Human Resources: After the layoffs

It’s Monday morning and you feel like one of the survivors of the Titanic. The parking lot is full of empty spaces and you parked right next to the building for the first time. There is an eerie feeling when you walk the halls, it seems like someone has died. There are empty cubicles and desks everywhere.

Reality is quickly setting in and you are grieving the loss of your fellow workers and the friendships that you had developed over the years. Work will never be the same and neither will the company culture. There are feelings of compassion, relief, anxiety and anger at those who made the decisions. Yet there is another challenge the company needs to address, “survivor syndrome.”

In a recent National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) publication, the authors state that “downsizing episodes will be associated with measurable effects on survivors’ stress and well being.”

They also found that more involvement in decision making and more opportunities to learn new skills will mitigate the impact of the layoff. In the first article in this series, Professor Barry Shore at the University of New Hampshire identified “Post Downsizing Stress Syndrome” (PDSS) among those employees who survived a layoff. This syndrome is manifested by a reduction in motivation, loyalty and feelings of guilt. In one company, the employees who survived experienced compassion, relief, anxiety and anger at those who made the decisions. Professor Shore also found that those who still hold their jobs feel grateful for being spared, but many also feel threatened, abandoned, burdened with more work, and subject to overall greater job stress. Some additional symptoms are trouble concentrating on the job, irritability with fellow workers, anger towards management, substance abuse, and a sense of hopelessness.

Now that you have diagnosed that your employees are experiencing this syndrome, what can be done? According to Shore there are several ways to treat PDSS. They are as follows:

  • Companies should lead with humility and professional will, resist the temptation to blindly follow command and control.
  • Bring concerns into the open. Acknowledge the insecurities and fears of the workforce.
  • Communicate often. Hold meetings to discuss the problems the company is facing.
  • Assist employees in understanding the tradeoffs between survival and job cuts. Ask for their suggestions.
  • Perform an attitude survey and collect data to measure employee morale before introducing any new programs to improve morale.
  • Encourage teamwork and collaboration. Schedule team building workshops and invite groups to plan their own workplace strategies.
  • Improve trust. Trust starts with honesty, fairness and keeping promises, even when these promises are tough to keep.
  • Recognize contributions and celebrate accomplishments. Everyone likes to be appreciated.
  • Start new projects. Examine if opportunities now exist because competitors have left the market. Have customer needs changed due to the slowdown in the economy? The answers to these and other questions may suggest new products or services.
  • Involve the workforce in developing new ways to improve old products and processes. Involving them in making changes helps build morale and provides for buy-in to the decision making process.

Your goal as the employer is to create a psychologically healthy workplace for the remaining employees. According to Rex P. Gatto, Ph.D. and Mickey Gatto, M.Ed., in order to be effective, new and current leaders will need to install hope in their organizations. They need to be visible and to explain to people how to get through the current crisis. These leaders need to communicate a message of direction and business success. Business goals should be in three to six month increments. The employees should be informed as to who will be involved and how the organization will look after the changes are completed. They also should be involved in how performance will be measured. The authors state that, “true leaders can be identified through their behaviors.” These behaviors are listening, communicating, taking action, and understanding what drives the economy. In addition, they need to create and maintain organizational passion. Let’s look at each of these behaviors separately.


Leaders need to hear and address the concerns of their employees during this time of transition. Corrective actions need to be taken in a timely manner to extinguish these concerns.


Effective leaders need to hold regular meetings to communicate the firm’s progress toward the interim business goals with the employees. This will reduce the impact of the rumor mill on employee morale. Information breeds confidence. Voids in the flow of information will be filled by rumor.

Taking action

When presented with information that indicates a change in the market, effective leaders revise strategies and reallocate resources to take advantage of opportunities in the marketplace. Agility is a key to surviving in this turbulent economy.

Understanding the economy

An effective leader has to be able to interpret the subtle moves in the economy and understand how they impact their organization and its goals. There are leading and lagging indicators to interpret and understand. Each industry has its own leading indicators. For example, when the price of corrugated paper begins to rise, it means that manufacturing is experiencing an increase in orders and requires shipping cartons.

Maintain organizational passion

A leader is a motivator, one who demonstrates a passion for his organization and its employees. Many people felt that General George S. Patton was an effective leader of men, even though his methods were extreme. Researchers who studied World War II felt that General Omar N. Bradley was the more effective leader because his troops respected him. He was called the “soldier’s general” and his men were extremely loyal because they knew he was interested in their welfare, while Patton was only interested in winning the battle, no matter the cost.

Resilience is the ability to come back from a trauma like a major layoff. Your employees will be resilient if they see there is hope and that you are willing to work with and help them. You need to be visible, inspirational and compassionate and lead your employees in the quest to create success on a daily basis.  

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