What is it about?

This article shows that uncertainty in the economy and labour market is often used by managers to justify workforce restructuring and cutbacks, even where they lead to worse performance and declining staff morale. Moreover, staffing cutbacks are often made before new working practices and technologies are introduced, leading to increased work intensity for the 'survivors'. Our case studies of public sector restructuring suggest that the never ending pursuit of flexibility justifies open-ended restructuring, which lowers the resistance of workers to change.

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Why is it important?

Our findings show that the common perception of public sector organisations as relatively stable and sheltered from market forces underestimates the scale, severity and frequency of workforce restructuring programmes, in some cases using controversial 'fire and rehire' tactics. More generally, we argue that as organisations enter into programmes of workforce restructuring it is important to bear in mind the uncertainty and insecurity that workers experience, and to put measures in place to mitigate against the negative effects for the 'survivors' of multiple rounds of cutbacks.

Perspectives

This article was written in the long shadow of public sector austerity after the 2008-09 global financial crisis as financial constraints effectively forced management to make workforce cutbacks. However, we were surprised to see the extent and frequency of restructuring , and the way in which it had become normalised within many service areas where staff were almost always 'at risk' of redundancy. Local authorities that have suffered more than ten years of austerity are likely to face more cutbacks in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic which will further intensify the pressure on remaining staff.

Mathew Johnson
University of Manchester

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This page is a summary of: Doing the right thing? An institutional perspective on responsible restructuring in UK local government, Human Resource Management Journal, May 2021, Wiley, DOI: 10.1111/1748-8583.12351.
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