Filling in the blanks Featured

8:00pm EDT March 26, 2009

When layoffs occur, those who remain on the job often are labeled the “lucky ones.” But when the dust settles most job-cut survivors actually may be feeling anything but lucky. Often they may be experiencing guilt, anxiety and mistrust. Left unchecked, the lingering short- and long-term effects of layoffs, mergers and acquisitions lead quickly to additional turnover of core employees. That’s why managers charged with reassembling and refocusing these remaining players have to act fast.

“It’s easy to focus on the latest unemployment numbers, but there are people left behind who are greatly affected, as well,” says Anthony Van De Wall, human resources manager, Tampa Bay WorkForce Alliance. “There will always be anxiety when you’re talking about job cuts, but armed with information, people will function and rise to the occasion.”

Smart Business asked Van De Wall about layoff survivor guilt, crucial first steps and methods to build a culture better prepared to withstand corporate change.

Why do layoff survivors often exhibit a negative set of emotions?

Employees who survive layoffs often are waiting for the other shoe to drop; they are afraid they may be affected by further cuts. And survivors may be torn between their loyalties. They have a sense of loyalty to the company, but they also have loyalty to their departed colleagues. The survivors may begin to question their own commitment and contribution to the company, thinking, ‘Why should I continue to contribute to this organization or commit to it on the level that I have, when they’re not beholden to me and I might be the very next person to go?’

How should managers first approach layoff survivors when their colleagues are gone?

There’s a saying, ‘In the absence of information, we fill in the blanks.’ Left to our own devices, we rarely fill them in with good things. There is no such thing as overcommunicating in this situation. The sense of trust that employees may feel has been shattered. You can regain this trust by communicating what you can as quickly as you can. When employees begin to feel that their employer is making the right decisions for the right reasons and sharing that information with them, it’s easier to come to grips and understand some of the hard decisions being made. It’s a good idea to have some sort of barometer as to how people are thinking. Focus groups, surveys and town meetings are forums that allow people to express their ideas, their anxieties and possible solutions. And when you get this data, you need to communicate it back to them.

What are some lingering effects of layoffs, and when do they manifest?

Changes can play out in the days, weeks, months and sometimes even years that follow a layoff and there’s going to be implications for all parties involved. Initially, there’s the guilt that some employees feel because they survived the layoff and someone they worked with for many years did not. There’s also the reality of the day-today increased workload and possible trust issues when people find themselves working in the midst of a new team, or mistrust among people who have worked together before but worry about whether a colleague is going to try to outshine or outperform them for survival.

What practices can mitigate the stress of a survivor’s perceived or real increased workload?

The managers have to step up to the plate to bring focus back to the workplace and get everyone back on the same page, involved with problem solving, solutions, collaboration, helping with prioritizing and redirecting the assignments of the department and the group overall. You should communicate to the employees the opportunities that exist to identify efficiencies, redundancy and innovation, while maximizing resources. Those are positive thoughts and processes, so people likely will be more focused on their function and responsibilities, not on what they’ve lost, and you’ll be able to stay on track. This may be a great opportunity to identify hidden talents within your quiet leaders.

How can companies better manage their culture to minimize the impact of job cuts?

Strong leadership is the best tool for building a culture that can support and survive downsizing. Strong leaders communicate, early and often. You should always be in control of the message from the top down, making certain everyone is on the same page. If you’re on top of that by getting the information out early and upfront and in a straightforward manner, you’re going to cut down on the rumor mill, and you’re going to cut down on the anxiety levels that are there.

The best investment to be made is the investment in building employee and customer loyalty. How do you do that? You need to develop humane and sensitive managers who are effective communicators and leaders. Remember, you’re not managing departments; you’re managing people who make up those departments, and with people comes emotions and feelings.

ANTHONY VAN DE WALL, PHR, is HR manager with Tampa Bay WorkForce Alliance. Reach him at or (813) 740-4680.