Talking Through Tough Times at Work

A big-city newspaper announces staff cutbacks, and many longtime reporters, editors and circulation employees all receive pink slips. But Joe, a 50-year-old police reporter who suspected that he, too, might be in management’s crosshairs, is spared in the purge. One by one, Joe says goodbye to his old friends and colleagues. He is sad but secretly relieved to still be employed.

But in the weeks that follow, Joe finds himself dealing with his own kind of angst. Sometimes called “layoff survivor sickness,” it’s a combination of guilt, insecurity, anger and fear. Joe wonders why he survived while equally talented or tenured co-workers got the heave-ho, and he thinks it’s only a matter of time before his number is up, too. He’s also growing annoyed at everyone who keeps saying he should be grateful just to have a job; sure, it beats the alternative, but with all the staff cutbacks, he’s doing twice the amount of work for the same paycheck.

The stress is affecting his concentration and motivation, and it’s showing in the quality of his work. Joe is hardly alone. Other employees still at the newspaper are showing similar symptoms, and management has done itself no favors by ignoring the situation and telling people to “buck up” and just be happy they’re receiving a paycheck.

The longer that these workers’ disabling emotions stay unaddressed, the more corrosive the effects are on the company’s performance and employee health.

The Employees Left Behind
In this grim economic climate, it’s easy to focus only on those in the toughest of circumstances – people who’ve lost their jobs. But those left behind – the layoff survivors – also can suffer emotionally in the aftermath of downsizing, and organizational psychologists say if their feelings are squelched rather than provided a healthy outlet, it can have serious consequences. Companies that choose to deny these emotions exist in the workforce often experience plummeting productivity, more concentration-related errors and increasingly listless, risk-averse employees.

“Most businesses take the macho attitude of, ‘When the going gets tough, the tough should get going,’” says Mitchell Marks, a business professor at San Francisco State University in California. “There’s almost an implicit message that if you can’t cut it, maybe you should leave the company, too.”

But the problem with that approach is, if such employees aren’t allowed to release or address feelings of guilt or fear, they’ll remain stuck in the past, says Marks, the author of Charging Back Up the Hill: Workplace Recovery After Mergers, Acquisitions and Downsizings. “You can’t truly move forward until you deal with the baggage left behind,” he says.

Organizations that encourage layoff survivors to vent feelings in constructive ways see far fewer of these debilitating post-pink slip effects, says David Noer, professor of business leadership at Elon University in North Carolina. He believes the healing in these situations should begin from the top down: Leaders must first deal with their own, often-repressed emotions regarding downsizing before they can begin helping others.

Mike Goering, a former Toastmaster who is a manager at Best Buy, the electronics retailer based in Richfield, Minnesota, understands the value of frequent, honest communication in times of corporate upheaval. Best Buy experienced both voluntary and involuntary layoffs in 2008 as its financial performance suffered, and five of 11 people on Goering’s staff were affected by the workforce reduction. Best Buy executives held town-hall meetings to explain the decision and to field employee questions. Department heads followed up by meeting with each of their staff members, regardless of whether they were affected by layoffs.

“There was no veil of secrecy around our objectives or communication plan,” says Goering. “The one-on-one meetings were a chance for genuine communication, and also an opportunity to let those who would be staying on know what to expect in the post-layoff environment.”

The Damage of Denial
One symptom of layoff survivor sickness is a hierarchical denial pattern – the higher a person resides in an organization, the more he or she will want to deny any signs of the workplace malady. “Managers are expected to suck it up, be good role models and not show others they, too, might be feeling guilty or fearful,” Noer says. “But for them to heal others, they have to first look in the mirror and heal themselves.”

The author of Healing the Wounds: Overcoming the Trauma of Layoffs and Revitalizing Downsized Organizations, Noer often works with top managers in offsite sessions to help them drop the façade, confront their own issues and provide a safe place to grieve the sense of guilt and loss that accompanies issuing layoff orders.

Such work is critical because leaders play a vital role in bringing about the emotional release necessary to begin survivors’ post-layoff healing process – an “unblocking,” as Marks calls it, that’s key to helping people move forward.

