Layoffs are down, but employers are still finding ways to cut jobs.
Workers are waking up to emails and team-meeting requests with a jarring message: They aren’t fired, but their jobs are gone.
People on the receiving end of these memos describe running through a range of emotions, from relief that they’re still employed to a sense of dread that their bosses secretly want them to leave. They are also facing a labor market that isn’t as robust as a year ago, leaving many to believe that the best option is to stay put and hunt internally for a better fit.
, among others, have reassigned employees as part of corporate restructurings. Mentions of reassignment, or similar terms, during company earnings calls more than tripled between last August and this month, according to data from AlphaSense, a financial-research platform.
“Reassigning is definitely a huge part of the dynamic right now,” said Andy Challenger, senior vice president at Challenger, Gray & Christmas, an outplacement firm.
For companies that spent several years—and significant money—to hire top talent, reassigning workers to new roles can be a way to fill jobs vital to future plans while trimming costs associated with old strategies, say human-resources executives.
It can also be a waiting game. Employees to whom it would be costly to pay severance or months of unemployment benefits might decide to leave on their own if they feel stuck in a job they don’t want, executive coaches say.
U.S.-based companies announced 42% fewer job cuts in July than they did in June, Challenger said. July job cuts were also 8% lower than the prior-year period, marking the first time this year that monthly job cuts were lower than in 2022.
In interviews and online forums, many workers said they worried whether their reassignment meant they would eventually be pushed out the door. They also wondered how to work their way out of job purgatory and back into a position they actually want.
“I got the sense that it was like: ‘We appreciate everything you did so we didn’t lay you off, so you can either make the best of this or go find another job somewhere else,’ ” said Matt Conrad, a 34-year-old senior sales-enablement specialist at IBM who went through two reassignments in two years before landing his current role last fall.
In Conrad’s first reassignment in 2021, a manager scheduled a call to notify him that his manager role was eliminated. He was given a new job selling software he had no experience with, a move he said took a toll on his mental health.
Later that year, Conrad found a new job at IBM through a former manager that was better suited to his skill set. Then, in January 2022, that team was eliminated and he was reassigned again. Conrad asked the HR department to help him to find his remote, senior sales-coach role, a process that took six months.
Not quitting when he was reassigned was a matter of principle, he said: “I wouldn’t give in because I was a top performer and it just wasn’t fair.”
IBM didn’t respond to requests for comment.
Getting caught up in a reorganization can create anxiety for workers, but it’s sometimes a genuine move on the company’s part to avoid letting people go, said Roberta Matuson, an executive coach and adviser to businesses including
“They’re basically signaling to you: ‘Look, this is the only way for me to have a job here for you, I need to reassign you, so wink, wink, if I were you, I would take the assignment,’ ” she said.
Other times, workers are purposefully pushed into jobs management knows they will be miserable in, prompting them to quit.
“They could be putting you out to pasture,” Matuson said.
Signals to look for include reassignment to a job that is far below the pay or skill level you currently have, Matuson said. Other warning signs: Being offered a role that requires relocating when your boss knows moving isn’t a viable option for you, or being reassigned to a division that’s rumored to be on the chopping block.
Employees suspicious or nervous about a reassignment should ask their managers why, specifically, it’s happening and what the reassignment means for their career path, said Naomi Sutherland, a global lead of talent development with
Korn Ferry, a consulting firm. The answers could reveal whether a job transfer is personal.
Without good information, “people are going to fill a void of information with whatever story they’re going to tell themselves,” she said.
Most of the time, there is little legal recourse for workers if their company reassigns them, employment lawyers say.
One exception is when a worker can demonstrate the reassignment was retaliatory, said Angela L. Walker, an employment attorney with Blanchard & Walker in Ann Arbor, Mich. The bar is high, she added. The employee would have to show prior evidence of discriminatory treatment or that they were unfairly singled out.
“I’ve seen lots of examples in my practice where employees are told they’re being let go in a ‘restructuring’ and it turns out that they’rethe only one affected, or they’re the only one affected in their group,” Walker said.
Grant Gurewitz, 32, said it took time to adjust to a new role in Seattle earlier this year when his software company eliminated his position as head of growth marketing for employee experience in North America. He was given 24 hours to make a choice between two other jobs, or leave. He picked a global head of growth marketing role that came with more responsibilities but without a pay increase.
He chose to look on the bright side, because a global role probably would’ve been the next position he wanted and it builds on his existing skill set.
“There’s still a lot of runway for me to learn and grow and develop in this role, which is the glass-half-full approach to all of this that’s happened,” he said.
In the first quarter of 2022, U.S. worker productivity fell in the steepest drop in 74 years.
WSJ’s Jon Hilsenrath explains why productivity is central to the economy, and why big drops can be difficult to recover from. Illustration: Reshad Malekzai