Why Employees Are Like Napkins…

...and other observations from finance-savvy HR experts about the difficult job of downsizing.

With layoffs continuing to pulsate through Corporate America, CFO.com sat down with three veteran business management experts to talk about the thought process behind head-count reductions, alternatives to that drastic step, and how to move forward if you take it. The panelists — they were interviewed separately, but their comments have been woven together in a panel-discussion format — include:

• Jeff Higgins, executive vice president of client services, North America, for Infohrm, a workforce analytics company. He is a former CFO of Klune Industries, a midsize aerospace and defense manufacturer, and a former divisional controller and finance vice president at Johnson & Johnson.

• Jason Zickerman, CEO of The Alternative Board, a 19-year-old firm that provides peer-to-peer advisory meetings and executive coaching for small and midsize private companies. Earlier in his career Zickerman was an accountant with Ernst & Young.

• Dean Meyer, a business transformation consultant, researcher, and writer. He founded his company, NDMA, in 1982.

What’s your opinion of all the layoffs? Facts and circumstances obviously differ from company to company, but in general, do you think corporations are cutting the right number of people? Too many? Too few?

Higgins: As a former CFO, I certainly understand, because I used to be the person who had to either recommend, enforce, or administer work force cuts. But my experience was always that job cuts are one of the most unscientific decisions companies make. They typically use some back-of-the-envelope technique. Today, many companies may be overcutting, if their long-term strategic plan is growth.

In financial statements, corporations often refer to employees as being among their most valuable assets. That’s a complete contradiction. Employees are usually seen as period expenses. They’re the same as a napkin. They’re less than a chair, because if you bought a bunch of chairs, they are capital equipment. Computers rate far higher than people in accounting systems.

Zickerman: It has been demonstrated time and time again through the years when recessions have hit that during the good times organizations had gotten fat. I’ve been around companies that got rid of 20 to 25 percent of their workforce and didn’t skip a beat.

But one of the big things many companies are overlooking is what it costs to rehire and retrain. An analysis of that, at a minimum, allows you to re-look at who you’re letting go versus just picking the ones with the least seniority or the highest paid. Forget those rules of thumb — they’re very shortsighted.

Meyer: It’s kind of the wrong question to start with. What I advocate is, don’t cut “inputs” — head count, training, travel. Cut “outputs” — the things you produce. If you cut out a strategy to go heavily into South America, you cut all the costs associated with that. Then you can fully fund the fewer things you decide to do so you can do them well.


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