Survivor's Guilt and Other Ways Layoffs Impact the Employees Left Behind
2023 rolled in like a s__t storm for some workers and their managers. They had barely finished their New Year’s toasts when notices of layoffs began to fly. The notifications even left some leaders blindsided, not given the chance to argue why every member of their team was essential or who and how many they could afford to sacrifice. Literally overnight managers found themselves forced to do more with less, never mind having to lead teams of workers who might be angry, scared, plagued by survivors-guilt — or all three at once.
Challenging as it is for those who still have their jobs, now can also be a time of opportunity, provided leadership takes the right steps. Figuring what those steps are is hard at any time, but for any leader who hasn't lived through a recession before, it might be especially challenging.
“When making decisions, leaders usually rely on pattern recognition accumulated over a period of time, but for managers in their 20s, 30s and 40s, this might be their first significant downturn, they don’t have past experiences for reference,” said David Noble, CEO coach and co-author of "Real-Time Leadership: Find Your Winning Moves When the Stakes are High."
Before You Lay Off, Know What You Can Offer Those That Remain
The worst thing leaders can do after deciding to conduct layoffs is to respond with a knee-jerk reaction — simply redistributing the workload and hoping for the best.
"That’s a horrible strategy that causes anxiety,” said Noble. "Leaders need to face reality and recognize that people can’t take this, that they are already overworked. (Instead) they need to slow down and figure out what is the capacity of the team, what is their potential, and can they take on more.”
Noble added that leaders also need to determine how any new arrangement would serve workers and their careers, not just the organization. All of this before they make any decisions or plans. Once decisions are made, leaders must determine what tools, processes and incentives need to be in place before moving forward.
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Employee Assistance to Counteract 'Survivor Guilt'
While some managers may be of the mindset that those who were not laid-off are “lucky to still have a job,” Noble called those kinds of individuals “horrible leaders.” In cases like this, it would behoove such leaders and managers to get educated on “survivor syndrome.” David M. Noer, a consultant, author and Professor Emeritus at Elon University has proposed that those employees “who survive employment termination during a downsizing programme are more the victims than those who leave are.” A survey by Bizreport found that nearly 70% of “survivors” didn’t receive any kind of support from their employers.
That can have severe consequences. Research shows that survivors can suffer from feelings like fear, insecurity, uncertainty, frustration, anger, resentment, betrayal and distrust. “It is imperative that you train your managers how to both manage that process (aiding layoff survivors) and deal with the highly debilitating aftermath. That means that leaders need to know how to increase employees’ coping skills, how to motivate employees and provide morale support. This isn’t a case of providing a one-time morale boost but rather addressing all of the deep issues,” wrote Mark Murphy, an author and founder of Leadership IQ in an article “Don't Expect Layoff Survivors to Be Grateful (Survivor’s Guilt After a Downsizing)”
This can be especially difficult when companies spread layoffs over a period of time (e.g., Salesforce told its workers that layoffs will occur ‘over the coming weeks.’ Goldman Sachs' layoffs appear to be dribbling in, causing anxiety among its workers).
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Once layoffs are done leaders need to communicate an “all clear” and provide a compelling case for why people should stay. In a Harvard Business Review article, Sandra J. Sucher and Marilyn Morgan Westner write: “Surviving and prospective employees want to hear three messages: We treated your colleagues well. We have a credible strategy to improve the company’s prospects. There is a clear role for you to play in the future success of the company.”
Sucher and Westner and the other experts we spoke to advise that regular, open communication by leaders is vital and can be help lessen survivor guilt. “Leaders at every level of the organization must engage with their people systematically and often,” wrote Morgan and Sucher.
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Engage Remaining Employees With Talent Development Opportunities
Collaborating with employees to broaden their job descriptions can go a long way in engaging workers and creating wins for the enterprise. Soren Kaplan, a leadership/personal growth expert, affiliate at USC’s Center for Effective Organizations and author of "Experiential Intelligence: Harness the Power of Experience for Personal and Business Breakthroughs," sees new opportunities for workers who survived layoffs.
"Everyone has skills and abilities that go beyond their job descriptions. Managers need to first gain insight into the broader-based experiences of their team members to understand the breadth of what everyone offers, and then reallocate resources based on the highest priority goals.” He added that workers who haven’t been assigned certain projects before may actually meet the criteria needed to take them on. "They may have the qualifications from volunteer work, hobbies or other activities that haven’t been on the radar," he said. Moreover, this may be the kind of work they like to do.
"When teams get stretched, everyone has an opportunity to reprioritize their work based on their team’s goals. When gaps exist because people leave a company, every individual should explore and share what they bring to the party based on their broader experiences, both personal and professional," he said. This way employees can grow beyond their job descriptions which can turn resource challenges into talent development opportunities — which is what every worker craves.
About the Author
Staff reporter Virginia Backaitis is the Senior Partner at Brilliant Leap, a search and consulting firm that specializes in placing Enterprise Content Management and Big Data professionals. She has worked in the ECM space since the early 1990’s. and in the Big Data space since 2009.