Reenergizing Employees After a Downsizing

(This case study was developed by J. Colquitt, J. Lepine, and M. Wesson)

Andrea Zuckerman is the editor in chief of the Blaze, a small, college-town newspaper owned by a large national conglomerate. After the latest round of downsizing at the Blaze, Andrea is going to hold briefings today to reenergize the remaining employees and inform them about the new changes. In fact, she had been aware of the impending downsizing for some time. However, she had to hold her tongue while the corporate wheels turned. She did not agree with how the corporate consultants had determined who would go, which was largely determined by who had the highest salaries. Moreover, she did not agree with how the news was being delivered—not by her, but by a consultant who would be a complete stranger to all involved. “They are taking away our wisest,” she noted, “and they are taking away those folks’ dignity for good measure.”

Andrea was aware of the reasons behind the downsizing. She was, after all, working in a dying industry. Every newspaper, from the New York Times and Washington Post down to the smallest rag in the smallest town, had a sliver of the readership of a decade ago. First it was 24-hour cable news, then the Internet, then smartphones. Each made newspapers less central to the current events consumption of the folks in a given town. Corporate had tried to stay ahead of these trends when they bought the Blaze, an event that had been marked by a smaller round of downsizing as costs were cut, the paper was scaled back, and Tuesday and Wednesday deliveries were ended. However, there had been hope associated with those changes, with everyone assuming that corporate resources could help the Blaze reinvent itself and leverage new technologies to stay relevant.

This time around, the Blaze is confronting a “new normal.” Its function moving forward will be to serve as a local portal to the broader news resources offered by corporate. When folks in town log on to the Blaze using either their web browser or their smartphone or tablet app, they will see a combination of local stories written by Blaze staff and national and world stories authored by staff at other papers under the corporate umbrella. Eventually the print version of the paper will be a weekend-only phenomenon, and even that will almost certainly end at some point. All these changes mean that the paper will need fewer reporters, photographers, artists, and section editors, not to mention fewer assistants. There may also need to be some restructuring and merging of assignments and duties.

Andrea is worried about what to say to the staff at the morning briefing. As the survivors of a poorly handled layoff, it will be on her to restore some semblance of morale. After all, the last thing the paper needs is its remaining staff giving two weeks’ notice. In fact, they are going to need to be more committed than ever, because more is going to be asked of them than when they were hired. She will have to be somewhat careful with this speech, of course, as the HR person installed by corporate—Jessie Vasquez—will no doubt remind her. Jessie is good at his job in many ways, even if Andrea complains about his general level of risk aversion. Jessie’s primary concerns will revolve around Andrea saying something that could either trigger a wrongful termination suit, or be used as ammunition if such a suit was brought by a staffer against corporate.

The afternoon briefing is going to be more complicated. That is where Andrea hopes to begin charting a course toward the “new normal,” so that everyone understands what they will be in for. The rumor mill has already been working overtime, and many of the scenarios being floated might actually wind up being worse than the eventual status quo. Therefore, it is important to begin discussing the future look of the Blaze quickly, to create some information to go along with the misinformation. Andrea does not want to make decisions about that future course too quickly, as nothing will undermine the staff’s confidence more than a collection of faulty ideas that gets revised a few months into its existence.

There are a lot of things to consider when contemplating the new operations of the Blaze. The paper has historically grouped its functions into five areas: state, city, sports, lifestyle, and business. It seems to Andrea that those five areas will need to get merged into two or three. The reporters, photographers, artists, and editors in those areas will still perform the same duties. They will just do those duties for a broader range of content than they did before. However, Andrea is undecided about groupings. Some groupings seem logical to Andrea, but maybe the staff working in those areas would find other combinations more appealing. Furthermore, it seems like the degree of “enlargement” will vary a bit. Some staffers will be taking on just a little bit more, whereas others will be taking on a lot more. The paper will need both groups to perform their tasks, and perform them well.

There is also the matter of who’s willing and able to shoulder a lot more rather than a little more. Andrea knows from experience that this can be a dicey issue. Some staffers excel at a narrowly defined set of duties but struggle once those duties are expanded. Others seem to lack any limit to what they can take on, at least in the short term. Aside from her own hunches, Andrea does not know how to tell one group from the other. Everyone at the Blaze filled out a bunch of assessments and inventories when corporate acquired the paper, and all that information should be in everyone’s personnel files. It may not offer definitive answers, but it is a good bet that the information would offer at least some insights.

