For Whom the Bell Tolls

"Never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee."

John Donne wrote this famous line in his "Meditations XVII," from Devotions Upon Emergent Occasions, which was written sometime near the end of his life in the mid 1600s. (I have included the entire quote at the end of the article for your use.) In difficult times such as our current business economy, the wisdom of the ages is well suited to give us perspective and solace. Difficult times periodically arise and, as history teaches us, ultimately succumb to improvement, and vice versa.

Donne’s point in the expanded quote is that when one man dies, a piece of all men dies as well. We are all part of one interconnected organism. We thrive from the work of others and we suffer in the sufferings of others. But the modern utilization of this quote is of a little different perspective. Most often it is used to ring the harbinger of things to come, somewhat of a "you’re next" attitude. And that is why I bring it up today.

The Firing Line

Many of us can feel this sense of foreboding today in the worst employment market since 1994. By the time you read this article the conditions may have worsened. Trust that I am no pessimist—far from it. But, I do believe that companies tend to be lemmings and react rather than strategically "pro-act" to emergent trends. Companies that see other companies making layoffs and downsizing tend to fall in line and do the same. It is clear that tens of thousands of jobs will be eliminated before we see the tide turn and hiring trends swing positive.

Downsizing Targets: Sales and Human Resources

Usually at risk are two areas that should rarely be targeted for downsizing: Sales and Human Resources. The logic regarding sales goes as follows: "If nobody is buying we really don’t need to be selling." This is an ironic and nonsensical thought pattern. When sales are down it is usually a sign companies need to have an even more effective sales effort underway. That may not mean more sales people, but it certainly means working harder to establish relationships and close deals. The best time to sell is when everyone else is canceling appointments and abandoning relationships. Partners and suppliers of goods and services get rewarded for being present when competitors falter. Markets recover. Those who remained steadfast on the downswing will be first in line on the upswing.

Human resources is the other area that tends to get targeted for downsizing. It is so easy for senior management to rationalize that with hiring freezes, staff reductions, revenue slow downs, etc. they are justified in spending less money on the human resources functions. Senior executives conclude that with fewer people, less competition for talent and less demand from customers, the money spent on attracting, training, retaining and developing talent is money that can be pocketed. This thinking is especially acute in this cycle because the hardest part of the reality hit during most companies’ budgeting processes. This genre of cost cutting is a knee-jerk reaction that will create many long-term headaches and a complete miss strategically when the market bounces back…as it will.

The Necessity of Strategic Human Resources Leadership

Human resources executives need to stand tall and strong in these times and frame the strategic value of talent in difficult times. Forward-thinking companies use economic slowdowns and the reactions of their competitors to fill the core of their teams with the best and the brightest talent available. Challenge your CEO with this question: "Is it more likely that we will attract the leaders and doers that really make a difference when the market is over-charged and everyone is competing for the same 'difference makers,' or should we take advantage of the open market today when we may be one of very few that are aggressively upgrading our team?" If you work in a company that thinks longer term and has a strategic discipline, you will choose the latter strategy and seize the opportunity.

As you have read in my previous installments, I am continuously encouraging human resources executives to act and present themselves as strategic partners and leaders in their companies. Today presents a prime opportunity for skilled senior human resources executives to proactively drive a strategy that will differentiate their companies for the long term. Your ability to outline a strategy that differentiates your company and gives you a sustainable competitive advantage is predicated on your ability to populate the company with the most capable and motivated people. They are open to your overture and waiting for your call today. Now is the time.

And without this strategic perspective and leadership from human resources, "the bell may in fact toll for you." If human resources isn’t at the forefront of your company’s approach to today’s strategic challenges, be prepared to be the first stop on the downsizing elevator as it descends the company. Unfortunately, in the absence of long-term thinking and leadership, most companies fall into the trap of seeking short-term quick fixes. Now is your chance to lead and prevent the bell from tolling unnecessarily.

"All mankind is of one author, and is one volume; when one man dies, one chapter is not torn out
of the book, but translated into a better language; and every chapter must be so translated…
As therefore the bell that rings to a sermon, calls not upon the preacher only, but upon the
congregation to come: so this bell calls us all: but how much more me, who am brought so near
the door by this sickness…No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent,
a part of the main. If a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if
promontory were, as well as if a manor of thy friend’s or of thine own were. Any man’s

death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind; and therefore never send to know
for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee."

John Donne, "Meditation XVII" from Devotions Upon Emergent Occasions