An interview with Dean Rocki-Lee DeWitt
DeWitt, dean of UVMs School of Business Administration, was a district
parts manager for International Harvester in the early 1980s when a wave
of downsizing hit the industry. Her memories of notifying an employee
he had lost his job and six months later suffering the same fate herself
are still vivid. After going through that, I thought theres
got to be a better way to manage this, DeWitt says. That experience
had a lot to do with why I study the doom and gloom stuff.
DeWitts recent scholarly work has focused on the particular challenges
downsizing presents for managers, often caught in the middle between top-level
corporate decisions and the employees they supervise. Vermont Quarterly
Editor Tom Weaver recently sat down with Dean DeWitt to discuss the impact
of downsizing on society, business, and the workforce.
One writer refers to downsizing as the most pervasive, yet under-studied
phenomenon in the business world. Would you agree with that?
Downsizing is pervasive in that no business or not-for-profit sector has
been untouched by it. It is a component of organizational life as we know
it. That said, despite the efforts of the press to suggest this is a relatively
new phenomenon, people have lost their jobs involuntarily for as long
as weve had businesses.
Perhaps what is different about what has happened over the past twenty
years is that people have lost white collar jobs. I find it interesting
that few worried whether or not we were studying the concept and reality
of work layoffs back when it wasnt affecting somebody who thought
that by virtue of their education they wouldnt be subject to being
With regards to downsizing being understudied, I actually think there
is quite a bit of literature out there on it. It may be that what people
are expecting is that we would come up with this magic pill that would
stop organizations from having to use downsizing if we studied it more.
I do think there is a dearth of work surrounding building sustainable
business performance, how you design an organization that is built in
a way that allows it to staff to meet peaks and valleys in demand. Designing
an organization that is flexible, there isnt a lot of work on that
Some suggest that downsizing has gone too far, fed by a sort of corporate
anorexia, or that its become a way for executives to earn their
stripes. What do you think?
I draw a distinction between what I would call good downsizing and bad
downsizing. First of all, the humanist in me says there is no such thing
as good downsizing. The notion that you can be performing well at work,
but you could lose your job because of circumstances the leadership of
the business should have been able to control
thats just not
But if youre a business leader and youve done everything you
can possibly do to make that business work such as going to a reduced
work week, taking salary reductions, and sharing that from top to bottom
and it still isnt working, then there may be circumstances
where you just have to take that step. In order to preserve the future
of this firm and the jobs that remain, youll have to reduce activity
in one area and, unfortunately, that means letting some employees go.
Thats downsizing done for the right reasons. Its business-driven.
Do you think business leaders generally explore all of the options
short of downsizing?
My sense is that the smaller the company, the more likely they are to
explore those kinds of options. The more that theyre privately held
as opposed to publicly held, the more theyll explore those kinds
of options. I dont have data to back that up, but its an impression
based on my conversations with these closely held businesses.
As downsizing has become a fact of life in the white collar world,
what effects are we seeing on employee attitudes?
I think this is another area where more research could be done. I think
there is a far more significant consequence to society than to business
firms with downsizing. When I ask Vermont business leaders about their
key challenges, what consistently comes up irrespective of the
industry or part of the state is the difficulty of finding motivated
They tell me that hiring people today is not like it was hiring their
parents. Members of that generation could be on their deathbed, but they
would still come to work and put the hours in. Today, somebody will call
you at the last minute and say, I had a really tough night last
night, and I just cant get in today.
Ive heard this around other parts of the country, too. And I wonder
to what extent this generation of employees has observed what has happened
to their parents and co-workers, in terms of downsizing and the inability
to see the relationship between the performance of an individual and the
selection of that individual to be laid-off, and they just think, Lets
do unto the firm before the firm does unto us.
How can we shift business practices and/or employee expectations to improve
I think it requires a re-thinking on both sides of the equation regarding
what the new employment model looks like. Were seeing more interest
in employee ownership programs. Employees are saying, Ill
work really hard, Ill commit my energy, Ill commit my creativity,
but I want a piece of the action associated with this. And, in turn,
firms are saying, This gives us an opportunity to share data with
an employee on how the unit is performing, what the drivers of success
are, and how individual action is related to the performance of the firm.
