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How do you engineer a different kind of layoff?

Layoffs are depressing terms. Its very emotionless for companies to layoff workers like that, but the fact of business and shareholders right that the best action to be taken is to reduce cost during times like these.

Here is an article that shows how companies are doing it nowadays:

Even as layoffs are reaching historic levels, some employers have found an alternative to slashing their work force. Theyre nipping and tucking it instead.

A growing number of employers, hoping to avoid or limit layoffs, are introducing four-day workweeks, unpaid vacations and voluntary or enforced furloughs, along with wage freezes, pension cuts and flexible work schedules. These employers are still cutting labor costs, but hanging onto the labor.

And in some cases, workers are even buying in. Witness the unusual suggestion made in early December by the chairman of the faculty senate at Brandeis University, who proposed that the schools 300 professors and instructors give up 1 percent of their pay.

What we are doing is a symbolic gesture that has real consequences it can save a few jobs, said William Flesch, the senate chairman and an English professor.

He says more than 30 percent have volunteered for the pay cut, which could save at least $100,000 and prevent layoffs for at least several employees. Its not painless, but it is relatively painless and it could help some people, he said.

Some of these cooperative cost-cutting tactics are not entirely unique to this downturn. But the reasons behind the steps and the rationale for the sharp growth in their popularity in just the last month reflect the peculiarities of this recession, its sudden deepening and the changing dynamics of the global economy.

Companies taking nips and tucks to their work force say this economy plunged so quickly in October that they do not want to prune too much should it just as suddenly roar back. They also say they have been so careful about hiring and spending in recent years particularly in the last 12 months when nearly everyone sensed the country was in a recession that highly productive workers, not slackers, remain on the payroll.

At some companies, employees are supporting the indirect wage cuts at least for now. The downturn hit so hard, with its toll felt so widely through hits on pensions and 401(k) retirement plans and with the future so murky, that employers and even some employees say it is better to accept minor cuts than risk more draconian steps.

The rolls of companies nipping at labor costs with measures less drastic than wholesale layoffs include Dell (extended unpaid holiday), Cisco (four-day year-end shutdown), Motorola (salary cuts), Nevada casinos (four-day workweek), Honda (voluntary unpaid vacation time) and The Seattle Times (plans to save $1 million with a week of unpaid furlough for 500 workers). There are also many midsize and small companies trying such tactics.

To be sure, these efforts are far less widespread than layoffs, and outright pay cuts still appear to be rare. Over all, the average hourly pay of rank-and-file workers who make up about four-fifths of the work force rose 3.7 percent from November 2007 to last month, according to the latest Labor Department data.

Watson Wyatt, a consulting firm that tracks compensation trends, published survey data last week that found that 23 percent of companies planned layoffs in the next year, down from 26 percent that said they planned to do so in October. Companies say they are considering other cost cuts, like mandatory holiday shutdowns, salary freezes or cuts, four-day workweeks and reductions of contributions to retirement and health care plans.

Companies seem particularly determined to find alternatives to layoffs in this recession, said Jennifer Chatman, a professor at the Haas School of Business at the University of California, Berkeley. Organizations are trying to cut costs in the name of avoiding layoffs, she said. Its not just that organizations are saying were cutting costs, theyre saying: were doing this to keep from losing people.

She said the tactic builds long-term loyalty among workers who are not laid off and spares the company having to compete again to hire and train anew.

That was part of the thinking at Global Tungsten & Powders, a metal plant in Towanda, Pa., whose business has dropped 25 percent from a year ago. The company has already cut overtime and travel, as well as purchases of office supplies and equipment. It is now allowing and indeed encouraging its 1,000 workers to take unpaid furloughs to stave off more drastic cuts.

We have a very skilled and competent work force and the last thing we want to do is lose them when were assuming this economy is going to come back, said Craig Reider, the companys director of human resources. Workers, he said, are buying in to the concept.

In this holiday season, many employees want to support our efforts here to minimize costs, he said.

In San Francisco, a Web design firm called Hot Studio laid off a handful of workers when the dot-com bubble burst in 2000. But the companys owner, Maria Guidice, said the tactic was painful, and she did not want to repeat it. This time, her first step is to take away bonuses for the first time in the companys 12-year history and instead give people paid time off over the holidays.

In 2000, it was like cut the heads, she said of the ethos of the era. This time, she says, it feels different. Our No. 1 priority is to keep people employed and to do that were going to bank the money and keep it for when we need it, she said, adding, I know some people are super bummed, but they understand were trying to keep the work force intact.

Several employees at Hot Studio said they did not mind the policy, particularly as they have heard of layoffs elsewhere in the economy. People feel theyd much rather have a job in six months than get a bonus right now, said Jon Littell, a Web designer.

The magnanimous feeling will probably pass, said Truman Bewley, an economics professor at Yale University who has studied what happens to wages during a recession. If the sacrifices look as though they are going to continue for many months, he said, some workers will grow frustrated, want their full compensation back and may well prefer a layoff that creates a new permanence.

These are feel-good, temporary measures, he said.

But John Challenger, chief executive of Challenger, Gray & Christmas, a company that tracks layoffs, said employers were being driven now not by compassion but by hard calculations based on data they have never had before. More than ever, he said, companies have used technology to track employee performance and productivity, and in many cases they know that the workers they would cut are productive ones.

People are measured and metricked to a much greater degree, he said. So companies know that when theyre cutting an already taut organization, theyre leaving big gaps in the work force.

At the Pretech Corporation, a concrete manufacturer in Kansas City, Kan., that has not had a layoff in 15 years, part of the rationale is pride. To keep the perfect track record, the company has cut overtime, traded a $5,000 holiday party for an employee-only barbecue lunch, and trimmed its pipe-making operation to four days from five, which allows it to save substantially on heating and electrical costs.

Business is down sharply in some of the companys divisions, but Pretech is also transforming to take on more work making concrete for infrastructure jobs, like the kind the government might support through stimulus efforts, the companys co-owner, Bob Bundschuh, said. He said employees seemed to embrace the changes, knowing that a small sacrifice in overtime pay could preserve their job and the health insurance benefits that go with it.

Were optimistic about the future, he said, adding that he thought things could turn around in six months. If so, We want our guys to stay around because theyre good guys and they work hard.


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