You can’t open social media or turn on the news today without being inundated with warnings of a looming recession. But for tens of thousands of workers in the U.S. tech sector, it has already arrived. As of October, 52,000 tech employees have been laid off in 2022. The latest casualties? 11,000 workers laid off at Meta alone, and half of Twitter’s staff let go in a matter of days.
While we immediately empathize with those who have lost their jobs, the unwritten story is about those who are left behind in the wake of mass layoffs. In the case of Meta, that’s more than 70,000 employees.
9 Characteristics of Survivor Syndrome
- Distrust of management
- Increased anxiety
- Feelings of loss
- Risk aversion
- Diminished performance
- Increased absenteeism
Survivors, or the employees not laid off, often feel demoralized, angry, cynical, distrustful of management and fearful that they’ll be next on the chopping block. While there is often an unspoken assumption that those remaining will just be happy to keep their jobs, and that collectively, the workforce will be more productive, more often than not, the opposite happens.
Survivors experience challenges described as survivor syndrome. These challenges range from psycho-social impacts such as increased anxiety, feelings of loss and risk aversion to work-related impacts such as reduced performance and increased absenteeism. Research shows that these symptoms and behaviors are a result of a decline in affective commitment, which is the emotional attachment an employee has to the organization.
It is just as critical to have a plan for addressing those who will stay as it is for addressing those who will be let go.
This presents a tricky paradox: At the exact time organizations need to heavily rely on survivors’ performance to absorb tasks and responsibilities of those who have been let go to maintain productivity, those same employees feel less committed to the organization.
The bottom line? It is just as critical to have a plan for addressing those who will stay as it is for addressing those who will be let go. Failing to do this will likely translate into further and potentially irreparable declines in morale and productivity.
As an industrial-organizational psychologist, I apply psychological principles and research methods to help organizations and the people within those organizations thrive. Based on my research, here are four non-negotiable elements of a layoff survivor plan.
Make a Plan for Survivors Before the Layoffs
Organizations need to develop a comprehensive and detailed plan for survivors before the downsizing happens. The plan should include thoughtfully timed communications, specific learning and development opportunities for the remaining workforce, and strategies for building trust and confidence in the decision-making of senior leaders and management.
Planning ahead is the only way to prevent a wave of survivor syndrome, which can detrimentally impact productivity and morale and ultimately negate the intended impacts of the layoffs in the first place.
Communication should be the foundation of your survivor plan; it’s not enough to simply announce a layoff.
“Survivors are usually not informed or are misinformed about many issues, such as their place in the newly structured organization, expected performance standards, the key people in existing networks either leaving or changing, extra work demands, the value of their expertise to the new organization, and the existence or lack of opportunities for advancement,” writes Stephen Applebaum, professor of organizational behavior at Concordia University in Montreal, Canada.
Layoffs are meant to reduce costs and increase efficiency. Your surviving employees can’t help you do that if they don’t know what’s going on. Survivors need information about possible future change, new organizational standards and expectations on performance, advancement opportunities, and growth-security issues within the organization.
Invest in Survivors’ Learning and Development
With a reduction in workforce, you are most likely asking survivors to do more and different work. It’s both unsustainable and unfair to assume that survivors are simply happy to still be employed and thus will take on any amount of overflow work after a layoff.
This is the optimal time to evaluate the skills of your workforce through a formal process. Fair and unbiased skills assessments will ensure the talent that you do have is being used to its fullest potential, help identify skills gaps and help you better understand where you can invest your development dollars, so your employees feel supported.
Once you have assessed the skills of your workforce, it is imperative that employers provide reskilling, upskilling and cross-skilling training to help survivors adapt to new expectations and responsibilities without burning out. Now is the time to invest in the personal and professional goals of your workforce and build a future-focused culture of support.
Focus on Respect, Fairness and Justice
Word travels fast. Surviving employees know exactly how downsized employees were treated and will make quick judgments on whether their former colleagues were treated generously, respectfully and equitably. If survivors perceive that the downsizing process was unfair or lacked transparency, the chances of them experiencing survivor syndrome will increase.
This is the time to double down on bolstering trust in leadership. It’s essential that senior leaders in the organization are more visible both during and after the layoffs. They need to be available to answer questions and transparently explain the reasons for the layoffs, explain how downsized employees are being taken care of and reaffirm the mission and vision of the organization with credibility and confidence.
With continued uncertainty about the global economy going into 2023, tech organizations will have to make hard decisions. If and when layoffs become necessary, approach the process with transparency, fairness and a commitment to equity with both the employees who are let go and survivors. Investing in your remaining workforce is the only way to ensure that the short-term pain of downsizing leads to long-term success.