The Left-Behind: Life After A Round Of Layoffs

mm Russ Finkelstein

The U.S. stock market has never been higher as I write this, but a large number of industries are also consolidating, and whole industries are realigning. That means people are being let go.

Taxicabs. Newspapers. Hotels. If there’s a disruptive technological app around, you can guarantee that swathes of people in the industries disrupted have been suffering. Likewise in the non-profit sphere, foundations and organizations have been re-prioritizing their strategies in light of recent political changes.

Of course, it’s most painful to have been laid off, and I’ve written elsewhere about what to do when you lose a job you love. But there’s also a strange phenomenon that’s under-written about, and it’s what to do when you find yourself surviving a round of cuts.

I’ve coached groups of people in organizations who have found themselves surviving rounds of layoffs, lately. And what I’ve realized is that in general, organizations don’t give enough thought to how to let people go. In some cases, that’s because their cultures aren’t thoughtfully designed, or people well managed, even if they’re in a competitive industry. But it’s also true of industries where cultural shifts mean the whole industry is realigning, and where leadership often does a good job in other areas.

If organizations are to be successful after rounds of layoffs, they need to be seen to do the right thing by the people they’re laying off, as well as those who have been chosen to stick around.

Managers at organizations that have decided to lay off staff need to have honest conversations with employees in sensitive settings, within a culture where people feel open enough to provide honest feedback to each other. They must recognize that the way those who have been left behind will assess this new entity is in part based on how these ‘most vulnerable’ are being treated. Institutions should:

  1. Make an earnest effort to highlight the contributions of those laid-off;
  2. Give people fair warning and ample time whenever possible to make plans;
  3. Support them in making their transitions whether via coaching or counseling. They can also offer extended pay or insurance, or allow employees to use some of their remaining time with the organization to start their search.

Everyone watches these decisions very carefully, and getting it wrong could make your already anxious staff even more likely to flee. At times it seems that managers view staff as a herd to be led. They have assessed a group to be those ‘weaker’ or ‘problematic’ and easily shed. Many of their colleagues don’t look at it this way. Your view about thinning the herd may actually be taken as a sign that the whole herd itself and its leaders, are weak.

If you’ve survived a round of layoffs, or perhaps a few rounds of layoffs, lately, then it’s likely that the main question on your mind is whether you can continue to trust the management and leadership of your organization to correct whatever the problem is and to do the right thing in the event they can’t.

I was doing some coaching recently at the offices of a large, wealthy institution known publicly for its ‘progressive’ treatment of people, just as a round of layoffs took place. People were going into meetings with executive staff and human resources, not knowing if they were going to have a job when they came out. Whether they might be promoted, demoted or fired. For the next few days, the office was very quiet, except for the occasional rounds of sobbing that broke out. I wish I were exaggerating. Some people who had been there the longest were simply walked out of the building with just 20 minutes to collect 20 years’ worth of belongings. Lawyers had suggested there was a risk associated with serving through the end of the week or day, and so, people were simply ejected like bad rubbish.

When you treat your employees like this, avoiding a sensitive approach, you impact your employees’ trust in you. Likewise, I accept that legal advice sometimes has a sound basis, but this was an approach that wasn’t taken with a mind towards a long-term strategy of how to get the best from the remaining staff. As a result, most of the people I met there looked to leave, and subsequently have.  

For survivors of this kind of behavior, I’m not suggesting that there is a right or wrong way to approach your next move. But I would suggest that you do the following three things.

First, process your feelings. You may feel that you’re in a no-win situation. You may feel guilty, fearful, and emotionally stunted, as if you can’t or shouldn’t be happy. You can’t exactly propose that March Madness bracket or go out for happy hour when someone who sits across from you just became unemployed, unless you’re what we technically call a sociopath. We all go through this in different ways, some detach or deny, others give in to these feelings deeply and often, and others find themselves on a roller-coaster. You can feel fortunate that you made it and still deeply saddened for the loss of others, and perhaps your own loss of security.

You may feel as though you should associate with the people who’ve been let go, or you may feel an inclination to remove yourself from those people. If you had a close relationship with people who have lost their position you may want to comfort them and they may want that comfort. Remember, this is more about what they want than it should be about assuaging your guilt. If you feel uncomfortable being around those let go try to understand why. Has management shared the message that you should no longer associate with them? Remember, any employer that takes that stand is very capable of doing so to you. Of deciding that you too represent a professional past that is no longer worthy of being recognized. Are you uncomfortable articulating something that feels worthwhile to your soon to be former colleagues about what’s happened? I can get flustered at times about situations like this with people I don’t know well. Often, it suffices to say, “I’m so sorry about what has happened. If I can be of use with any contacts as you go through the process, don’t hesitate to reach out.”

Now, I want you to follow through. Continue to be a resource to these people. You are going through a tough time as you attempt to regain a sense of the place that has been impacted by lay-offs. However, they may be questioning their ability to locate work AND how they are going to pay for rent, food, etc. It is only by helping others that we can begin to believe that others may step up for us.

Second, consider your feelings about continuing to work there. Do you think that you can continue to trust your employer? If they behaved badly towards your former colleagues, what guarantees are there that they might behave differently towards you? If they use financial reasons as the center of why people were let go, what confidence do you have about the organization’s financially viability? Have they offered a way ahead beyond layoffs that rights the ship financially?

It’s bound to take a few weeks for your feelings to settle on these questions, and my strong advice is to allow for your emotions to swing around a little, over those weeks, but not to take them too seriously. It’s in your interests to preserve your employment as long as possible, even if you’ve decided you can’t trust the place. There are occasions where leaving a job quickly is my advice, but it is most often not my first choice as I want you to make an informed decision and ideally not one based on a need to make money as soon as possible. Your most immediate job option and your best job option are rarely the same. This ensures that you leave in due course, and on your own timeline, and terms. Most often, this is not the time to march into anyone’s office for a rant as you leave without any notice.

If you’re feeling a sense of doubt, then it’s worth asking management what the reasons for the layoffs were, and for reassurance about a plan for the future. As I mentioned earlier it is always best if employers share the reason for what has happened, but if no plan is forthcoming, then you might want to weigh the job market, whether there are other opportunities you might consider. And to prepare for that process diligently. Don’t expect this to be a fun time. But don’t allow your anxiety to lead you to feel too out of control, either. I can guarantee that if you approach the process constructively, you’ll be better positioned than many of your colleagues who may try to bury their heads in the sand and hope it goes away.

Finally, check in with people about your assessment, and act. In my role as an advisor I find that I spend more time making sure that people have on their seat belt, have a map ready and are going at the proper speed than I do, telling them to step on the gas. I trust your intentions, but during emotional times it can be hard to know if your careful analysis of the situation is the right one. It may be time to look for something new or upon careful consideration your long-term prospects in your position might be great. Talk to someone or a few people that you trust and respect to have a career conversation. Get their take on your situation.

Remember it is not disloyal to stay, nor to thrive after such a thing happens. It’s a possibility, and sometimes, actually, the possibility that’s most disconcerting to people. That everything might be okay.

You might be left behind, but you are, as you always were, the primary actor in your career story. Picks your parts carefully.

Russ Finkelstein is Managing Director of ClearlyNext, a guided online career program that helps people of all backgrounds and incomes figure out what to do next. Read more >