Meta. Netflix. Amazon. Spotify. Google. We’ve been watching as some of the biggest names in tech have implemented mass layoffs for the first time since the Covid-19 pandemic began. And while it’s easy to look at the headlines in numbers, there is a very human cost that our teams face. Both for those who are laid off and those who are left behind.
In the wake of these layoffs, how do organizations maintain employee morale for those left behind? Especially when everyone’s now working in a distributed environment?
In this episode of Inclusion in Progress, we’ll be discussing what workplace survival syndrome is, how it affects employee morale post-layoffs, and what you and your company can do to support remaining team members after they watch their colleagues leave.
Here’s what we will explore:
- What is workplace survivor syndrome?
- Who is affected when companies engage in layoffs?
- How workplace survivor syndrome impacts psychological safety
- How employers can best support their teams after a downsizing
Welcome to the Inclusion in Progress podcast where we give you the ideas, actions and insights to help you build more equity at your workplace and in the world at large. I'm your host, Kay Fabella, international expert on diversity, equity and inclusion, a Filipina American living in Spain and your guide in navigating this DEI journey. Having worked with teams at companies such as Philips, the IMF, Red Hat, PepsiCo and more, I know firsthand that the work of inclusion only works when everyone has a seat at the table. Regardless of your personal entrypoint into this conversation: your race, ethnicity, gender, ability, age, sexual orientation, country of origin, or educational background, we all have a role to play in creating inclusion for all and it starts with us having conversations we need to create the change we wish to see. So let's dive into today's episode.
Meta. Netflix. Amazon. Spotify. Google…or the artist formerly known as Google, aka Alphabet.
We've been watching as some of the biggest names in tech have implemented mass layoffs for the first time since the COVID-19 pandemic began. And while it's easy to look at these headlines in numbers, there's also a very human cost that our teams are facing, both for those who are laid off and for those who are left behind. In the wake of these layoffs, how do organizations maintain employee morale for those left behind, especially when everyone is now working in a distributed environment? This is what we'll be covering on today's episode.
I'm Kay Fabella, and I'm a DEI consultant for remote teams. I'm your host of the Inclusion in Progress podcast where you'll get research-backed industry insights into the future of work, and practical how-to’s for implementing equity and inclusion in your workplace. I also lead a remote team and have worked with clients across EMEA, APAC and the Americas, which means that you will get a global perspective on how companies are supporting their distributed teams, building workplaces that work for everyone.
So in today's episode of Inclusion in Progress, we'll be discussing what Workplace Survival Syndrome is, how it affects employee morale post-layoffs, and what you and your company can do to support remaining team members after they watch their colleagues leave.
So if you've been listening to this podcast for a while, and you're diggin what we're throwing down, make sure you follow us on your favorite podcast app and, if you are inspired, leave us a review, because that helps us get this content in front of equity-minded leaders in the workplace like you. Lisa left us a review and said, “Kay delivers each podcast episode in a way where it feels like you're listening to a compassionate friend. The content is always far reaching and yet easily understood, which is no mean feat.” Thank you, Lisa! We appreciate your thoughtful words and are grateful for your valuable input. I often say that this is a labor of love and a team effort. Team IIP puts lots of time and energy into putting together these episodes week after week, month after month. As well as making sure each episode is free for you to access and easy to understand and implement. Every review helps us in our mission to help make workplaces more equitable and inclusive by putting these resources in front of the people leading these conversations at work.
So as I'm recording today's episode, Dell also joined that list of big tech names announcing that they've laid off 5% of their global workforce, Salesforce laid off 10% of their employees worldwide, and Pinterest is on its second round of layoffs in less than two months. Even Zoom, which almost single-handedly supported our connections and our connectivity and our game nights during the pandemic, announced layoffs too. Intuitively, we know that there are natural cycles, ebbs and flows, of business. Like always, there will be another side to this recessive period. Well, what some people are calling Recessions in some places – really just depends on where you are.
But it's also hard to ignore the experiences of the people who are being affected by these decisions, many of whom we on Team IIP, or Inclusion in Progress, are talking to in real time. Many of the employees who've been laid off are sharing their experiences on social media. And, the good thing is, they're being celebrated for being vulnerable and they're more likely to receive support from others like them who are going through the same experience. We've seen countless posts on our LinkedIn feed encouraging folks to please look at their colleagues who've been let go or offer to read over resumes or introduce people to folks in their network.