Again, youre seeing more adoption of these kinds of models in the
smaller or closely held firms.
Part of our responsibility to students is making it clear that there will
be no guarantees when they get out there. Theyre in charge of their
own professional futures. They need to be continuously engaged in keeping
their résumés alive and in managing their business networks.
They need to be much more studious in how they add value and how they
can make a difference and how it matters not only to the firm theyre
working for, but to other organizations that might employ them.
That doesnt mean they should be job-a-month wonders, but if they
see that theyre topping out in the opportunities to continue to
grow and use their skills in a particular organization, its their
responsibility to see what else is out there.
Lets say youre a manager on a Monday morning following
layoffs at your firm, what do you do to make the work environment as positive
and productive as it can be?
A lot of how productive that work environment is going to be depends on
how you managed the layoff and setting the stage for the layoff in the
weeks prior. The workplace is a social setting. People attend to what
is going on, not only because they attend to their co-workers, but also
because how you treat others says a lot about how youre likely to
treat them in the future.
The more youve communicated, communicated, communicated why this
is happening, what the criteria were, how the decisions were made in advance,
the better off you are going to be.
Do businesses get the importance of lots of communications?
I think so. Theyre understanding that they need to be clear, they
need to be concise, they need to be consistent. And they need to just
repeat it and repeat it and repeat it.
Recent research Ive been doing suggests that there is an aspect
of this that organizations are still struggling to get. And it speaks
to that issue of how a manager behaves on the Monday morning after. In
talking with managers who have been through just this situation, I find
that how they behave depends upon their role in the whole downsizing event.
Ive seen extremes one where a manager was basically handed
a list of people who were going to get pink slips, their last paychecks,
and an escort out of the building on Friday, and the manager had no say
at all. This frequently happens to people who are in supervisory roles.
You have a work unit that youre charged with, but the manager above
you is making the choice without input from you as a supervisor. Its
a done deal. Then you get Monday morning and the remaining people in that
unit are coming to you with questions.
In talking with these managers, I find that how they react is a function
of whether they expected to be involved in the layoff decisions. You get
some of them who say, I wouldnt have touched that job with
a twenty-foot pole; they did what they needed to do. That person
is just going to read the script and if somebody presses her on what her
role was, will reply, I had nothing to do with this. The organization
felt this was necessary.
That manager needs to understand her co-workers arent going to be
too happy, because part of what they expect their supervisor to do is
represent their interests to the folks above them. All of a sudden, she
may have a workforce thats going to start trying to undermine her
and question her legitimacy and authority. It makes work difficult.
Then youve got the supervisor who expected to be included, but wasnt
included in the decision making. Shes angry. Because now shes
in this role of having to explain to others what happened.
I try to coach managers to understand that youre not always going
to know how the decisions were made that affect your unit. The worst thing
you can do in that situation is convey to your staff that you were out
of the loop and didnt know what was going on. You have to be able
to explain why the organization did what the organization did and how
that affects your unit. If you dont understand that, then you need
to ask your supervisor so you can provide that explanation when your staff
comes to you with questions. Thats the phone call you better be
making Friday afternoon or on the weekend.
Either way, that Monday morning is not pleasant.
Over the past twenty years has the business worlds handling of
layoff situations improved?
I think theres a lot more guidance and counseling on how to manage
it out there, lots of workshops on managing the legal issues, a lot more
expertise in terms of outplacement. Weve really seen a whole industry
that has grown up to support firms that are doing these sorts of things.
Does the way in which it hurts for the employees who lose their jobs changed?
No, people have not become inured to it. You go to work, you bust your
butt, you think youre doing the best you can do until youre
told differently, and lots of time our performance management systems
dont tell you youre not doing a good job until youve
been handed the pink slip.
In addition to working with firms coping with downsizing, another aspect
of my work has been helping start-up businesses. Personally, it helps
me keep my equanimity. And some of the things Ive learned about
how firms get sideways and business leaders end up with their backs against
the wall are helpful to know when youre starting up a business.
The hope is that knowledge can help new business leaders avoid falling
into the same situation.