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Too Many CEOs Need A Reminder About Layoffs ... They Really Hurt.

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You might think that after what the country has gone through over the past two years -- 8.4 million people lost their jobs -- I'm needlessly restating the obvious about how devastating layoffs are for those on the receiving end.

But gee whiz, Harley-Davidson's CEO Keith Wandell made me do it.

His company's shares are recovering nicely, up 330% from the worst of 2009. (Yes, yes, I know, share prices were much higher 4 years ago.)

Net income in the second quarter was up 260% over this time last year. (Yes, yes, I know, 2009 was lousy.)

So what's on Mr. Wandell's mind? (And on those of so many CEOs reporting 2nd-quarter profits in recent days?)

Laying off employees ... oh, sorry ... "restructuring."

According to the New York Times, the motorcycle manufacturer plans to layoff "1,400 to 1,600 more jobs" in the coming months, "on top of 2,000 jobs cut last year."

Speaking to AP, Wandell said the company's goal is "the ability to hire and lay off workers more quickly," complaining that "it can take as long as three months to let go of unneeded workers."

Mr. Wandell's job sounds very stressful.

Well, on the chance you might meet Mr. Wandell in the coming days, maybe gassing up his motorcycle somewhere, here are some suggestions for starting up a conversation: a quick summary of what happens to people who are laid off and to their families. (Yes, yes, there are always exceptions, but let me know if any of this doesn't seem pretty reasonable.)

  1. People who lose their jobs can suffer "large and persistent earnings losses that last over twenty years." In other words, if you lose your job in mid-career, you will likely never earn as much as you used to. Never!
  2. Boys whose fathers lose their jobs when the children are between ten and fourteen grow up to earn significantly less than boys whose fathers kept their jobs. As adults, these men are far more likely to receive unemployment insurance and other forms of costly state-sponsored social assistance. Broken families, anyone?
  3. Layoffs kill. A depressing study by two economists from the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago and Columbia University found that when companies lay off large portions of their workforce, the average life span of those let go is shortened by almost two years. "We do establish a causal chain between mass layoffs and death," said Columbia's Till von Wachter. (Harley-Davidson cut roughly 20% of its workforce last year, large enough to be termed "a mass layoff" in the study.)
  4. Layoffs kill communities. In 1957, 10,000 Wisconsin high school graduates were surveyed about their daily lives. 50 years later, most are still talking to researchers about how those lives have unfolded. More than one in four have been laid off, often several times. These people are markedly different from friends who enjoyed steady work. They stopped going to church, they stopped volunteering in civic groups, they stopped helping young people in sporting activities and they stopped spending money in their communities. Even if they found work again, they stopped being part of their communities. Everyone loses.
  5. The Rockefeller Foundation just released its latest survey of how precarious personal financial health is for so many people. In 2009, "the level of economic insecurity experienced by Americans was greater than at any time over the past quarter century, with approximately one in five Americans experiencing a decline in available household income of 25 percent or greater" in the past year.
That's how layoffs hurt people, you can remind Mr. Wandell.

You might, understandably, be tempted to ask Harley-Davidson's CEO why he's so convinced that layoffs are his only option as a manager, but remember -- Mr. Wandell told AP last week that "when you look at the total picture, we feel very good where we're at."

Good for you.

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