Staff eliminations could rock remaining employees, experts say

Media Credit: Dan Rich | Photo Editor

Gelman Library staff members operate the circulation desk. Gelman Library was one of the central administative departments to suffer staff cuts last month.

Updated: June 6, 2016 at 11:22 a.m.

After GW’s latest round of staff layoffs, experts said cutting positions could have a negative lasting impact on remaining employees’ morale.

The cuts, which officials announced late last month, eliminated 40 positions by laying off employees, eliminating vacant positions and removing positions in which employees were retiring. The cuts were the first in a series of 3 to 5 percent budget cuts in central offices each year until 2021, meaning there is potential for similar cuts in coming years.

University spokeswoman Candace Smith said that while no other cuts or reorganizations are planned for this summer, schools and administrative units can make staffing decisions “on their own time.”

Smith declined to say how many of the positions were vacant at the time they were eliminated.

Smith said all employees whose positions were eliminated were offered severance packages, and employees who retired are eligible for retirement benefits.

“Decisions to reduce staff are never easy,” Smith said in an email. “Care is taken to respect an employee’s privacy, ensure continuity of work and provide out-placement assistance.”

GW employs about 6,900 total, Smith added.

The cuts affected central administrative departments, like the Office of the Executive Vice President and Treasurer, the Division of Information Technology and Gelman Library.

The University’s Staff Association said in its weekly newsletter last week that 12 staff members and seven other positions were eliminated in the IT department, which University officials declined to confirm. This office also lost about 30 positions last year as part of another major staff cut.

The Office of Safety and Security will also be reorganized, combining the Office of Emergency Management and the Office of Health and Safety in a new division called the Office of Health and Emergency Management Services. Smith said officials did not reduce staff positions in this restructure.

Brandon Brown, a former staff member and a founding member of the Staff Association, said the process by which staff are eliminated to save money should be more “intensely scrutinized.” Brown left the University last month, unrelated to the cuts.

“GW staff are an integral part of this community, yet treated like a commodity to be thrown away whenever financial troubles arise,” Brown said in an email. “Until staff are valued for their talents, and more importantly, their humanity, the word community will continue to mean ‘everyone but staff.’”

Andrew Zimmerman, a professor of history and the president of the Faculty Association, said in an email that the layoffs are “demoralizing.” He said layoffs hurt the entire University community, because those who are still employed take on larger workloads.

“We have an administration that continues to pay itself lavish salaries and bonuses while shifting costs onto the backs of its employees,” Zimmerman said. “We have lost esteemed colleagues, and many of us must also carry out the jobs that our former coworkers used to do, above and beyond our current duties.”

In March, the Staff Association presented interim Provost Forrest Maltzman with a proposal to create two governing staff bodies.

Zimmerman said that this round of layoffs indicates a need for more staff representation in the University’s governing bodies.

“Staff understand how this University functions in ways that top administrators never will,” Zimmerman said. “If the administrators are serious about making GW run more efficiently in this time of financial difficulty, then they should draw on the expertise of staff members, rather than laying them off.

‘Survivor guilt’

Experts said large numbers of layoffs can give remaining employees “survivor guilt” and increase their workloads.

Seth Spain, an assistant professor of organizational behavior at the State University of New York, Binghamton, said although the reduction of staff will have immediately cut costs, it may not be sustainable, if remaining employees are forced to take on more duties.

He said the added workloads may be even greater when officials consolidate offices.

“Individual employees have to ‘wear a lot of hats’ to meet the demands of their newly expanded responsibilities,” Spain said in an email. “This is a fairly significant work stressor. It is possible that the consolidation could make the overall workflow at GW more efficient but could place considerable strain on the remaining staff.”

Spain said high-level administrators can ease the blow of the cuts if they shoulder some of the burden and increase their own workloads, too.

“If a CEO cuts jobs and/or pays with ‘We’re all tightening our belts’ rhetoric, but then doesn’t cut their own pay in some fashion, this will seem quite unfair to their employees,” Spain said. “Such perceived unfairness generally results in lower job performance, lower satisfaction, more counterproductive work behaviors, greater turnover intentions and such.”

The salaries of top-level officials, including University President Steven Knapp and Executive Vice President and Treasurer Lou Katz, increased from fiscal year 2014 to fiscal year 2015, according to financial documents.

John Kammeyer-Mueller, a professor of work and organizations at the University of Minnesota, said consolidating offices can be an immediate cost-cutter.

“Sometimes the only way to save everyone else’s job is to get rid of some of them,” Kammeyer-Mueller said. “If that money that is saved, [it] could be used to prevent having to raise tuition, or that money could be used to offer more scholarships, if that money could be used to hire full-time faculty instead of adjuncts. Anything like that that could save money for a university. It could be quite substantial.”

Kammeyer-Mueller added that cuts of this magnitude can affect the morale of those who are still employed, leaving them feeling like the University has let them down.

“During periods of layoffs and reorganization, there can be stress for people that remain in the organization,” he said. “Downsizing and layoffs and reorganizations can lead to things like sickness absences for people who remain, feelings that the company has broken a promise or a contract, a psychological contract with people who are leaving.”

Sera Royal contributed reporting.

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