June 18, 2019

The Immorality of Layoffs

“Many of the world’s problems can be traced back to how we use words without thinking what they mean or where they come from. Take “active shooter,” for example, a dangerous and idiotic euphemism that appears in nearly every periodical in this country: What would a “passive” shooter look like, I wonder? But a much better and, I think, perhaps even more alarming example is “layoff,” a word that should be synonymous with fraud and theft but which is in fact accepted as an anodyne business term like “budget” or “salary.”

But layoffs in the sense we mean now — when a business decides to terminate the employment of workers in the name of strategic planning, downsizing, smartsizing, optimizing, leveraging syngergies, and goodness knows what other gibberish — are a relatively recent phenomenon. A century ago there was not even a word for such a practice. A “layoff,” according to a glossary of business terms published in 1921, was a “Temporary cessation of employment due ordinarily to lack of orders; a layoff does not constitute permanent discharge.” A worker in those days might be “laid off” because there was no work for him to do and the company could not engage him for surplus or speculative production without risking insolvency.

In the middle of the 20th century, following the gains made by organized labor, corporations did everything they could to avoid getting rid of workers after hiring them. Unless your business was closing down, there was simply no reason to gut your workforce, even if profits were down a bit. To do so would have been considered not only irresponsible but unethical. It was simply not done, and the response to a company that attempted to increase its earnings for shareholders in such a cutthroat manner would have been comparable to the outrage now generated when a CEO says that he opposes gay marriage.”

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