LESLIE SAVAN: Layoff Lit
Company profits are at record highs, while wages are stagnant or diving. The announcement of 40,000 layoffs by AT&T sends its stock sky-high. It's now such a commonplace that mass firings are crucial for corporate survival that hundreds of thousands more are likely to be "downsized" by the end of this decade. The social contract seems to have been written in water with a bar napkin -- but do not assume these economic adjustments are dictated by a heedless, unfeeling elite. To help American workers face the brave new world of ephemeral employment, management is handing out a fistful of self-hurt books. Okay, they're meant to help, not hurt, but the message jack-hammered home by these corporate motivational tracts -- increasingly popular, with millions sold since 1987 -- is that if you resist "culture change," you're dead meat. Such tough-love, tough-labor handbooks are advertisements for the most profitable new product of the post-industrial corporation: layoffs. With titles like High-Velocity Culture Change and The Employee Survival Guide to Mergers and Acquisitions, these opuses of the age of cutbacks, as if from the mouths of freshman House Republicans, are pamphlets really, 20- to 50-page stapled jobs, $5.95 each. Most are written by Dallas psychologist-turned-business consultant Price Pritchett, whose Pritchett & Associates sells them in bulk directly to corporations. Pritchett says his handbooks have reached 4 million employees in more than 45,000 organizations, including 85 percent of the Fortune 500 companies, not to mention churches, universities, and the U.S. Army. But the Army probably hasn't seen anything this brutal. "Watching a corporate culture change is like walking through a war zone," Pritchett and co-author Ron Pound write in management-targeted High-Velocity. "You see misery. Wreckage. Trauma. And casualties....Casualties cause fear," they admit. "But that's better than complacency. At least fear ratchets up the emotional energy, and you can use that to fuel the change effort." They warn against "anti-change" resisters: "Some people simply will not wake up and smell the coffee....You're better off (and they probably are, too) if you get rid of them."Management would like key phrases in these handbooks to catch on like a Saturday Night Live routine, so they pass them out for free. A friend of mine, who writes training material for a paper-products company in New Jersey, was handed High-Velocity and Culture Shift: The Employee Handbook for Changing Corporate Culture. "My boss was really insistent that I read them, they might as well be the Bible. There is something in them that I'm supposed to reflect in the training material. Like that there's no such thing as a secure employee."When you survey the carnage, you often find that Pritchett's been there. IBM has used two of the booklets, High-Velocity and New Work Habits for a Radically Changing World, here and there throughout the company for a few years now, says a spokesman. "They appeal because they net out." Excuse me? "In other words, they're not long. They're good, simple, and consistent with what we're doing at IBM." One thing IBM's been doing is producing layoffs in numbers that swamp even AT&T's latest: 63,000 jobs in 1993. AT&T has handed out the Pritchett preachings, as have the decade's other top job-killers--GM (70,000 in '91) and Sears (50,000 in '93). If Pritchett agit-prop hasn't fueled the firings, it's certainly bolstered attitudes used to justify them. Sneak a look at, for instance, High-Velocity, subtitled A Handbook for Managers. Presumably safe from submanagement eyes, High-Velocity offers shockingly direct tips on how to bend workers (whom it actually refers to as "the masses") to executive will. "From the very outset you must free yourself from the existing culture....If there isn't a crisis already, management has to create one....You might get the needed shake-up if you restructure, downsize, relocate, or merge the group....But somehow you must hit with enough shock effect to immobilize the old culture at least temporarily."And like the GOP, Pritchett loathes "entitlement." "People may feel they're 'entitled' to raises, promotions, perks, appreciation, attention, etc., but now is the time to destroy the entitlement mind set. Put all rewards out of reach of those people who don't contribute to the new culture. And if no one qualifies, well, so be it."The only bright, if ludicrous, notes in this dire document are those resonating with the fake rebel movement sweeping the land. "You need radicals," he writes. "Rebels. Revolutionaries. People who howl at the moon."Unsurprisingly, Pritchett doesn't urge the masses to howl. With them, he's a tad softer, even self-helpy, as in New Work Habits for a Radically Changing World: 13 Ground Rules for Job Success in the Information Age, his bestseller at about 1 million copies. "Commitment [to a job] is a gift you should give to yourself." And when things go wrong, like getting canned, don't blame management. "Some employees get pinched [and they] accuse top management of 'breaking the psychological contract,' of changing the rules. But it's more accurate to say the organization is merely responding to a rule change called by the world." Above all, never resist. "Take no part whatsoever in resistance to change. If the organization decides to turn on a dime, follow it like a trailer."But what is this "culture change" that Pritchett holds up like the Holy Grail? And for whom does its blood flow? An answer that turned on a dime was not in the handbooks, so I asked Price Pritchett. At first afraid that I might not emit enough Stepford Employee tones to get him to the phone, I was pleasantly surprised when Pritchett sounded nice, soft-spoken, and not at all fire-breathing. In fact, given his promo photo, I imagined nebishy Laugh-In regular Henry Gibson at the other end of the line. So what's with this kultcha, and how will it look when it's changed? Pritchett seemed unwilling to describe it, other than to say tautologically it would be "a more change-adaptive culture." But you can probably picture it: speeded up, impersonal, and bleak. "If people criticize our books, it's because they're not soft and gentle and poor baby. They face reality and do what works. We write to pain, and I think that's one of the reasons for our success."Pritchett has plenty of competition in the corporate-revolutionary field (like the much smaller business bookleteer, Crisp Publications and bestselling business authors like Tom Peters, though most don't sell direct to corporations), but he is in no danger of being downsized. "The user list of our handbooks in the government sector is growing by leaps and bounds," he says. "They're finally having to come to grips with their bloated bureaucracies and the fact that technology is replacing people."But his handbooks never stop to ask whether these companies, many of them extremely profitable, really need to destroy the village to save it.Pritchettean philosophy rests on the false assumption of its own inevitability -- that the massive divestment of corporate responsibility of the past few years is forced by the Invisible Hand of global competition. But it's not at all inevitable: It takes a deliberate decision to shift revenues from "human resources" (corporatese for people) into boosted dividends, huge ad budgets, and obscene CEO salaries. AT&T may be slaughtering workers -- ostensibly to aerobicize for its announced break-up into three separate companies -- but its advertising budget of more than $1 billion a year -- or $2.5 million a day -- according to Ad Age, won't lose a cent. In fact, as AT&T fights its way into local phone service, "competition should result in increased advertising," says an AT&T spokeswoman. Meanwhile, as Newsweek Wall Street editor Allan Sloan writes, "...at AT&T, as at many of the companies that eviscerated their payrolls in the 1980s and '90s, the people whose mistakes helped cause the problem often end up with fatter paychecks and bigger stock-option profits by firing people from the lower ranks." Sloan estimates that AT&T CEO Robert Allen's firings increased his wealth by more than $5 million. My friend at the New Jersey paper company who was told to write Pritchett prose into training manuals, says things at work have gotten worse since the business was bought by a group "whose philosophy is to bring in part-timers who have no benefits and no job security. When I came in the other day, the whole purchasing department had been fired. People are like animals caught in a trap, gnawing their legs off, asking, 'What did we do wrong?' The best thing about these pamphlets," he adds sarcastically, "is that they put the onus on the employees -- 'don't mollycoddle people married to doing things the old way.'" In any case, he's throwing in his lot with the anti-change resistance: He's refusing to inject the slave language of High-Velocity into the company training material.