The Living Hell Of Life On The Firing Line

Not everyone shares Karen's optimistic view of life at Nynex. Uncertainty and fear loom over many. Only two weeks ago, Nynex began sending out details of the buyout packages to some workers in New England. Employees know that if enough people refuse the package, the company will be forced to push them out.

Many are understandably bitter. They feel as if they are victims of some abstract management exercise beyond their control or even their capacity to understand. One of them, an urbane manager with more than 20 years of experience, expects to pounce on an early-retirement package, to walk out, and start a new phase of life. "This company's values have changed," the manager says. "There are now right people and wrong people here, and I don't believe in that."

Fearful of retribution, this employee doesn't want to be identified. But Pat, as we'll call this middle manager in a staff position, is remarkably candid about the turmoil inside the company. Pat has made presentations before Bob Thrasher and thinks he's a "brilliant, if ruthless, executive. As an officer of the company, he's very focused and clearly sees the possibilities." But this Nynex veteran doesn't see Thrasher and other top managers sharing the pain. "The officers all have golden parachutes. They're in charge of their own fates. We're not involved. We're just affected."

Looking at the fate of the managers and employees who lost their jobs in Nynex' earlier cutbacks, Pat can see the profound changes that may lie ahead. Many are still without work. More than 150 of them have joined a class action against the company, alleging that they were selected for dismissal because of age discrimination.

Although the company formally announced its latest round of cutbacks three months ago, not a single employee has yet lost a job. Details of buyout offers, including accelerated pensions, are being sent to employees in selected business units. Thrasher says the buyout offer "removes the anxiety and angst in the workforce."

Not to this middle manager, who believes offering incentives to quit isn't that much different from terminating employees outright with severance pay. "Even if people won't be fired this time, they're still frightened of the future. It affects their self-esteem and their pocketbook. And most people aren't going from something to something. They have no place to go."

VALUES LOST. Sure, Pat fears for a job that may be lost. But mostly, Pat claims to fear that the company to which this middle manager's professional life has been devoted will never recover from the bloodletting. Pat recalls taking hours to walk to work in the aftermath of a major snowstorm--a degree of commitment employees won't be likely to feel in the future. This manager wonders if the repairmen who now rush to set up emergency communications lines at the scene of incidents such as the bombing of the World Trade Center will move less urgently because of Nynex' perceived lack of loyalty to its employees. Corporate values that not long ago focused on caring for employees have been rewritten so that now employees come last, Pat says, after shareholders and customers.

The Draconian downsizing, Pat believes, is really a knee-jerk response to a complex set of problems that might be addressed more subtly. "Other companies, like Hewlett-Packard, have refocused their strategy, cleaned up their product and service lines, and for the most part retrained their folks without massive layoffs, and they're doing exceptionally well."

Such humane options, however, may be for executives and companies that don't have to cut as deeply or as thoroughly as Nynex. As everyone involved would concede, the pain of this massive downsizing isn't likely to go away anytime soon.