How To Survive Being A Layoff Survivor

by  Mary C. Schaefer  |  Change Management
How to Survive Being a Layoff Survivor

My first experience with downsizing was in 1992. We were told to prove we were qualified for our jobs.

Keep in mind this was 23 years ago. I still remember that there were 11 criteria to be qualified for my job. The rollercoaster starts.

I was livid. If some employees weren’t pulling their weight, why didn’t management do something about them already? Why did I have to prove myself?

If my performance was a problem, why didn’t I hear it sooner? If my boss doesn’t know whether I’m qualified for my job or not already, there’s a bigger problem here.

I was required to provide evidence that I was qualified. That meant poring through old performance appraisals, projects reports, and emails. Took 24 hours to prep. Long story short, I was deemed qualified to keep my job. Through the “evidence gathering” process I learned my own value.

Why Didn’t I Feel Lucky?

As time went on my job was at stake again, and again, and again (and again). I went through bouts of disillusionment and cynicism. It didn’t always make sense who was chosen to lose their jobs. It didn’t always make sense who was chosen to stay. And for the most part, the work wasn’t going away even if we had half the resources we had last month.

I didn’t want to be that person who hid so I wouldn’t be noticed. I didn’t want to be afraid of speaking up or making an unpopular decision at the risk of being part of the next cut. I didn’t want to be bitter or allow my attitude to affect my performance. I didn’t want to pretend that it was all okay either.

Recognizing Survivor’s Syndrome

As I transitioned into HR and befriended an employee assistance counselor, we started running workshops to support those who survived job cuts. There is a deep well of feelings in those left behind (e.g. anger, fear, contempt, suspicion, and guilt).

We took hundreds of people through the workshop. We helped people talk through their reactions. The objective was to help them feel empowered coming out the other side.

If Only…

In the workshops, we must have heard some version of “If management would only…” or “If the company would only…” dozens of times. This brought back what I learned in my initial experience in 1992.

I had to be careful when I chose to respond to these laments. At some point I would ask, “What if management doesn’t ________?” or “What if the company doesn’t ________?” Timing is everything. The participant had to be ready to recognize it was time to take the reins despite all manner of unfair treatment, perceived and real.

What Does Take the Reins Mean?

Literally, for every “If management would only…” I would hear I would challenge participants to identify what they could do instead. Example: “If management would only be more fair in their selection process.”

What if they don’t do that? What if they do, but you don’t think so? Let’s talk about what you can do, so external circumstances don’t derail you over and over.

Through my experiences I learned that I could:

  • Keep my knowledge and skills sharp and up-to-date and document my training and accomplishments, projects and assignments.
  • Make sure I nurture relationships with people who do not work for the same employer.
  • Make sure my boss knows my accomplishments clearly and we agree on my level of performance, and that people in authority know what I’m doing – people who are not my boss.
  • Reframe my own assumptions and disappointment at the prospect that I may not stay with this employer as long as I want.
  • Make every effort to be fair and helpful to those who are new to the scene, like those who replace a former co-worker, for instance.
  • Channel my anger in a non-destructive way.
  • Be a truth teller, but in a way people can hear me.

You might say my list is a lot to ask. Agreed. Those who end up on the seemingly wrong side of a cut or termination have a challenge in front of them.

At the same time, it is easy to underestimate the impact on survivors. But as a survivor, it is imperative that you decide who you want to be in the environment you now find yourself. No one can do it but you.

When faced with challenges at work, what have you done to maintain an empowered perspective?
Photo Credit: Flynt

About The Author

Articles By mary-schaefer
Speaker, coach and trainer Mary Schaefer’s expertise is in creating work cultures where organizations and human beings can both thrive. She is a former HR manager. Find out more about how Mary helps managers empower themselves to make the most of their human resources with this special collection of articles selected for LCG readers:  »  View Profile

What People Are Saying

Mike Henry Sr.  |  10 Nov 2015  |  Reply

Mary, wonderful post. You can tell that you truly learned much from these experiences. We can always do something, affect something, adapt something. We always have a choice. Thanks for the encouraging reminders.

