Right-sizing wrong word for job loss

August 22, 1996|By Rick A. Richards

"It's been clear for years, after all, that in the world of huge corporations there's nothing more lucrative than being fired well."

-- Calvin Trillin, 1986 AN ACQUAINTANCE of my wife's has been "right-sized."

For those who are not up on the latest euphemisms, that means she's been laid off. "Right-sizing" is such a polite term, but no matter what it's called, it's nothing more than a glove for employers to use so they don't soil their hands when they tell someone to hit the road.

For fans of the Dilbert comic strip the term is "downsizing."

In the comic strip, it's done by a toilet that randomly flushes workers out the door, pink-slip in hand. The strip is meant to be funny, but for far too many workers, it hits too close to home.

For companies trying to improve their bottom line, impress stockholders or fend off a hostile takeover, "right-sizing" seems to be the most popular term. Besides the bank that tossed out my wife's acquaintance, it's also the term of choice for Harris Bank in Chicago.

Bank of America calls it "release of resources." Wal-Mart prefers "normal payroll adjustment."

There are lots of others: "Reduction in force." "Schedule adjustments." "Reshaping." "Career-change opportunity." "Involuntary separation from payroll." "Reducing duplication or focused reduction." "Elimination of employment security policy."

At Valparaiso University, where they study these things, it's called "transformation."

Joan Murphy, a partner in The Loomis Group in Valparaiso, Ind., a human resources consulting company, said the different terms are a way to put a pretty face on an ugly fact of business life.

Public relations

"It's a public and employee relations move," she said. "Depending on the approach, it may not be a bad thing. It helps ease the pain for most or some of the employees. It also helps management deal with that. It's real tough on the management people who have to tell the employees."

That may be so, but the idea of creating friendly sounding names for the trauma of losing a job creates its own skepticism.

Employees view it as just another management fad where the latest business school textbook provides a cure-all to the company's ills.

Managers rush headlong into training and seminars, passing on the latest work force euphemisms and slogans with a zeal not seen since last year's business school textbook came out.

What's missing many times, said Ms. Murphy, is clear communication. "The different buzzwords are a communications effort to help soften the blow. What helps is if an organization is committed enough to refine what is happening. A company has to think through its process.

"It's a very difficult situation no matter which situation you're in -- laid off or the person who is left. It can be difficult for the person who is left," she said.

"Each organization handles the situation differently. The best way is to provide a longer time frame: This is what is going to happen; this is what we are going to do."

But what all of the cute little euphemisms have done is create uncertainty in the work place that isn't healthy. Even if a worker isn't "right-sized" today, said Ms. Murphy, "there is the fear that it can happen to them."

Is there a sure-fire way to keep it from happening? In a word, "No." "Experts" say employees can help prevent it from happening by getting additional training in new technology and by showing a willingness to accept change. But even that isn't a vaccine.

Dilbert offers another alternative: "sucking up to the boss." That may not be in the managerial lexicon, but for the workers who wonder if their time has come, that may just be the ticket to keep from getting flushed down.

Rick A. Richards writes for the Post-Tribune of Gary, Ind.

Pub Date: 8/22/96

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