After Layoffs, How Can Employers Handle Survivor Guilt?
We may or may not be heading for an economic downturn this year, but we certainly are seeing a slew of layoffs. The technology industry has been most heavily affected, with more than 224,000 jobs eliminated since the start of 2022. Although many small companies are affected, we’re also seeing announcements from big names like Alphabet, Amazon, Microsoft, Salesforce, and Meta.
Now, layoffs are spilling into other sectors as well. For instance, Disney, Goldman Sachs, and FedEx recently announced job cuts. Even McDonald’s is downsizing.
But no matter where and when layoffs happen, we can’t help wondering about the people who’ve lost their jobs. How will they cope financially? How will their mental health be affected?
It’s natural to be concerned about their wellbeing. But what about employees who remain onboard? We shouldn’t forget about them.
Many of these layoff “survivors” are likely to be suffering as well. They may be expected to put in extra effort or take on additional tasks to cover for those who are gone. All the while, they’re worrying about whether their own job will vanish next. Survivor guilt only compounds their problems.
Recognizing the Trauma of Layoffs
When lives are lost in a traumatic event, survivors sometimes feel guilty because they didn’t die. Or they may obsess about what they could have done (but didn’t) to help save others. This survivor guilt phenomenon also emerges in the aftermath of work layoffs. Although the situation is less dire, employers should take it seriously.
Remaining employees may feel guilty because they still have a job when others lost theirs. They may believe they’re less worthy or less skilled than those who were laid off, which further compounds feelings of guilt. This is one reason why layoff survivors typically don’t perform as well as predicted, which can ultimately harm business performance.
Learning From Covid Layoffs
The last big wave of layoffs happened during the Covid pandemic. At that time, my organization conducted research to understand the impact on employees. Specifically, we asked people how much they agreed or disagreed with these questions:
- I am annoyed or angry that I am still working, when others have been laid off or furloughed.
- I feel guilty about having a job, when others have been laid off or furloughed.
We found that remaining employees were much more likely to feel guilty than annoyed. In fact, only 5% agreed or strongly agreed that they felt annoyed or angry. In contrast, 33% agreed or strongly agreed that they felt guilty. This means a third of respondents were experiencing survivor guilt.
Upon closer inspection, we found that the extent of this guilt varied considerably from person to person. In part, it was due to differences in personality preferences for either Thinking or Feeling, a dimension included in the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI) framework.
People with a Thinking personality preference prefer to make decisions based on objective logic. In contrast, those with a Feeling preference favor decisions based on values and how those decisions affect people.
Our research found that individuals with a Feeling orientation were significantly more likely to experience guilt than those who lean toward Thinking. Specifically, 44% of people with a Feeling preference agreed or strongly agreed that they felt guilty, compared to only 21% people with a Thinking preference.
How Guilt Affects Remaining Employees
Given today’s economic pressures, organizations could see a repeat of the 2020 survivor response. It’s important for line managers to pay close attention to this, because survivor guilt can erode job performance.
But here’s a potential problem: Managers and executives are far more likely to have a Thinking personality preference. This means they’re less prone to survivor guilt, themselves. They’re also less likely to notice survivor guilt in others, or take it seriously.
How can organizations bridge this gap? The MBTI assessment and similar tools can help managers understand if their staff members see the world the same way they do. When an assessment reveals misalignment, it can help managers recognize that, even if they aren’t experiencing survivor guilt themselves, they should be open to others who are struggling.
Steps to Minimize Survivor Guilt
Managers and HR specialists can take several steps to mitigate the worst effects of survivor guilt. For example:
1. Let remaining employees know that you addressed all those who were laid off as individuals and you treated them as well as possible. But don’t communicate this message if it isn’t true. People with a Feeling preference have a knack for sensing inauthenticity. So lying will make matters worse than saying nothing at all.
2. Offer to help employees who lose their jobs. For example, you may want to offer outplacement counseling to everyone who is laid off. Providing this kind of support is a moral thing to do. Plus, it can improve morale and engagement among those who remain. So, even though it increases the upfront cost of layoffs, this investment can lead to tangible business benefits.
3. Reassure employees that, even if they had been prepared to make sacrifices themselves, the outcome wouldn’t have changed. Again, don’t communicate this message unless it is true.
4. Clearly explain the rationale for layoffs to those who are leaving as well as those who remain. This helps avoid the appearance of arbitrary decision making.
5. Do not congratulate survivors because they still have a job. This may only increase any guilty feelings they’re experiencing.
6. Establish multiple channels to share information on an ongoing basis. People have different communication preferences, depending upon their personality. That’s why it’s important to offer a variety of methods, especially if your organization includes remote and hybrid workers. Here are several ideas:
Provide opportunities for people to ask questions and submit suggestions. Some people prefer live face-to-face discussions, group meetings, online forums, or instant messaging. Others need to think about questions and submit them in writing. These people may feel more comfortable with on-demand online events, online feedback forms, email messages, or anonymous surveys.
Whatever communication mix you implement, be sure to set expectations for how quickly you’ll respond to questions, ideas and comments. And once those guidelines are in place, be sure to follow through.
Whenever employers initiate layoffs, it’s vital to consider the organization’s psychological contract with employees. Unlike a tangible work contract based on things like salary and working conditions, the psychological contract is intangible. It focuses on values and “the way we do things around here.” This contract is an implied agreement between employer and employee.
Organizations must consider if and how layoffs violate this contract. When this is the case, leaders must explain their actions. Otherwise, employees with a Feeling personality preference may walk away from their jobs without any explanation or warning. They’re likely to feel justified because their values have been compromised.
To avoid these unintended consequences, think ahead about the implications of layoffs — not only for those who will lose their jobs, but also for those who will remain. Then act accordingly. If you want your organization to prosper in the long-run, ignoring survivor guilt is not an option.