Redundancy, survivor guilt and its long-term effects on your organisation

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Restructures, redundancies and layoffs are now part of the lifecycle of most businesses and organizations are required to act responsibly towards those who have lost their job.

However, those that lose their job are only one part of the equation. On the whole, companies focus only on those who are retrenched with little or no attention paid to those left behind. They do this at their peril. There is a large body of research that shows that survivors of retrenchments and restructures are at risk, often exhibiting behaviours that result in reduced productivity, low engagement and absenteeism (Brewer 1995).

The everyday experience people recount is of having to deal with seeing one of their colleagues emerge from a suddenly scheduled meeting, pack up their things and get escorted to the door.

Rather than being relieved and elated that it’s not them, the feelings are less helpful; guilt if they are the one who did the firing leading to feelings of distress (why am I in this position?), wakefulness, self-doubt (surely there was another way?) or even shame. These all come under the umbrella of survivor guilt.

Other versions of survivor guilt include “Why her and not me?” leading to stress from uncertainty and lack of confidence; or “Will I be next?” leading to feelings of insecurity.  Another is resentment at being the one left to clean up the mess, or take up the slack left by shouldering others’ work.  And being the one that delivers the layoff message unleashes emotions that can potentially overwhelm the messenger and lead to long-term effects.

Recognize the problem

Companies need to address the problem of survivor guilt. The first step is to recognize the problem as affecting individuals and therefore workplace productivity and the culture of the organization.

Being able to express the emotions of survivor guilt is important.  Questions such as “why not me?”, negative thoughts such as “he was better than me”, “my performance is not that good”, “probably they chose me because I’m cheaper” need to be given expression and normalized, as does the effect of further guilt arising from thoughts like  “I should be grateful, or relieved”.  Furthermore, as the workload increases and people are asked to take up the slack, survivor envy can set in “I envy them, I am left to clean up the mess, I wish I had been laid off”.

Tread carefully

Some people may be lucky to have a coach or confidant who they can talk through these feelings with, helping to resolve the emotions and reducing the stress that can be so damaging to their well-being.  The important thing is that it is normal to need to express these things and they are normal reactions.

Leaders need to treat those who are laid-off with respect.  And, they also need to be aware that that the people left behind may be struggling as well. A leader’s role is to give those who remain behind confidence about their future. Open discussions about the situation with employees about why retrenchments are happening and what can be expected in the future will lead employees to feel more secure and engaged with the company.

Minimize long-term effects

What should be more worrying to employers is what the research says about the long term effects of retrenchments and layoffs. Consequences such as reduced productivity and engagement can linger for many months, or even years, especially when the process has not been handled gracefully.

Individual responses of people include; shutting down, becoming more internally focused and more controlled and rigid. This does not bode well for staff and customer engagement or innovation, creativity or healthy risk taking - arguably things that organizations need in more difficult times.

Added to this, it seems that when there have been large job losses there is increased staff turnover, because prolonged uncertainty and insecurity is a very real factor in increasing stress. Often the ones who leave are the marketable ones – potential new leaders who will reach the conclusion that leaving is an attractive option because of the culture left behind. 

This can all be managed through open conversations about the situation and why the lay-offs happened. Employees need to know that there is a process and that it is as fair as possible.  After all, we are dealing with people’s lives and livelihoods.

Retrenchments are not pleasant, but it is a situation that has to be dealt with, not shied away from. Leaders can’t ignore what is happening because they delegate to others the unpleasant task of enacting redundancies. They must accept responsibility and continue to lead the business by looking after the people, knowing if they do this the results will look after themselves.

About the author

Dr Hilary Armstrong is the director of education at the Institute of Executive Coaching. For further information visit



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