However, the individuals that we do not necessarily hear from on our social feeds or maybe even in interviews, are from those who are left behind in these organizational restructures or layoffs. Maybe they feel they don't have the right to complain when they consider the fate of their colleagues. But, similar to soldiers coming home from war, these employees who have the opportunity to continue with their roles suffer from a type of Survivor's Guilt. They are left wondering why they were the so-called “Chosen Ones” -- And, yes, that's a Neo reference. But, jokes aside, they feel a mixture of complicated emotions, understandably, rather than relief at knowing that they get to fight another day. This survivor's guilt is what organizational psychologists call Workplace Survivor Syndrome.
So what is Workplace Survivor Syndrome? How will this ultimately affect your teams or your organization as you navigate a challenging moment? And how can you ensure that their morale, engagement, and productivity remain as unaffected as possible during turbulent times?
So in today's episode, we'll go over the consequences faced by those who “survive” layoffs, and guide you through some of the challenges that your employees may face as workplace survivors, as well as share ways you can support them.
So let's dive right in!
We already kind of defined Workplace Survivor Syndrome at the top of the episode. But, in a nutshell, we know that job losses, and we've seen many over the last few years, have emotional, psychological and organizational repercussions on those left behind in a company after a restructure or layoffs. And, for better or for worse, it also has a name. Workplace Survivor Syndrome is a term that encapsulates the experience of all of those who have survived a round of redundancies in the workplace.
Now, what are the consequences of workplace downsizing on those left behind? Well, for starters, there's a huge amount of trust loss in both their employer and in their leaders. And, depending on how the layoffs were announced and implemented, that broken trust may be irreparable. The 7000 Salesforce employees, for example, are questioning why upper management waited nearly a month to inform the people who were laid off in what ended up being a second, even third wave of layoffs in Q1 2023. Now, rather than being relieved at getting to keep their jobs, workplace survivors face, as we've stated before, a mixture of emotions: guilt, for one, at being chosen when their peers weren’t; confusion, if there were no clear reasons given by their employer for why they were allowed to stay while others were asked to leave; loneliness, if they are left behind while their former team members move on; bitterness if they're asked to take on the work that their colleagues had to leave behind, without an increase in pay and with a decrease of flexibility in their work hours. Another consequence of Workplace Survivor Syndrome is the employee's fear of being next to lose their job. They may be suffering from things such as heightened anxiety or weariness and knowing that the sense of security that they might have felt before that restructuring is now compromised, once they've had to say goodbye to their friends and colleagues. They may also be dealing with mistrust if their employer decides to engage in one of the Quiet Hiring practices that we shared in Episode 103 – working with short term contractors. Now, if those freelancers or contract workers aren't intentionally folded into their teams, surviving employees may view this as yet another threat to their job security. This threatens the effectiveness of the contractors hired if your remaining employees perceive them as a threat. Finally, Workplace Survivor Syndrome also compromises your remaining team members’ sense of psychological safety, which can feel like whiplash after how many organizations touted their renewed commitment to diversity, equity and inclusion or DEI over the last three years. When an employee doesn't feel like they are safe to do their best work, studies show that they may deal with consequences ranging from overwhelming exhaustion, to feelings of cynicism and detachment, and of course, an overall decrease in effectiveness in their role. Top that off with the trauma that they may be facing after an organizational restructuring, such as a mass layoff,nd you've got a perfect storm for remaining team members. They're decrease in psychological safety is exacerbated by their distrust and disillusionment in their employer. If it's not dealt with humanely and intentionally by a leader or an employer, all of these consequences will affect your layoff survivors’ morale, engagement, and productivity at work. And you need your remaining employees to keep things afloat as you navigate these choppy waters.
So how can employers support those experiencing Workplace Survivor Syndrome?
Now one of the ways that we're being called to support our client partners during this time is through guiding conversations for workplace survivors and supporting managers and leaders in creating a sense of psychological safety on their teams after layoffs, since many of our partners work in the tech industry. So here are some of the tips that we've picked up along the way.
The first is to embrace empathy. We know that the last few years in particular have challenged us in ways we could have never imagined. It's why one of the core skills that employees value today in their leaders and employers is the ability to demonstrate empathy. Recognize your employees as people and not just numbers in this process. They're all going through something that may feel isolating or really challenging for them, so it helps if they feel that they're not alone. If you're a team leader that's been affected by restructuring, model vulnerability and try your best to elevate the concerns of your team to any superiors or upper management. Help them understand that difficult decisions are being made and encourage their empathy towards the situation that's happening. And, in the meantime, be patient with your remaining team members. Acknowledge that they will move at their own pace to adjust to new circumstances and responsibilities. Give them the grace to find their footing and recover, help them process the change that's happening, and reframe the challenge in front of them as a potential opportunity to advance their career or prove themselves as a valuable asset to their organization.
