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Survivor's Guilt

"Many of those who remain after downsizing are stricken with survivor's guilt. Others are filled with an enormous amount of anxiety, assuming that it is only a matter of time before the other shoe drops." John Challenger

There are few leadership tasks more gut wrenching than laying workers off during business downturns. What could be harder than putting people on the street when jobs are in short supply? If you have any kindness in you, you'll feel badly for those you've had to displace. As it turns out, those employees who are spared from layoffs need your compassion, too.

"Companies use the word affected with people who lose their jobs -- the implication being that the people who remain aren't," says Joel Brockner, a professor of management at Columbia Business School. "They're very much affected."

And when workers are affected, their employers are, too. According to a survey by Challenger, Gray & Christmas, companies undergoing downsizing efforts face tough challenges in keeping surviving employees engaged and focused. Fifty-four percent of HR executives cited maintaining employee engagement as their biggest challenge after conducting layoffs. Another large concern, according to 23 percent of respondents, is easing anxiety among surviving workers that additional layoffs might be imminent.

And then there’s the guilt.

Psychologists note that workers who avoid the downsizing ax experience mixed emotions, ranging from the initial relief of keeping their jobs to the feeling of guilt over their good fortune. What's more, anxiety that more job cuts are coming and the burden of taking on additional workloads can lead some workers to actually envy their former coworkers.

As a leader, be aware that your role in layoffs doesn't end once you've pass out the pink slips. Columbia's Brockner recalls a conversation with a bank executive who boasted about the company's generous severance package. "I said, 'That's great. What have you done for the people who have remained?'"

"It is an unfortunate situation to be in, but the way companies handle it -- particularly the way they deal with surviving employees -- can make it significantly better or worse," says John Challenger, CEO of Challenger, Gray & Christmas. "You cannot simply tell employees to 'do more with less.' There must be a back-and-forth dialogue to address employees' concerns and fears."

According to Challenger, surviving employees want leaders to be straight with them. "Honesty is the best policy; employees deserve up-front communication when it comes to the state of the company and their jobs," he says.

When economics dictate that you let people go, do it as compassionately as possible. And don't forget to take care of your survivors.

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