When the mass layoffs started at Chrysler last November, Myra Sawicki didn't like the look of her colleague.
Normally chatty and engaging, information technology analyst Brian Barlow was sickly pale and silent. It's no wonder. He'd received his layoff notice a few days before, and his wife lost her job the day after. How could he pay the mortgage for their two-storey home in Tecumseh, Ont., he wondered. How could he keep the kids in hockey and art classes, never mind keep them fed?
Ms. Sawicki had an idea. She's 52, her kids are grown, her truck-driver husband, Peter, has good health insurance and her mother is battling dementia and will soon forget who she is.
After getting a surprised management's approval, Ms. Sawicki took her friend aside and offered to take his layoff so he could keep his job.
"I said, 'Brian, I'm willing to take the layoff because I'm in a better position to handle it than I think you are,' " she recalled from her home in Macomb, Mich. "His first response was, 'Absolutely not.' " But after some gentle urging, he accepted.
Workplace experts told of the situation all agreed it's rare. But, they acknowledged, this sour economy is forging a brand of altruism in workplaces across North America, however quietly (Ms. Sawicki originally asked to remain anonymous for this story). It's not just among individuals, either. Even businesses are trying to make layoffs a last resort. And more and more employees would rather make personal sacrifices than see their colleagues go.
U.S. President Barack Obama made direct mention of workplace altruism in his inaugural address last Tuesday when he said, "[It is]the selflessness of workers who would rather cut their hours than see a friend lose their job which sees us through our darkest hours."
On his first day in office, Mr. Obama also announced a wage freeze for all of his staff.
Should we be surprised that these kind, and at times heroic, gestures are cropping up during a raging economic storm?
No, says Kevin Kelloway, professor of organizational behaviour at St. Mary's University in Halifax, because colleague bolstering happens more than we may realize.
"Almost every organization survives off acts of altruism," he says. Nurses will wake up at 4 a.m. on their day off and go in to work because they know it's their friends who will suffer if they don't pitch in, he says.
A survey released last week by Hewitt Associates found that most Canadian organizations have no plans to lay off staff and will first take cost-cutting measures such as hiring freezes and hacking discretionary spending.
"Employers recognize that the recession won't last forever, and they don't want to find themselves short of employees or skills when things improve," Tim Clarke, Hewitt Canada's benefits practice leader, said in a statement.
Last week, Rogers Publishing announced a voluntary four-day work week to help keep costs down. FedEx CEO Fred Smith took a 20-per-cent pay cut last December.
These are all smart choices during a downturn, says Wayne Cascio, professor of management at the University of Colorado, Denver and author of Responsible Restructuring. After the "tech wreck" in 2001, companies started to get a clue that employees are willing to work together to figure out cost cuts, and will often make sacrifices so their peers can keep their jobs, he says.
"If you're just [laying people off]because competitors are doing it, what's going to happen is they will need to replace staff when the economy turns around," he says. "Replacement is very expensive. It's far cheaper to keep an employee than have to go out into the labour market and recruit and train a new one."
For this reason, Blaine Donais, president and founder of the Workplace Fairness Institute, says one should be careful about calling companies altruistic. Even individuals taking this proverbial bullet can't be defined as purely altruistic because they often get something out of it, too.
"If you think on a balance of probabilities you're going to get a job in the next few months, that buyout is going to look pretty good," he says.
A study published last April in the Academy of Management Journal found that demoralized employees will often follow laid-off employees out the door. That may sound like a bonus for the company's bottom line, but it's not just the demoralized, unproductive employees who leave, says study author Charlie Trevor, professor of management at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Once the axe begins to fall, star employees, who he says will do well even in a downturn, also jet in search of greener pastures.
"Think about it: If you're a star and you can find work anywhere, well, why should [you]stay here in this place that just became much less appetizing?" he says.
The stars are also likely the ones to take a bullet for a colleague - but only if life circumstances line up, he adds.
"If I can save a friend and go work somewhere else that I might like just as well, if not better, anyway, that might seem like a reasonable course of action as opposed to if I take the bullet for you and I'm out of work for six months."
Mr. Barlow says his former colleague's generous act didn't just save him his job, it also dissipated the dark clouds that hovered in his IT department in recent months.
"Morale is up now. [Co-workers]told me, 'That was a great thing that Myra did,' " he says. "It made everyone feel warm and fuzzy."
And Mr. Barlow himself got an extra jolt of faith from the whole experience. "It brings back your belief in man and what's right."