Business School Tests Its Own Philosophy As more people lose their jobs, there may be ways for employers to soften the blow. An MBA program near Seattle teaches this style of management, but the school was recently forced to cut a quarter of its staff — and set out to practice what it teaches.
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Business School Tests Its Own Philosophy

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Business School Tests Its Own Philosophy

Business School Tests Its Own Philosophy

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SCOTT SIMON, host:

As the recession wears on, it's likely that more people will lose their jobs, but employers may be able to soften the blow. At least that's what a business school near Seattle teaches. In fact, the school was forced to test that concept when it recently had to make painful staff cuts of its own. From member station KUOW, Liz Jones reports.

LIZ JONES: The Bainbridge Graduate Institute isn't your typical business school. The institute, or BGI, says it offers a degree in sustainable business. Students call it the hippy MBA program. The school's founder, Gifford Pinchot, explains it this way.

Mr. GIFFORD PINCHOT (Co-founder and President Emeritus, Bainbridge Graduate Institute): Bainbridge Graduate Institute is devoted to bringing sustainability and social justice into the business curriculum.

JONES: So last fall, when the school faced cuts, it wanted to avoid a so-called corporate approach.

Ms. JILL BAMBURG (Former Dean, Bainbridge Graduate Institute): As a business school, we teach our students the values of transparency and participation, and it's very difficult to maintain those values in a layoff situation, but we did at least try.

JONES: That's Jill Bamburg. She's the former dean who helped guide the budget-cut process. The school needed to trim more than a million dollars to make up for a drop in fundraising. Once that target was set, things moved quickly. A task force, including Bamburg, drafted a plan. The next morning, they called an all-staff meeting. Then they did something few businesses would attempt - they came clean and asked for help.

Ms. BAMBURG: Everybody knew what we were up against. And by getting everybody to work together on the three most desirable choices, which were cut out-of-pocket expenses, cut programs or increase revenues, that's a great place to harness everybody's energy.

JONES: Each department split off to review their individual budgets. Sally Metcalf had worked at the school less than a year. She knew her job on the accreditation team was on the line.

Ms. SALLY METCALF (Staff Member, Bainbridge Graduate Institute): It was a very uncomfortable thing to do because I felt as if, OK, I'm coming into this room and cutting myself out of a job.

JONES: But Metcalf tried to put her own job aside as they went through the numbers.

Ms .METCALF: People were very much wanting to look at the budget, contribute, find where we can trim, do the best that we can for the organization.

JONES: When the group reconvened, they'd collectively found more than a half million dollars in cuts. They'd saved some jobs but the budget was still short. Next up was pay cuts, 10 percent from managers and 20 percent for top officers. That was a last step before layoffs. All afternoon, the school ombudsman met with employees about staffing needs. Finally, the task force settled on eight people to lay off, a quarter of the staff. First thing the next morning, managers met privately with people who'd been let go. Sally Metcalf was one of them.

Ms. METCALF: When I went into the room to be laid off, the two people who were talking to me started to cry. You know, that really kind of says it all. Sally, we really don't want to see you go. Are you going to be OK?

JONES: This style of a more personal, compassionate approach to layoffs is something Frank Buysse is seeing more of lately. He's a manager with Lee Hecht Harrison, a global firm that advises companies about downsizing and layoffs.

Mr. FRANK BUYSSE (Manager, Lee Hecht Harrison): I do see more care about how the message is given. And it really values not just those employees, but also their brand as an organization. By doing this right, it will maintain the value of their brand in the community.

JONES: What's more rare, Buysse says, is BGI's open and inclusive approach when it came to budget cuts. He questions, though, whether that would work for bigger companies.

Mr. BUYSSE: It may work. There are some challenges in that, I think. There'll be people jockeying for position, and I do see some challenges, especially in public organizations that are traded on Wall Street. I haven't seen it work that way.

JONES: People at BGI agree there's no perfect way to do layoffs, but students there say it's good to learn a new approach, although they're not exactly eager to use it. From NPR News, I'm Liz Jones in Seattle.

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