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Downsizing: When It Happens to You

Downsizing: When It Happens to You

Bruce Weinstein | BusinessWeek

Americans are bracing for massive job losses in the wake of the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression. Even before the recent worries on Wall Street, anxiety about employment was high; earlier this year, the U.S. Labor Dept. released a report stating that there had been a net loss of 63,000 jobs, which was the biggest monthly decline in five years.

Whether or not your own job is in jeopardy in the near future, at some point in your career you may become a victim of downsizing. What should you do? What you should avoid doing at all costs?

What’s Ethics Got to Do with It?

Being laid off is one of the most traumatic events we can experience. On the Holmes-Rahe Stress Scale, getting fired is the eighth most stressful life experience, behind the death of a spouse (No. 1) or going to jail (No. 4), but ahead of the death of a close friend (No. 17), foreclosure on a mortgage or loan (No. 21), or in-law troubles (No. 24). Rightly or wrongly, many of us define ourselves by our jobs, which is why one of the first questions we ask someone we meet is, “What do you do?”

I’ve already shown why downsizing has ethical implications for the bearers of bad news. But ethical issues are also at stake for those on the receiving end. If you’ve just been downsized, I’ll bet your first response was, “That’s not fair!” Even if your company had—or believes it had—good reasons to eliminate your position, from your point of view it feels as though an injustice has occurred. And of course fairness is one of five fundamental ethical principles. Even if it’s hard to see how ethics plays a role in other areas of your life, when you’re on the receiving end of a perceived injustice, ethics moves front and center into your field of vision.

But it’s not just fairness that is at stake here. When you ask yourself, “How will I be able to pay my bills now?” the underlying question is, “How can I meet my responsibilities to my family, myself, and those to whom I owe money?” All of these responsibilities are ethical ones and are applications of the principles of avoiding harm, of making things better, and showing respect for others.

Finally, we’ve all known people who let the loss of their job get the better of them, so the ethical principle of compassion, which applies to how we treat ourselves, too, is also on the table.

A Code of Personal Responsibility

I propose the following guidelines for you to consider, should you find yourself suddenly out of a job.

1. Get angry … later. It’s easy to react with hostility when you’re told that your position is being eliminated. Don’t. The suggestions I’ve made for dealing with anger-provoking situations are especially relevant in this circumstance. It’s only human to be terribly upset or even filled with rage, but acting on those feelings may violate the do-no-harm principle. Less obvious but also important to think about is the damage you would do to a valued relationship that you may not be able to undo. You won’t regret holding back, but you will regret losing your cool.

2. Don’t take it personally. We’d like to be able to control our lives and shape our destiny through the sheer force of will, but sometimes things happen to us that have absolutely nothing to do with what we’ve done or who we are. This is one of those times.