I imagine we’re all now familiar with the stories of former Google employees waking up to find that they’ve been laid off via an impersonal email or simply locked out of the system, as well as the many other layoffs that have followed.
Layoffs across the economy have hit workers hard. Many have been left wondering whether their years of excellent service to an employer really mattered to those above them, others worrying that maybe their work just wasn’t good enough. (To those of y’all with great self-confidence, I am in consistent awe and appreciation.)
While the situations have varied between different companies, two related values are important for answering the following questions: Did individual companies do anything morally wrong with their layoffs? And what should we collectively do in response? Those two values are loyalty and solidarity.
Loyalty roughly involves being closely attached to a profession, employer, friend, family member, or country. Through this attachment, we identify with them, care about their well-being, feel for their successes and failures, and are willing to take risks or do difficult things on their behalf.
At work, this could look like tying your identity to your job, really caring about making the company a better place, being invested in how the company performs, and working long and hard hours to make sure everything gets done.
Employers might also show loyalty to long-time employees by viewing them as a core part of the company, caring about making the company a better place for them, being invested in how they grow and develop, and doing what they can to help in hard times. Loyalty goes both ways.
The value of loyalty can explain at least part of the discomfort we have with companies letting go people who have worked there for 10-20 years, and whose blood, sweat, and tears helped make the company what it is today. The employees have dedicated so much to their employers, but many employers haven’t returned that goodwill and hard labor.
At the same time, the value of loyalty has its limits:
1) It only applies to special relationships that have usually developed over time, so it can’t tell us as much about the layoffs of relatively new hires.
2) We can easily be loyal to the wrong things, and many employees can be loyal to companies that don’t deserve it (and vice versa).
3) Loyalty can also be used to exploit people—think about all the “we’re a family” language that’s used to convince workers to work excessively long hours and sacrifice their health for the company.
Solidarity, on the other hand, has to do with equitable treatment across the board. As Avery Kolers argues in A Moral Theory of Solidarity, solidarity requires that we 1) give equal status to each person as a person, 2) make sure our moral rules and laws are correctly applied to particular situations, and 3) “step back from the maximum that one can demand, in consideration of whether others are also getting what they are entitled to.”
To act in solidarity with others, we need to listen to them, hear their struggles, take the actions they recommend, and be willing to share their fate. This may be a tall order, but it more readily helps us explain what seems so unfair about many of these layoffs.
For companies who let people go with an email or by locking them out of the system, they did not treat their workers as equal persons who deserved an explanation.
For companies who fired large swaths of their employees without considering any relevant details of individual employees lives or their histories with the company, they did not check whether their blanket action was fair to each individual person affected by it.
For companies with high profit margins whose higherups took little to no pay cuts, upper management did not make meaningful sacrifices to their personal hoards of wealth to ensure that others could keep their salaries that they need to live on.
In the wake of this rank inequity, I’ve seen people coming together to support those who have been laid off, listening to their stories, sharing job postings, and proactively helping where they can.
We need more worker solidarity, especially if many employers will not stand in solidarity with workers. We may be weak and powerless alone, but if we band together with friends, colleagues, and even strangers in a similar pinch, we can make a real difference.
The path forward isn’t just individual loyalty, it’s solidarity and collective action.
Photo Credit: Tom Podmore