Equitable Downsizing

By Rabbi Mary L. Zamore

When my now adult son was very young, he sometimes had trouble leaving playdates. I would nudge him towards the door, explaining that nice good-byes lead to nice hellos. In many ways, this is also true for adults, especially organizations. The quality of our actions during a crisis is the most accurate measuring stick of our deepest values; how we approach downsizing reflects our equity in employment.

On top of threatening lives and health, the pandemic is forcing the world economy into a jarring tailspin. The lay and professional leaders of the Jewish community are trying to navigate this new reality and predict the financial future for their institutions. Faced with shrinking revenue streams, many are considering reducing compensation, furloughs, or even eliminating entire positions. While everyone hopes that is the absolute last choice, after masterful stewardship and strategic fundraising, we also know that downsizing, temporary or not, is an inevitable by-product of an economic downturn.

For over four years, the Reform Pay Equity Initiative, representing the 17 organizations of the Reform Movement, has focused on employment equity, using the wage gap as the barometer of gender equity. Together, we have created a replicable model for searches, interviews, and salary negotiations, including training and tools for both the employees and employers of our synagogues and institutions. We have aggregated and analyzed salary data, enlisted experts, held trainings, and shared our model with many organizations beyond our Movement. While our efforts have yielded robust partnerships and successful dissemination of tools and education, this initiative requires long term change-making, not a quick fix.

And now, with Covid-19 and a sudden economic downturn, the focus on equity is needed more than ever, especially when downsizing. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, unemployment rates rose sharply among all major worker groups, but rose at higher rates for women and people of color. The Jewish community must be vigilant now, particularly at this challenging moment, to promote equity in downsizing, and, we pray, in hiring again.

In many ways, the approach for equitable downsizing is the same as equitable hiring and supervision, with a few extra elements for a crisis situation. Here are some foundational guideposts:

  1. Be brave. Save for Joshua and Caleb, the spies who brought back reports of the Land of Israel were overwhelmed and spread fear among the Israelites, reporting, “and we looked like grasshoppers to ourselves, and so we must have looked to them.” (Numbers 12:33) When making employment decisions, put aside your own fears. Strive to separate your own personal financial concerns and focus on your institution’s immediate financial reality. Create well-grounded short-, medium-, and long-term projections, considering multiple scenarios. Focus on your organization’s core mission and what must get done.
  2. Act like an employer, feel like family. Be aware of the federal, state, and city laws governing employment. If you do not have a strong HR resource within your institution, find it from qualified volunteers, organizations, or even your insurance company. For example, the Nonprofits Insurance Alliance has webinars and free consultations. Our governmental laws, albeit not perfect, strive to create equal economic opportunities, including limiting inappropriate impact on protected classes during downsizing. Be the employer who follows and exceeds these laws. Feel like family: Show concern for employees who lose income or jobs by providing resources like job search and networking help or guidance on how to navigate governmental and NGO assistance programs, if needed.
  3. Check your bias. Judaism teaches that every human being is created by God and therefore equal. If only our actions reflected this powerful teaching! Unfortunately, we know that implicit bias impacts decision-making, even when we are not aware of it. Make downsizing decisions based on core mission and skills needed to fulfill the work, rather than allowing implicit bias to sway decisions. Consider taking one of the many on-line implicit bias tests before making final decisions. Reflect on how you define leadership and how that definition is shaped by implicit bias; work to broaden the voices shaping the conversation and the people identified as key employees. At times of crisis, we are prone to revert to deeply imbedded biases.
  4. Recognize the power differential. There is an innate power differential between employer and employee. Our tradition warns us not to overburden a worker or even make radical changes to the terms of their employment that may be unfair or even harmful. (BT, Bava Metzia 83a) If downsizing occurs, you cannot expect the remaining employees to cover the same amount of work. Be realistic about what they can and should be doing. The employees need their jobs and will not have the power to object to increased workloads.
  5. Track Data. As your organization creates multiple scenario plans, including employment changes, take note of how these actions affect different groups of employees. Take time to reflect on the trends, observing if particular groups are bearing the restructuring burden more so than others. Explore if this is avoidable. Also, when the time for rehiring comes, be prepared to use the best tools to ensure unbiased hiring.

Our communities are facing unprecedented challenges, but we must lead with our values and unwavering commitment to equity in employment, even during an economic downturn. May we go in peace and return in peace.

The Executive Director of Women’s Rabbinic Network, Rabbi Mary L. Zamore co-leads the Reform Pay Equity Initiative with Rabbi Marla Feldman, the Executive Director of Women of Reform Judaism. RPEI receives generous funding from the SafeyRespectEquity Coalition. Rabbi Zamore is the editor of The Sacred Exchange: Creating a Jewish Money Ethic (CCAR Press, 2019).