What’s responsible for large rounds of job cuts? Economic downturns? Secular changes in industry due to technology, or shifts in consumer taste? Cuts to government subsidies? All of those, sure. But a huge number of job losses are also the result of the poor quality of management decisions by business executives too incompetent, too lazy or too timid to do their highly remunerated jobs properly.

The result is that employees, suppliers and contractors are the first to feel the pain and the higher you go in a company, and the closer you get to actual decision-makers, the further away from financial and other pain you get.

Take Santos, the company most widely seen as responsible for the eastern seaboard gas crisis. It is best known for massive losses, billion-dollar write-downs and a near-vertical share price collapse in recent years due to its inept investment decisions. But it has also sacked around 1000 workers in the last two years, and is on its way to sacking a total of 1400 — at least.

Unusually, the management responsible for Santos’ spectacularly bad investment decisions have been removed — but when the red ink is coming with eight zeroes attached, even chief executives end up in the firing line. Replacement CEOs — like Kevin Gallagher at Santos — have to clean up the mess.

[Gas companies — especially Santos — have brought regulation on themselves]

Which brings us to some other, larger companies. In the year to March, ANZ Bank cut 2850 full-time equivalents to 46,046. The cost saving was substantial — a drop of $153 million in personnel costs from the March, 2016 half to the half year ended March 31, 2017. But in a sign of further job cuts to come, the bank, on May 2 this year, said it was moving to make its workforce and management ranks more “agile,” which is intended to “reduce waste and bureaucracy”.

But for all of the talk of being agile, the real story is the way the bank under Shayne Elliott has abandoned the ill-advised move into Asia of former CEO Mike Smith. And that has come at a cost: a year ago, the ANZ’s bottom line was hit by a massive $717 million charge that the bank said was “primarily related to initiatives to reposition the Group for stronger profit … growth in the future.” This charge included changes to accounting practices, which cost $441 million, a $260 million impairment on its investment in Malaysia’s AmBank, and $100 million in restructuring costs. The bank’s interim dividend was separately cut 7%, from 86 cents to 80 cents a share to allow the ANZ to build its capital because of moves by regulators to force banks to hold more capital to make them more safe (and more demands are coming later this year from the Australian Prudential Regulation Authority, Australia’s key bank regulator).

But the most offensive move came from Murray Goulburn, which recently announced that it will write off almost $150 million in loans made to farmers following last year’s milk price fiasco. So the farmers get their money, and all interest payments they’ve already made will be refunded. To help pay for that, the company told the ASX, 360 workers would lose their jobs when it closes its facilities in Edith Creek, Tasmania, and Rochester and Kiewa in Victoria by early 2019. All up Murray Goulburn says the cost of these and some other minor changes will be up to $410 million.

Or there’s the media. True, both print and television face challenges from a rapidly changing information and entertainment market. But Lachlan Murdoch’s stint as acting CEO and then chairman at Ten was a debacle from which the network has never recovered, and there have been regular rounds of sackings that have seen hundreds of staff, including many journalists, dispatched — and they’re doing that again now.

Fairfax, similarly, has lost hundreds of journalists, subeditors, photographers and other staff in regular rounds of redundancies. Yes, the media company faces a massive challenge in its industry — but has also seen years if not decades of poor management; now nearly a quarter of remaining journalists are to be dispatched as the company nears death.

[Editorial bloodbath: Fairfax cuts run deep, staff walk off the job]

Then there are the geniuses at Japan Post, which revealed in late April that it was sacking 1000 people from Toll Holdings and writing down the value of the logistics group by US$3.6 billion ($4.7 billion). It paid A$6.5 billion for Toll in 2015, which is now worth just $1.9 billion (one of Toll’s founders, Paul Little, who received a $330 million for his 5% shareholding, told The Australian recently that Toll’s legacy “had been trashed”.) The 1000 job losses from Toll are part of 1700 cut by Japan Post across its operations.

In every case, it’s been ordinary staff who’ve paid for the ultimate price for inept management, and those sent in afterward to clean things up. It’s an Australian business tradition.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
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