IMHO layoff by profitable companies is ETHICAL. Here's are some of the reasons why i feel it is ethical:
- Shedding excess baggage: Most large companies over a period of time build up a lot of fluff (redundant positions, over staffing etc) in their operations and this typically goes unnoticed when they are growing well and are profitable. When the going gets tough and margins are starting to take a hit they wake up shed lot of these excess baggage, trim down their operations in order to be more efficient & competitive.
- Rollback of excess hiring for anticipated growth: It normally takes between 6-12 months to induct a new employee and have him fully productive in a typical enterprise. Lot of companies do anticipatory hiring based on their targeted growth. When a downturn occurs, most companies realize that a slowdown is occurring only when they start feeling the pinch. When growth suddenly starts tapering out and they don't have sufficient work for the folks that were hired ahead of time. Hence leading to lay-offs.
- Declining Demand/Consumption: One of the key reasons for economic slowdown is decline in consumption. People tend to spend lesser due to risks/tough market conditions and this leads to worsening of the condition. A lot of industries take a hit due to reduced consumption/demand. Its only natural that they reduce operating expenses(shutdown factories, layoff workers etc) to remain profitable.
- Weeding out the Non-Performers: Weeding out the bottom x% of non-performers is a standard practice in most enterprises. When the going is good the tolerance level in the system is higher and non-performers get more leeway and lesser folks are laid off. Non-performance related lay-offs also get very little attention/coverage. During difficult times, companies utilize this opportunity for flushing out the non-performers. In most Fortune 500 companies the bottom 2-3% itself can be sizable(few thousands). This whole process also gets more press coverage in tough market conditions.
- Protecting share holder interests: One of the key agenda's for boards and CEO's is to maximize shareholder value. These days there is an enormous amount of scrutiny on company performance, operational metrics, profitability etc more so when the going gets tough. We as share holders & individuals also demand better performance and improved value from corporates. Due to this boards and CEO's take a very conservative & precautionary approach during tough economic conditions to optimize their operations, reduce costs and minimize risks. If boards/CEO doesn't take these tough decisions they will be replaced with folks that can take these decisions.