Asking some staffers to take on a lot more while others are asked to take on a little more could be a recipe for controversy. Indeed, Andrea has already been getting complaints about the relative workloads across areas for years! In this regard, corporate might actually help for a change. It turns out that they tend to budget more for compensation-related expenditures in the wake of a downsizing. They have learned from experience that survivors sometimes need a bit of a bump to stay committed, and they have also learned that “downsizees” occasionally need to be hired back, this time at the going rate for the job market. Corporate can justify such expenses because the downsizing still results in a cost savings, even with extra for the survivors factored in. She may have to check with Jessie, but Andrea suspects she could leverage those extra funds in a creative way, to make the new pay structure match up with the new job structure.

Certainly there are a lot of moving parts to the kinds of restructuring that Andrea is contemplating. Although her role as the editor in chief gives her the best “big picture” sense of how all those parts look from 20,000 feet, it is still not clear that she knows everything she needs to know (even with Jessie’s help). On the one hand, it might be helpful to involve the Blaze’s staff in the decision making, as the future course of the paper gets charted. That would give them “buy-in” and ensure that all the bases are covered as a new structure takes shape. On the other hand, keeping reporters, photographers, artists, and editors on the same page is often like herding cats. What if she asks for suggestions and the staffers take off in completely different directions? Once the Pandora’s box of “input” is opened, it is not clear that even Andrea could get it shut again.

Although the new day-to-day work of the Blaze staff is foremost on Andrea’s mind, she cannot help but think of a bigger-picture issue that hangs over everything. Will the staffers still feel the same way about not just their jobs, but their vocations? It was hard enough when the Blaze was first acquired by corporate. Many of the staffers had been attracted to “Blaze 1.0” because it was a small-town operation. They could live in a charming place with a low cost of living, and could do their work the way they wanted to. The more corporate “Blaze 2.0” brought with it a certain degree of standardization, with corporate imposing some common work practices that it had honed in other, mostly bigger papers. Nevertheless, at the end of the day, everyone was still in the newspaper business.

Even if a new structure works out, and even if the compensation issues get solved, the move to “Blaze 3.0” poses a more existential threat. Is everyone still in the newspaper business or are they now in the web portal business? How much of their identity is wrapped up in the feeling of seeing someone read the paper at a coffee shop or pick it up off a doorstep? Finally, what does it mean for the Blaze to focus only on local news, no longer being able to weigh in on world and national events, issues, trends, sports, and buzz? These issues hit home especially deeply for Andrea. Not only was her father in the newspaper business, but also her grandfather was. They used to joke that “ink was in their blood.” One day there might not even be any ink.

Some motivational clichés could be sprinkled into the morning and afternoon briefings, of course. However, Andrea has never been the rah-rah type, and the pain of losing so many colleagues would likely cause such speechifying to fall on deaf ears. Maybe this is how encyclopedia salespeople felt, or typewriter manufacturers, once upon a time. Maybe there is something Andrea could do to retain some of the meaning and “romanticism” in what the Blaze does. The paper has always been so focused on the day-by-day, issue-by-issue pressures of the job. Maybe it has missed some opportunities to do something larger for the town or the nearby campus.


1. Putting yourself in the shoes of Andrea, which of the four justice dimensions (distributive, procedural, interpersonal, informational) is most important in the morning briefing? Should Andrea be honest and informative in explaining corporate actions in the downsizing, or should she be more guarded? What would be the ethical implications of those two options?

2. Drawing discussions on justice and ethics, what advice would you give to Andrea in terms of her use of the bigger compensation budget? Would you give everyone a short-term “retention bonus” or a more permanent raise? Or would you leverage those funds to support the changes in the work structure, especially for those staffers with an especially expanded workload? What would be the ethical implications of those options?

3. Which motivation theories and motivational factors would Andrea apply when combining areas for the staffers? Is there a way to give the new versions of their jobs a higher satisfaction potential than the pre-downsizing versions?

4. How much voice and input would you recommend Andrea give to the staffers, as the Blaze transitions to its “new normal”? What are the pluses of giving such input and what would be the dangers associated with it? How could those dangers be mitigated?