September 29th, 2008
01:03 PM ET

Downsizing 102 – When It Happens to You

Editor's Note: The Ethics Guy, Dr. Bruce Weinstein, writes the ethics column for BusinessWeek.com.Here is Dr. Weinsteins followup blog to to downsizing: "Downsizing 101 – When You Have to Do It"

Bruce Weinstein, Ph.D.
AC360° Contributor
The Ethics Guy,

Americans are bracing for massive job losses in the wake of the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression. Even before the recent crisis 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 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? We’ll consider these questions in this column, the second of a two-part series on the ethics of downsizing.

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 (#1) or going to jail (#4), but ahead of the death of a close friend (#17), foreclosure on a mortgage or loan (#21), or in-law troubles (#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 (Read 'Be Fair- Part 1' and 'Be Fair – Part 2' ). 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 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 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.

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.
  3. Get a Recommendation
    One of the best ways for a potential employer to find out how valuable you are is to hear from your current boss, but you may have to be the one to make this happen. Get a recommendation in writing as soon as possible. Volunteer to write it yourself. If a letter is out of the question or doesn’t arrive in a timely fashion, ask your boss to send you a short e-mail; even a one- or two-line testimonial will do. Get your boss’s permission to put his or her direct phone number on your resume and give out at job interviews.
  4. Be a Self-Promoter
    We’re raised to believe that it’s wrong to toot your own horn, but if ever there were a time to put that belief aside, it’s now. As Rabbi Hillel said, “If I am not for myself, who will be?” (Of course, he wisely added, “But if I am not for others, what am I?”) One of our greatest challenges is striking the right balance between self-absorption and devotion to others. Still, there is not only no harm in standing up for yourself; it is unethical not to do so.Believing in yourself is one of the best ways of applying the principle of compassion to your own life. Consider this as well: how can others benefit from your expertise if you don’t get the word out?
  5. Grief is Good
    Grief is a natural and healthy response to losing something or someone of value in your life, and taking your grief seriously is another important way to treat yourself with kindness. It is a sign of strength, not weakness, to seek counseling in the wake of being downsized. If you sustained an injury to your back, you would have no qualms about getting physical therapy. Why shouldn’t you seek the appropriate remedy when your world is turned upside down? Many of us still attach a stigma to psychotherapy—wrongly so.
  6. Accentuate the Positive
    Is it possible that one of the worst things that could happen to you might turn out to be the best? Take a look at Harvey MacKay’s We Got Fired!: . . . And It's the Best Thing That Ever Happened to Us (Ballantine Books, 2004). Michael Bloomberg, Muhammad Ali, Billie Jean King, Home Depot (HD) founder Bernie Marcus, Lee Iacocca, and Robert Redford are just a few of the wildly successful people who explain how losing a job led to something much better.

Yes, it’s dispiriting to get laid off, but MacKay’s book reminds us of the riches that may lie just beyond the horizon, which would have been unavailable had we stayed where we were.

Bottom line: Taking the high road is challenging enough when all is going well. The real test of your character comes from how you respond when things are at their worst. Following the above guidelines will help you show the world—and yourself—that nothing, not even the loss of your job, can hold you back from success.

Note: Nothing in this column is intended to be or should be construed as legal advice. Please consult an attorney for legal questions you may have about your termination.

Filed under: Bruce Weinstein • Economy • Ethics • Job Market
soundoff (5 Responses)
  1. pati mc., camp hill, pa


    Thank you so much for your response, I greatly appreciate your well wishes! You have made my day.

    I remain positive, and although today will be diffcult to say the least, your great advice will be put to good use in my office. Please take pride in the fact that you have helped 20 or so people in a very trying time. Hope to hear more from you in the future. =)

    Thanks again! Hoping for the best!

    September 30, 2008 at 5:55 am |
  2. Bruce Weinstein, Ph.D.

    Thank you for your kind words, Pati. I'm really sorry you lost your job and hope that you'll find rewarding work soon.

    Take good care,


    September 29, 2008 at 5:39 pm |
  3. JJ

    To late for the advice for me. My job went to Mexico and China five years ago. And this company had the nerve to want the employees to train them. So no matter what happens at this point. I have downsized my life. And prepared for whatever comes. I had no choice. Can Wall Street downsize, thats the question.

    September 29, 2008 at 4:57 pm |
  4. pati mc, camp hill, pa

    Well this is timely. As I write this we are packing up my office, which after tomorrow will no longer exist. It is the oddest thing I have ever been through in my life.

    Bruce, I so appreciate your timely advice. I needed this greatly. I've printed out your piece and passed it out to all of my soon-to-be-ex-cowokers. They asked me to thank you.

    September 29, 2008 at 4:32 pm |
  5. Camina T. in Arroyo Grande CA

    Lets keep looking up!This country is a mess. There is always work cleaning up after a mess.Unless we want to sit and rot in our own mess we can find work. If the someone wants to just sit on the money and make everyone else rot that could be a problem however. If we don't REPOWER America with that bright star above our heads (solar power) we are going to be downsized off the planet also.

    September 29, 2008 at 1:34 pm |