Mary C. Schaefer  |  10 Nov 2015  |  Reply

Thanks Mike. Those experiences shaped me significantly. I’m glad my learnings can benefit others.

John Smith  |  12 Nov 2015  |  Reply

Hi, Mary:)

Several comments:

1) Better late than never … just now getting to this.

2) I remain consistently impressed with your willingness to go where most people try to avoid.

Excellent list of things a professional should do for their own sake, regardless of what “the company” is doing.

It struck me as I read through this that a great part of the ambivalence and fear experienced by those trying to avoid the landmines of the modern workplace comes from a sense of mistrust.

If you trust the management structure within which you work, these questions become a joint project. As you were describing your experience (which is also my experience), those in charge had no active role in helping those they should be serving to demonstrate their competence and worth.

Everyone for themselves … never a strong stance.

You are absolutely right that we need to turn our “If Management Would Only …” statements into “Here’s What I Will Do …”. If everyone works together with the same goals in mind, this is easier to do. The weakest or least motivated performers will separate themselves, one way or another.

Quirky thought: Is surviving layoffs with adversary or absent management in place a victory … or a defeat:)?

Loved this contribution to our ongoing professional development.


Mary C. Schaefer  |  12 Nov 2015  |  Reply

John, thank you SO much for your response.

Regarding your quirky thought: “Is surviving layoffs with adversary or absent management in place a victory … or a defeat?” I want to say “it depends.” It depends on the meaning we assign to the situation.

For me, being in the position you describe, blossomed into an empowering attitude and determination to try to make things different. For others it creates an overwhelming bitterness, and the opportunity to learn how to work through that, resulting in the ability to be more compassionate.

Your question also reminds me of the good thing/bad thing story of the farmer and his son.

Or the Rahm Emanuel quotation: “You never let a serious crisis go to waste. And what I mean by that it’s an opportunity to do things you think you could not do before.”

Now, to your point about, “… those in charge had no active role in helping those they should be serving to demonstrate their competence and worth.” Survivor syndrome material suggests to organizations to shift from providing job security (if that is no longer realistic) to supporting “employability” for their employees.

When my employee assistance counselor friend and I tried to get this going with management, it was not well accepted. They thought they would develop and train people, and then they would leave. Well, that does not come from a stance of confidence and abundance, does it? It made me feel really bad that their scarcity mentality was affecting so many people so significantly.

But apparently this is what we are having to go through now, as the world of work shifts to a new paradigm. I am heartened by the Conscious Capitalism concept, and companies who DO want to do right by people.

Thanks for commenting, John, and making me think this through further.

John Smith  |  13 Nov 2015  |  Reply

Hi, Mary – thanks for your kind words and thoughtful response.

I guess we never really escape life being what we make it to be, do we:)?

I really like the concept of “employability”. I remember fighting this battle for the first time a long time ago on a campus far, far away. I introduced the idea of actually training residence hall staff to do more than guard the furniture in the student lounges, and was met with much the same attitude of “What if we train them and they leave?” Fortunately, I had the concept of “transitional job” to help others understand that young professionals earning advanced degrees may not aspire to be a residence hall director all their lives, but that this is a stepping-stone position and a valuable learning experience for other others. This helped some folks.

I am reminded, of course, of the old and well-know statement: “What if we train them and they leave?” followed by “What if we don’t and they stay?”. Still one of my favorite sayings, even though I wish we did not have to say it these days.

BTW, in researching to find out who said the above (Anonymous, as far as I can tell), I found this excellent quotation from Richard Branson: “Train people well enough so they can leave, treat them well enough so they don’t want to.”

Happy note to end on …


Mary C. Schaefer  |  13 Nov 2015  |  Reply

“What if we train them and they leave?” followed by “What if we don’t and they stay?”. – Thank you for reminding me of this one, John. Invaluable.

And I love the Branson quotation too. That brings it all together.

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