Layoffs show ethical standards have been fired, says Cohen

On NPR, a woman told a reporter that her boss was laying off colleagues she just didn't like -- and perhaps couldn't fire legally if she told them the true reason (i.e., gender, not attractive enough, etc.) telling them "it's the economy." While this surely is the extreme end of the unethical layoff spectrum, Randy Cohen argues in his "The Moral of the Story" blog in the New York Times that all layoffs are unethical ("at least until more benign tactics have been exhausted").

I've long agreed with this concept, and seen it time and time again in big and small organizations, many to whose financials I was privy. While major contractors and management figures continue to be paid handsomely, rank-and-file workers are dismissed, handing their problems -- from putting food in their mouths, to health care, to the inevitably vesting retirement funds -- to society. Bye-bye, George in customer accounts, you can ask the state Department of Human Services to feed and care for you and your three children. Better yet, your wife can get an extra job...

Cohen articulates what I've always thought; he just says it funnier. Pointing to news of 20,000 layoffs at Caterpillar, he writes, "Caterpillar may not simply pile a bunch of unwanted workers into a van, drive across town, drop them on the doorstep of a flourishing company, ring the doorbell and run away." In fact, treating them like this is equal to treating a person like a thing (a robot to be turned off and stacked in the warehouse). "Caterpillar's workers have existed for years -- sometimes generations -- in profound dependence on the company. (No work, no food.) In accepting and profiting from this relationship, Caterpillar (i.e., its stockholders) incurs moral obligations to those workers. In hard times, it may not simply say: find another job. There are no other jobs, or surely not enough of them... people are not machines."

Having worked for a few companies whose kneejerk response to every problem was to fire a bunch of people, to throw a bunch of zeros in the spreadsheet row under "FTEs" and look, satisfied, at the amazing and magical way profit just bounces up (and do you know our bonuses are based on profit margins?!? Whee!), I have to say, yes, yes, yes. Sadly, I doubt any of the management of those companies -- or the ones to which Cohen refers -- are listening.

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