An interview with Professor Wayne Cascio, a Life Fellow of AHRI.
Peter Wilson: What caused you to take an interest in HR and restructuring?
Wayne Cascio: I was a physics major and had studied natural science as an undergraduate. I was drafted during the Vietnam War and was struck by the fact that the army was so efficient at taking citizens and turning them into soldiers in a relatively short period of time. I said to myself, “when I get out I’m going to study all about organisations”.
PW: What attracted you to the study of company restructuring?
WC: I thought there were major flaws in the rationale driving restructuring, which were pretty straightforward. There were only two ways to make money in business – grow your revenues or cut costs. I started to ask myself what was more predictable: future costs or future revenues? I tried to understand why companies turned to downsizing as a first resort, rather than a last resort.
PW: How did you go about discovering organisations that took a different view?
WC: I had a grant from the Department of Labor find the good news on restructuring. As I interviewed senior executives, they quickly sorted themselves into one of two camps. But about 90 per cent of people interviewed were downsizers. The rest thought ‘how do we take the people we have and use them more effectively?’
PW: A lot of HR professionals know what the right thing to do is, but what advice do you have for them when they have the CEO breathing down their neck?
WC: There are times when it makes sense to downsize, like if you have an unproductive asset. But when downsizing is not the first option to take, HR managers have a key role to play in asking the tough questions that no one else wants to. I think a lot of the downsizing that takes place is not necessary – there are other ways to save those costs.
PW: You’ve been an expert witness in a number of industrial cases, what experiences have you faced in that industrial environment?
WC: You can’t argue effectively if you are not passionate, confident and well prepared. There was a gender-equity case in New York City in 1981. At that time there were no women in the fire brigade so the city gave a physical abilities test, where there was a particular item called the dummy count. What they had was a duffle bag containing two bags of concrete and candidates wearing full firefighting gear had to pick this up, throw it over their shoulder and run up six flights of stairs. Four thousand women – and half the men couldn’t pass which led to a lawsuit being filed by Brenda Berkman.
I went into the city and video taped emergency scenes to show how people were rescued and what I found was that firefighters never put people over their shoulders and ran out. Most of the time they are running down the stairs not up the stairs and when there’s smoke you stay as low to the ground as you can so you can breathe. In this case, you’d pull them out under the armpits, waist or the nape of the neck – the dummy test didn’t bear any relation to the way they did the job in practice.
Fast-forward 20 years to September 2001 and when the World Trade Centre towers were hit in New York City. About a week after that a local news station profiled female heroes of 9/11. Who did they profile but Lt Brenda Berkman, who ran up 60 flights of stairs in the North Tower to rescue people and did it eight or nine times in the course of that day.
PW: You’ve also done some work on pay equity – can you tell us a little about that?
WC: In one pay-discrimination case we represented 30,000 women and won US $100 million. This issue was that qualified women were hired at lower rates in high-tech jobs. The company’s argument was if they were really good performers they would get higher pay raises than men. We had 10 years’ worth of data showing that they never catch up which helped us win.
PW: How do you take the average HR professional’s fear of metrics and strategic HR?
WC: Many HR professionals play this role naturally; they should be able to articulate the people-related implications of strategy. I have a conceptual model in mind which I think of as long range, mid range and annual plans or budgeting issues. Then I start to ask which HR issues are most important over the long term, the mid term and the short term. We must articulate those issues.