A spoonful of ethics, a sprinkling of culture

Professor Aarti Ramaswami, Deputy Dean ESSEC Asia-Pacific, shares Part 2 of her research on downsizing, this time focusing on strategies across countries and cultures.  

By Tom Gamble and Aarti Ramaswami. Related research: Ethics Trumps Culture? A Cross-National study of Business Leader Responsibility for Downsizing and CSR Perceptions: C. Lakshman, Aarti Ramaswami, Ruth Atlas, Jean F. Kabongo, J. Rajendran Pandian.

Cutting across cultures

Aarti Ramaswami’s research builds on previous work to include an interesting new angle: that of how downsizing is experienced not only through the layers of a firm and its outside stakeholders, but also across borders and cultures. She and her colleagues took populations from four countries – 626 working professionals and master’s students from the USA, France, India and Estonia – to see if the same effects were felt and whether the fact of having different cultures modified the feelings of either inacceptable injustice or justified acceptance at the downsizing decision.

The choice of culture was shrewd, the USA being where downsizing is perhaps most commonly used to turn around organisational performance; France using downsizing despite often largescale public outcry and a complex labour law; India in its traditions versus economic growth showing an increase in downsizing incidence and finally Estonia, sitting between Scandinavian and eastern European cultures, having undergone immense change from guaranteed jobs and passive business performance under the former soviet regime to a full market economy within EU membership – with all its vacuum of meaning this shift has left.

The good, the bad, and the ugly

The effects of a botched downsizing strategy can be disastrous on a human level. Those that are laid off – the victims – may go through the typical range of psychological states when faced with shock or trauma: denial, anger, shame, sadness, depression. In the worst cases, this process may repeat itself in an infernal emotional loop that goes on for years after. We might also believe that those who keep their jobs – the survivors – come out of it happy. In fact, their lot can be almost as traumatic as the victim’s: anger, fear for the future, lack of motivation to continue the effort to work and interact harmoniously with their management, relief but also guilt. The degree of reaction – negative or positive – depends on two things.

The first is how those chosen to lose their jobs are selected. If individual employees are treated on the merit they each deserve and the criteria is considered fair – not simply sacking someone because they fail to wear a smile or because their skin colour is different, but measured by their level of work performance, commitment or skills sets – then the downsizing decision is likely to be seen as ethical and pragmatic. Organisations that do not use clearly specified criteria are seen by employees as socially irresponsible. Unsurprisingly, communities outside the firm will also take the same view.

The second factor is all about employee perceptions of procedural justice – use of improper procedures and lack of employee involvement leave the decision-makers wide open to claims of being unethical. Prof. Ramaswami suggests that when employees are kept in the dark with little communication and detail – and subject to having downsizing imposed on them – they are likely to find that unethical. This dimension is also an important area of assessment for CSR. Supervisory support, clearly defined lay off criteria, good procedure, the possibility for employees to express themselves and trust in management are therefore key to obtaining the notion that although tough, the decision to downsize is justified and fair.

Responsibility comes with a price

People tend to search for someone responsible for the plight of those who lose their jobs or faced by job insecurity and uncertainty. As such, the CEO’s decision to downsize is critical in influencing people’s reactions. As already stated, there might be a temptation to streamline in the belief that the firm’s stock price increases, though new evidence points to this being short-term in nature and only effective in periods of economic non-recession. In any case, a CEO’s prestige, power and influence are ultimately damaged through layoffs.

The arguments for reducing the workforce are many – globalization, and technological change among them – but it can also be the case that incompetent management has been the cause of poor results. And when the workforce and wider community get a whiff of this, any downsizing attempt will be seen as wholly unjustified. Here again, clarity and communication are capital in shaping stakeholder acceptance of downsizing. Naming the responsible cause – be it difficult times or fierce competition – means that both victims and survivors will consider downsizing as socially responsible and inevitable in order to save the firm. In contrast, when downsizing is due to management failures, workers do not see things in the same eye.

Culture club

Do nationality and culture have a part in culling acceptance of a downsizing decision? Take Prof. Ramaswami’s club of 4 – the USA, France, India and Estonia. Anyone’s initial guesstimate would tend to see US employees being more open to accepting downsizing – it happens more frequently there and Americans are more used to the dangers of an economic system that hinges on profit and growth. Some might also – given France’s image of strong unions and cultural penchant for refusal in the face of change – be tempted to say that workers in France would tend not to accept.

To put this to the test, Aarti Ramaswami and her fellow researchers used well-researched models of cross-cultural values. One of the dimensions used to measure cultural influence in approaches to work is that of ‘power distance’ – the nature and acceptance of inequality, hierarchical relationships, and decision-making in different cultures. The USA in a corporate context, for example, is seen as basically flat in terms of hierarchy with easy access to management and quick decision-making, while France is seen as pyramidal in nature with successive layers of subordination from the top down and lower scope for initiative and decision-making among employees.

Research showed that all four cultures (USA, France, India and Estonia) were equally sensitive to fairness in the selection criteria for lay-offs, the equity of procedures, and the opportunity for employees to communicate. If these are seen as just, ethical and justified, then employee acceptance of downsizing is likely to occur. In these three specific areas – criteria, procedures, and communication – it means that a universal set of ethics has greater leverage than one’s specific culture.

However, it was when tackling a fourth area – that of responsibility for the downsizing decision – that differences in culture were seen to have the edge over universal ethics. Survivors – those keeping their jobs – in low power distance cultures (USA and Estonia) seemed to react more negatively to downsizing than those in high power distance cultures (France and India) when downsizing was due to poor management. Whether this is due to closer relations and trust between employees and management in low power distance organisations – and therefore greater subsequent feelings of betrayal – remains to be studied. But the message here is that top management needs to be wary of culture when planning and rolling out their downsizing strategy. The motivation and performance of their employee survivors is at stake. So is their reputation. Shaping the blame of downsizing must be done carefully and responsibly. It takes a large spoonful of ethics and a sprinkling of cultural awareness to do so.

  • Read Part 1 of Prof. Ramaswami’s article
  • Aarti Ramaswami and the Council on Business & Society
    Aarti Ramaswami

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    The Council on Business & Society (The CoBS), visionary in its conception and purpose, was created in 2011, and is dedicated to promoting responsible leadership and tackling issues at the crossroads of business and society including sustainability, diversity, ethical leadership and the place responsible business has to play in contributing to the common good.  

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