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Volunteers for a Beheading?


Time Magazine looks for 83 people asking to be unemployed.

All those willing to jump off the cliff, step forward. You'll be paid for your efforts.

Time Inc., part of Time Warner (TWX), proposes to cut payroll the old fashioned way: With a meat ax.

Of course, this invitation to a beheading is called a "voluntary buyout." However, if enough folks don't take the hint and accept the offer, easy-to-understand layoffs are next.

Job cuts are the quickest method to reduce payroll, and major companies have (as they say in the personnel office) announced plans to reduce headcount, including General Motors (GM), 3,600; Pepsico (PEP), 3,300; Goldman Sachs (GS), 3,200; and Fidelity (FBSI) 1,300.

But there are other, less bloody, ways to cut costs during the downturn.

After slashing expenses by completing 8,500 of 8,900 planned job cuts, Dell (DELL) found it wasn't enough. The computer maker then asked remaining workers to consider taking up to 5 days of unpaid vacation as part of the ongoing effort to reduce costs. That's limited pain for each employee, but significant savings for the company when spread over the entire workforce.

Perks also get thrown overboard by companies trying to stay afloat. In addition to job cuts, General Motors announced it would suspend its 401(k) match, cancel bonuses due next year, end its salaried tuition-assistance program starting next year, and reduce the number of weeks it pays workers under severance programs.

Gawker Media, the publisher of delightfully snappy and snarky websites, suspended view bonuses for its writers for at least one quarter.

Typically, such reductions are pitched as "voluntary," or made in the spirit of "shared sacrifice." Either way, it's a painful reduction in pay or benefits. But smart workers are grateful to be employed during the current downturn, because a pink slip now almost certainly means months of unemployment.

The unemployment rate is now 6.5%. The US Bureau of Labor Statistics says employment has fallen 1.2 million in the first 10 months of 2008, with more than half the decrease in the last 3 months.

That makes the planned reduction at Time, Inc. a variation on a now familiar theme.

The company is asking for at least 83 people to take voluntary buyouts in response to the continued erosion of magazine advertising.

It's hard to imagine a stampede to take the offer in the current economy, but if volunteers don't come forward by December 1st, there will be involuntary layoffs. The prospects are tough for mid-level staffers, who almost certainly would be forced to subsist on cheese and crackers earned by freelancing after losing a full-time job.

Sports Illustrated is looking for about 40 volunteers; People, 23 and Time, about 20. Fortune and Money are also asking for volunteers, but the number wasn't specified.

Magazines, especially secondary titles, may be going the way of the Sears catalog. But look on the bright side: You won't have ink on your fingers from pawing through classified newspaper ads when looking for your next job.

That's good news for everyone - except those unfortunate enough to work in newspapers.
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