or longer notices. There are even differences in intentionality, i.e., reductions can be planned to present employees with as little a break as possible from what they have known in the past or they can be designed to be deliberately disruptive to the status quo (Noer, 1993).

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Organizational Culture Defined

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