The second is model inclusivity. Now DEI, or diversity, equity and inclusion, was never meant to be limited to one subset of Human Resources or a similar People function in an organization. DEI was always intended to be embedded in the systems, processes, and behaviors of an organization across the board, which shaped the work culture that determines your team's psychological safety and, therefore, their ability to do their jobs and contribute to your company effectively. This is the spirit behind our podcast and our company name Inclusion in Progress, because we know that it's an ongoing journey towards freer, fairer, more equitable workplaces that involve all of us. That's why it's been difficult to speak to our peers and our colleagues in the past few months who have been asked to vacate their in-house DEI roles. Despite concerted efforts on their part, and on the part of external DEI consultancies, such as ours, organizations seem to only prioritize Equity and Inclusion when their bottom-line is profitable. As one of our colleagues at Slack said to us recently, it's a tale as old as time. The difference is that now your remaining employees are taking notice, airing their grievances – in some cases, very publicly – and keeping tabs on which employers are walking their talk on DEI, which is why it's important to follow through on any promises that you've made as much as possible, whether that be an updated benefits package or a career progression program that will be made available for your remaining team members. We've also witnessed employers modeling inclusivity by encouraging proactive rest, meaning that you emphasize things like work-life balance, exercise, wellness practices that support your team's ability to recover and maintain their morale and effectiveness at work. This can be done through things like encouraging meditation and deep breathing, walking employees through the stages of grief and helping them identify where they are emotionally, upskilling team members to increase the resilience during turbulent times, or providing mental health services to employees without fear of judgment.
The third is to open dialogue, have an open dialogue with your employees, listen to what is bothering them and help them feel heard, open up channels that are easily accessible and are clearly two-way so that they will be encouraged to come to you with their questions, their needs, their concerns, and everything in between as you navigate an organizational restructure. Another part of modeling your company values, and equity and inclusion, is transparency. Be as transparent as possible with your team members. Over-communicate any changes that will be made in a timely manner, and involve them in the decisions that will affect everyone to the best of your ability. This is incredibly important, especially now that many are working in a distributed environment and are dealing with news of layoffs either affecting them or affecting their team members in, often, an isolated environment, such as their home office or far away from their colleagues. So creating spaces to open up that dialogue is more critical than ever.
Finally, reframe it as a reset. Listen, the only constant in life is change. While pain is inevitable, suffering is optional. How we choose to face change is the only thing that we each have in our control. And the good news is that resilience can be taught to our team members, even if the changes they're facing are challenging. And the only way to do that is to encourage an open dialogue amongst them, as well, so they feel less alone. During turbulent times, it's important to emphasize that change is an opportunity to reset. In the case of a layoff or a company restructuring, the reset will help you reshape your work culture to thrive on the other side of this storm. So remind your team members that the times that they're navigating will be tough – yet temporary – and that they will be instrumental in reshaping the future of your company when it moves into another growth period. You can encourage remaining team members to advocate for their career advancement in their new or adapted job roles, or ask them to utilize feedback channels and town halls to share what kind of workplace they'd like to work in moving forward, to allow them to prepare for the other side of this transition. As we often said in our workshops on DEI during the early days of the pandemic, every storm eventually runs out of rain. On the other side of the storm, we get to decide what lessons we'll take forward and how to reshape our surroundings and begin again.
So there you have it, what Workplace Survival Syndrome is, how it affects employee morale after layoffs, and what you and your company can do to support remaining team members after they watch their colleagues leave in a way that increases your team's productivity and psychological safety during turbulent times.
At Inclusion in Progress we've always recognized the need to investigate barriers to psychological safety at the individual, behavioral, and organizational levels while navigating the reality of our post-pandemic distributed world. Because we know that identifying how to remove those barriers allows organizations to create lasting work cultures where employees contribute their best ideas without fear of judgment or exclusion. Ensuring an engaged, productive, and equitable work environment, no matter where your employees choose to work from. We also know that the last three years have been challenging for every organization to navigate. And it's important to provide resources that set you and your organization up for success. To that end, we're pleased to announce the release of our 2023 Whitepaper on the Future of Work Culture: How to Make Distributed Work Inclusive. You can download a copy on our website at inclusioninprogress.com/learn or head to the link in the show notes of this episode to grab a copy. And if you'd like to learn how we can support you while creating inclusive distributed work strategies in 2023 that will help you increase psychological safety and morale for your current and future teams, you can email us directly at firstname.lastname@example.org to book a free, no-pressure consultation call with our team.
As always, thank you so much for listening. Thank you for sharing these episodes with others. And we'll see you next time on Inclusion in Progress!