Managers usually achieve their positions because they’ve mastered a traditional skill set that includes planning, organizing and directing. But the post-layoff climate places a premium on a new set of skills: listening, helping and empathizing. “The things managers really aren’t rewarded for coming up through the ranks are the things in demand today as their employees struggle,” Noer says.

The message for managers in post-layoff settings: Tune up your interpersonal and “helping” skills if you want to keep your team’s performance and morale strong. That can be as simple as scheduling one-on-one meetings with remaining employees to gauge their emotional temperature and let them know it’s okay to be feeling guilt, anxiety or fear. Noer says that, simplistically put, the basic theory of therapy is this: “If you have disabling thoughts, feelings or emotions, unless you talk to someone about them, they will only get worse.”

                    "The post-layoff climate places a premium on a new set of skills:
                    listening, helping and empathizing."

The post-layoff environment at Best Buy meant having to work differently and more efficiently with fewer people, and the probability of increased stress levels. To stay on top of that challenge, Goering now holds one-on-one meetings with his staff members for an hour each week. The idea is a reflection of something he learned in Toastmasters – take the focus off of yourself and put it on your audience.

“It’s essentially [the staff members’] meeting to talk about whatever they want to,” he says. “We can talk about business or what’s going on with them.” The idea is to let people vent a bit, share coping strategies and provide some perspective in difficult times, Goering says. “Those of us who are older have seen many economic challenges, but it can be scary for those experiencing it for the first time,” he adds. “I try to use a ‘this too shall pass’ philosophy and emphasize that we’ll all make it through this just fine.”

Noer believes it’s better to have managers like Goering handle these communication tasks than to hire outside experts. Some initial training and a structured checklist to facilitate discussion will help wary managers get started. Noer’s experience is that even the most bottom- line-oriented, hard-boiled managers can pick up helping skills fairly quickly in workshops.

“Even the most clumsy attempt by a supervisor to listen to his people is better than the most sophisticated outplacement firm, consultant or psychologist coming in to do similar work,” he says. Why? Because the manager’s involvement will feel more authentic to employees.

Marks says managers should check in with layoff survivors not only regarding their emotional health but regarding new workload challenges as well. “It might be, ‘We had 10 people in our department before, and only six survived, so what changes are we going to make to allow us to handle the work of 10?’” he says. “There should be an honest discussion around issues such as, If you want me to do the work of two people, something has to come off of my plate.”

‘Sanctioned’ Group Venting
On an organizational level, Noer says it can be helpful for companies to create town-hall-style “venting” sessions that allow layoff survivors to address how they’re feeling. “I’ve seen a lot of success in companies who authorize employees to externalize their pent-up feelings and emotions in these sessions,” he says.

Many organizations use outsiders to guide the meetings, since highly skilled facilitators are crucial to navigate what can quickly become turbulent waters. It’s essential that these meetings don’t just become “bitching sessions,” says Marks, and that they create an environment where people feel safe speaking honestly about their feelings. Layoff survivors are often hesitant to open up for fear of repercussions.

“Many are afraid to talk openly because they are afraid they might say something that will be used against them when the next downsizing occurs,” he says.

When management allows people to be heard, and is honest about conditions in the company – letting employees know, for example, that the downsizing may not necessarily be over – survivors at least feel management is giving them straight talk rather than being evasive or sugarcoating a situation.

And when top executives choose to share some of their own authentic feelings in venting sessions, it can have a powerful effect on the workforce. Marks has seen rank-and-file employees walk away from post-downsizing meetings where CEOs have said, in essence, “This is really hurting me, too,” with a newfound respect and understanding of leaders they once reviled. “There are some ruthless executives out there, but the reality is that it pains most leaders to have to cut people off from their livelihood when it was no fault of their own,” Marks says. “And that pain is almost always expressed behind closed doors.”

While venting sessions won’t solve the problem of companies’ dwindling revenues or rising expenses, Noer says “they can help solve the emotional problem, and that helps survivors move forward, and become more focused and committed than those in companies who don’t get a chance to open up and talk.”

Dave Zielinski is a freelance writer who divides his time between Wisconsin and South Carolina.