From Guilt to Anger: Managing the Emotions of Layoff Survivors

The emotional fallout from layoffs is shifting from survivor guilt to survivor anger, threatening employer brands. While outplacement has focused on departing staff, the resentment of remaining "survivors" now requires new strategies like career development and rewards.
SEP 19, 2023
Greg Simpson, Global SVP Career Transition Practice, LHH
Melanie Stave, NA SVP, Career Development & Mobility Practice, LHH
Article Image

HR professionals be warned: layoff survivor guilt is quickly turning into layoff survivor anger.


For many years now, outplacement providers have been counselling their clients on the risks of “survivor guilt,” a mash-up of emotions experienced by employees who continue to work for an organization after layoffs.


It’s a tricky dynamic: the “survivors” are no doubt grateful they still have a job, but research has consistently shown the departure of their co-workers can trigger very strong reactions.


Layoff survivors may become anxious about whether they are “the next on the chopping block.” They can suffer profound feelings of loss after seeing co-workers – some of whom may have been close friends – pack up their belongings. Survivors can also experience burnout from added demands to perform the same amount of work with fewer people to carry the load.


It all adds up to a blend of emotions that increases employee estrangement from their employers which, in turn, undermines engagement and productivity. Research into the survivor guilt phenomenon found that “downsizing causes lower identification with the employer which, in turn, relates to lower performance of the employees.” It also does significant and – in extreme cases – permanent damage to the employer brand.


Although this has always been a concern for organizations that have made the difficult decision to trigger layoffs, more recently there are signs the guilt and estrangement experienced by survivor employees is turning into survivor anger that is being expressed online and – in some instances – on the street in the form of protests.


Why are so many survivors so angry?


This is a complex question, because it involves the ability to read thoughts and emotions. Both are difficult to do at the best of times, but especially hard at a time when employees have so much on their minds. Climate change, geopolitical conflict, general economic upheaval; these are not easy times to navigate.


What is incontrovertible is the pervasive and mounting anxiety and dissatisfaction that many working people are feeling.


Gallup’s 2023 State of the Global Workplace report reveals that 60 per cent of employees are disengaged and “quietly quitting,” while just under half (44 per cent) are reporting severe work-related stress. Notably, the greatest source of concern is not related to pay; employees are blaming issues such as culture, fair treatment and recognition at work – the exact type of concerns that are typically amplified in the wake of layoffs.


In this context, it’s easy to see how a wave of layoffs – an event many working people would connect to culture and fairness – could serve as the spark for an eruption of employee anger.


The hard truth: outplacement support may not be enough on its own


The prevailing theory embraced by the outplacement industry has always been organizations that worked closely with an experienced partner to manage layoffs – focusing on best-in-practice communication and meaningful career support – reaped a broad array of dividends. They found that even in the wake of layoffs, their brand as an employer of choice was protected, in no small part due to goodwill among departing employees.


Often left out of the equation, however, was consideration of the impact layoffs had on the employees who remained. As noted above, survivor guilt among retained employees has been a real phenomenon for a long time. However, current trends in some approaches to outplacement support, along with a rise in overall employee activism, is triggering volatility and anger.


Practices including virtual layoffs – where people are let go either through video calls or by ordering survivor employees to work remotely when notifications are being made – can trigger outrage both online and in person. Not surprisingly, these strategies can often present as callous and, in some instances, even cruel. Some of the world’s biggest companies can attest to the fact that these measures can prompt surviving employees to speak out or even stage protests. That is not good for any organization’s brand as an employer of choice.


Fortunately, there is really no reason for any employer to face survivor anger of this magnitude. All it takes is a little advance planning and a healthy dose of compassion.


Defusing survivor anger and protecting your organization’s employer brand.


Given the high degree of economic and social turmoil right now, there is no way to completely defuse the anger of departing and surviving employees. Layoffs are, as they have always been, hyper-emotional events in the lives of all involved. But with careful planning, you can certainly diminish the likelihood of a major revolt.


Three reliable strategies to defuse survivor anger 


Show all employees that you understand the trauma that can accompany layoffs. Although some organizations believe they have to play their head-count plans close to the vest and then spring layoffs on employees to reduce distraction, there is abundant evidence that a shock-and-awe approach doesn’t work very well. Employees affected by layoffs need as much advance notice as they can get. And once that notice is provided, employers must demonstrate – both to the affected workers and the survivors – there is a range of supports available to help them transition to new jobs.


Revamp and expand employee reward and recognition programs. It’s essential to include your Head of Total Rewards in planning for the aftermath of layoffs. Often left out of the discussion, rewards and recognition programs can go a long way to mitigating survivor anger. Everything needs to be on the table: benefits, compensation and employee-satisfaction and loyalty programs.


Mobility/redeployment: double-down on career development and re-/upskilling. Employers would almost always prefer to avoid layoffs. Sometimes, however, economic or market conditions make downsizing unavoidable. The best employers know that investments in career development and upskilling reduce the likelihood of future downsizing over the long term. Those investments also help build a culture of internal mobility, where skilled workers look within before quitting to pursue other options. In the short term, these investments can go a long way to alleviating survivor anger over the loss of co-workers, and mitigating anxiety over whether they will be included in some future wave of layoffs.


No organization contemplating a reduction in head count can say they haven’t been warned about both survivor guilt and its uglier cousin, survivor anger. The eruptions of wrath and resentment outside the head offices of some of the world’s biggest and best-known employers should be enough warning for everyone else.


The silver lining in this stormy forecast is that both guilt and anger can be managed with expanded notification periods, strategic investments in reward or recognition programs and meaningful investments in career development that will support internal mobility.


These are the tried and tested ways to show surviving employees that you understand how they’ve been affected by layoffs. And more importantly, that there is a future in your organization.