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.