Layoffs leave survivors upset


July 23, 2008|By HANAH CHO

It's hard to say goodbye to colleagues. Especially under stressful circumstances such as layoffs that are becoming more frequent in the slumping economy.

While the focus is on the plight of unemployed friends and co-workers - and rightly so - there's another group that is also suffering: the so-called survivors who are left to deal with guilt, sadness and other whirling emotions.

"There are feelings of guilt," says Benjamin Dattner, a management consultant and adjunct professor in the industrial and organizational psychology master's program at New York University. "They think it's not fair."

And amid low morale and picking up the work of departing colleagues, layoff survivors deal with heightened fear and uncertainty about their own futures.

"You never know when the next round may be coming," he says.

So is it any surprise that productivity suffers and gossip runs rampant even after a layoff?

A recent survey found that downsized staffs juggling increased workloads are feeling stressed - 78 percent of 7,600 workers polled by reported feeling burned out.

Debra Shapiro, the Clarice Smith professor of management and organization at the Robert H. Smith School of Business at the University of Maryland, says managers often wrongly assume that survivors will feel lucky to have a job.

"Yes, they are lucky at some level," Shapiro says. "If they're cynical and worried about 'am I next,' all this supposed benefits of the layoffs will not likely be realized."

But managers can help alleviate the anxiety among layoff victims and survivors if they take the time and effort to "explain as thoroughly and as sensitively as possible to everyone ... what the criteria are for determining who stays and who goes," she says.

Let me repeat it: Don't let layoff rumors fester. Inform workers as soon as possible.

"The irony is that managers fail to do that," Shapiro says. "There is actually research that shows those who take the time to provide the explanation, they actually [see] greater productivity gains and cost savings following the layoffs than they do otherwise."

"The reason is if employees perceive fairness, which includes they perceive the victims are fairly treated, then the survivors are more likely to remain committed to their organization," she adds.

Last, managers should not neglect the increased demands put on survivors, Shapiro says. It may require them to provide additional training or hiring temporary part-time workers, she says.

If only managers followed that simple advice.

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