I have spent time lately talking to people who were recently laid off from jobs they liked. Merry Christmas, right? The idea that hard work equals financial success is a myth. Of course it’s true that unless you inherit money or win the lottery it’s nearly impossible to be successful without persistent hard work. But it’s equally true you can work bone-achingly hard in a diner, a coalmine, or a global corporation and struggle and stress your entire life.
Most people today feel especially vulnerable because business managers have become hardened to the suffering caused by laying off workers at the first sign of an economic slowdown. For 50 years our university business schools have reduced business leadership to a series of models dealing with strategy and finance. The human side of business is not even a topic. Labor is a “thing.” A cost line on a profit and loss statement. This mindset has led us to an age of zombie employees who largely live in numb uncertainty about their future.
It’s not surprising.
Frankly it’s hard for senior management to empathize. They usually spend little time making friends with people unlike themselves. When executives think about their own potential job loss they worry about the emotional disappointment of failing but rarely about immediate dire economic consequences. Often their “going away packages” are a year of salary and they usually have deep financial savings that soften the practical effects of a job loss. It’s very rare for these types of executives to put themselves in the shoes of anyone who is one or two paychecks away from missing a rent payment.
Well, I know this sounds outrageous, but I believe the copout excuse that layoffs are just a part of business is simply immoral. That’s right. Immoral. The ethical way to judge the morality of layoffs begins with the understanding that the civilized standard of morality is that each of us has an intrinsic obligation to not cause avoidable suffering. That’s a high standard. But it’s the only standard that matters. If you or I willfully cause human suffering from actions we choose to take, that’s just plain bad.
Think of it this way. Life itself is unfair enough. Through no fault of their own people suffer from cancer, die from accidents, or are wiped out by natural disasters. That kind of human suffering is unavoidable. It’s under the category of “stuff happens.” Civilization evolved to institutionalize compassion. People come together to pool resources to prevent or relieve the suffering caused by events we can’t control. For the most part we do that well.
What’s twisted is that our modern economists have legitimized the view that in spite of living in a time a high civilization property rights trump human rights and our mutual obligations. Economists maintain that the investors of a business have a supreme right to the highest possible profits all the time. Under this theory, in the 1980’s Jack Welch started firing people from profitable divisions of GE so the shareholders could make more money. That’s when “doing more with less” became the mantra of business. It usually meant making more with less people.
But this notion is simply crazy. Critical thinking requires a leader to consider who has the greatest stake in their company’s success. It isn’t the investors. The average share of stock is held for only four weeks or at most months in today’s world of high speed trading. It isn’t a customer. Customers can easily find equal replacements for virtually any product or service. In other words, neither investors nor customers suffer much from disengaging from a business. But employees…they are frequently devastated.
So today U.S. companies have over 900 billion dollars sitting idle in their treasuries. Their leaders can’t think of any way to invest that money productively. They buy their own stock. They increase dividends. But they are so trapped in their traditional business models they can’t think of new ways to put smart, loyal, hardworking people to work. Instead Hewlett Packard lays off 27,000, Citibank 11,000, and on and on. These layoffs are not a failure of the employees; it’s the failure of leaders. It’s not only a sign of incompetence; it’s a sign that most businesses have moral compasses pointing south instead of north.
I am not suggesting we pass laws to prevent layoffs. We need efficient labor markets. What I am advocating is something far more important. It’s simply that business leaders need to accept their primary moral responsibility to the well-being of their employees. To sit on billions of idle cash while former employees watch their lives disintegrate is simply wrong.
We need a revolution of thinking about the economy we are creating. We need to accept ethical responsibility for making choices that impact people’s lives, their health, and their families. We need a moral revolution in business leadership. Nothing less.
If you want to stop your work from killing you or you just want some science based tips on how to de-stress your work life be sure up sign up for regular “thought rocket” tips by clicking here.