With changes occurring in the economy, many companies are laying people off, many times in waves. This can impact the morale of those that are left.
When employees are spared, they feel relieved for a little bit before they start thinking and worrying about the next wave: “Will I be next? I better start looking for a job elsewhere; What am I going to do?”
Thoughts like these are the symptoms of a syndrome, the survivor syndrome. The effects of this syndrome will cause a sharp decrease in employee engagement and productivity. Recent research through Velas Coaching has shown that after layoffs, employees often report reduced commitment and performance.
While some may feel lucky to still be employed, others may experience mixed feelings. They may be relieved to still have a job but simultaneously guilt-ridden about the suffering of former colleagues who were let go.
This type of “survivor guilt” is normally associated with the emotions people experience after facing a traumatic event or accident that looks at the lives of others, but it can also happen after corporate layoffs.
It’s not uncommon for the employees left standing to wonder, “Why did I make it, but they didn’t? or “How am I going to face my friends who were released knowing that they’re in a bad financial situation while I’m still employed?” Survivor guilt may be made worse by a perception that the company failed to recognize or reward trusted colleagues and friends and instead eliminated them.
Studies by the Harvard Business Review show that nearly three-quarters (74%) of employees retained after a layoff saw their productivity decline after it, while 69% said that the quality of their company’s product or service deteriorated. When these respondents were asked why they felt that way, they expressed feelings of guilt, anxiety, and anger.
The good news is that workers who felt that their managers were visible, approachable, and open were more than 70% less likely to report a productivity drop, and 65% less likely to report a decline in the quality of their organization’s offerings. These numbers show that leaders can make a big difference in helping retained employees deal with their survivor guilt.
As a leader you probably are asking yourself: “what can I do to help my team go through that dreadful layoff cycle?” Here are three suggestions:
1- Before the layoff cycle starts – Fight for your team
You may have heard the story of Bob Chapman, the former CEO of Barry-Wehmiller, a family owned company. In 2008 at the bottom of the recession, the company was hit very hard, and they lost 30% of their orders very fast. The board decided that they needed to save money and pushed for layoffs. Bob refused, so he came up with an idea, a furloughs program. Everyone was going to take an unpaid vacation so everybody will suffer a little as opposed to a few who suffer a lot. Guess what happened to the morale of the employees? It went through the roof. If you have the chance, protect your team at all costs and make sure they know you are doing it.
2- During the layoff cycle – Conduct them with empathy
As employees process the layoff cycle, they start to believe that the company they work for does not care about them, that they are pawns, merely a piece that can be easily sacrificed for the company’s sake. But it doesn’t have to be this way. As a leader, your ability to communicate effectively and regularly with your employees is invaluable in the long term. Much of how employees perceive a layoff depends on how much information is shared, and where it is coming from; it should come from you.
● Listen and acknowledge their fears
● Ask how your employees are doing and respond with empathy
● Make sure you validate or dispel the “rumors” out there, fast
● Make sure you are available, open-door policy
● Don’t hide the truth
3- After the layoff – Lead by example
When you perform a layoff, you’ve probably harbored feelings of regret for having to lose members of your team and feel anxious about the light in which survivors see you. Now you are managing a team of survivors, the lucky ones who didn’t get laid off. Therefore, you need to set a positive tone but also be realistic. Good fortune doesn’t make good performance.
Kick your leadership skills into high gear and focus on transitioning your surviving employees toward a new brighter future. Make employee engagement your number one priority, creating a safe space for your employees to succeed.
Organizations that invest time, money, and attention helping the remaining employees stay engaged are much more likely to succeed after a layoff than see diminished productivity. How your remaining employees perceive you are handling the process will set the tone for renewed trust in the relationship. If you handle it with integrity and empathy, you will minimize and perhaps eliminate adverse impacts of the survivor syndrome on your team.