5 Ideas for Maintaining Morale after Layoffs

Workers who remain after downsizing experience emotions that range from initial relief to guilt over their good fortune. Following layoffs, managers can provide support specific to survivors.

As bad as the unemployment situation is right now, a lot of people still have avoided the axe. For those who have held on to their jobs, post-cutback effects can take their toll. In the current employment situation, employee confidence and overall attitudes in several key areas are likelier to drop: job insecurity, diminished advancement opportunities, heavier workloads, less teamwork, higher stress and, not insignificantly, feeling undervalued.

Still-employed workers may even have survivor's guilt. Psychologists note that workers who avoid downsizing experience emotions that range from initial relief to guilt over their good fortune.

When workers are affected, their employers are, too. According to a recent survey by Challenger, Gray & Christmas, Inc., companies undergoing layoffs face tough challenges in keeping surviving employees engaged and focused. Fifty-four percent of human resources executives cited maintaining employee engagement as their biggest challenge in a post-layoff environment. Another large concern, according to 23 percent of respondents, is easing anxiety among surviving workers that additional job displacements might be imminent.

"Employers can combat these feelings of disillusionment and possibly, in some cases, downright despair, all the while keeping workers focused and feeling secure in their positions," according to Challenger's @Work blog.

The following are some expert ideas, in five broad areas, for keeping remaining workers focused following layoffs.

Customize Communication.

"When things seem to be coming apart, the normal communication links break down just as suspicion and mistrust begin to predominate," says John Shepler's Managing after Downsizing. "Some news is always better than no news, even if it is the same old news. If people don't hear anything, they fear the news is so bad that no one wants to tell them."

"It all starts with constant and open communication," according to the Challenger blog. Managers need to communicate concisely, clearly and frequently with the layoff survivors how the organization plans to recover and the employees' role in that recovery.

"Blanket reassurance following layoffs will not ignite the drive toward excellence that ailing companies require," Workforce.com says. Rather than a bunch of impersonal memos, person-to-person communication should be customized to make the open dialogue resonate with each individual.

Re-emphasize Vision, Mission and Values.

Following mass layoffs, the organization's mission and vision for the future likely will have changed or received new life. Managers must then "recreate the work environment, so that people build their self-esteem, find work satisfying, and achieve at higher levels," HR expert Susan Heathfield writes at About.com: Human Resources. "The foundation for this progress is to re-emphasize the organization mission and the values."

Set specific, realistic goals and objectives for employees. Spend time discussing them.

"Let people ask questions and talk about how their goals fit into the larger picture after the layoffs," Heathfield continues. "Talk about the culture and work environment you want to create post layoffs. Define what you need to do as a group to move in this direction, despite the loss of coworkers."

Rebuild Trust.

"Managers must reinforce the trust factor since many survivors may feel emotionally disappointed," The Hayes Group International says. "Once trust is lost, it is almost impossible to regain."

Managers must demonstrate trust in their employees and that they can be trusted. "[M]anagers must not only demonstrate empathetic concern, but [be] responsible for achieving results," The Hayes Group continues. "Employees must understand that the charge of the manager is to ensure the organization survives and must trust him to make and communicate the right decisions."

To maintain employee morale while building an environment of trust, "emphasize the value of their proven skills and the contributions they are making, but take care not to imply that their employment is guaranteed," Workforce.com advises.

Proactively Address Workloads.

"Increased workloads for employees who survive layoffs are inevitable," Douglas Klein, president of Sirota Survey Intelligence, said late last year. This can affect teamwork and task effectiveness in a bad way. But, according to Klein, "managers can choose to involve their employees in the search for solutions, thus addressing both teamwork and efficiency simultaneously."

Workforce.com recommends reassigning roles according to individuals' talents: "After layoffs, managers may be tempted to reassign the work of terminated employees to those closest to them, but this knee-jerk reaction only places ailing companies in further jeopardy." Instead, companies should "move new responsibilities to the employees best qualified to handle them — meaning not necessarily those next in line."

Remaining workers should receive additional training in how to perform the extra tasks they must take over from former colleagues. Put renewed effort into team building. Keep in mind that improving work-group stability fosters teamwork and providing challenging work stimulates creativity.

Recognize Survivors.

"If you are a manager, it is most important to reassure the people who report to you of their value to you and the organization," Heathfield notes in a separate feature. "You need to talk with each of them individually to let them know why and how they are valued; tell them what you feel they contribute to your effective, continuously improving work environment."

In particular, Harvard Business Review advises paying special attention to high performers: "Research [...] shows that employees who perform better and have more training, education and ability are the most likely to quit if dissatisfied. Provide support and encouragement, and help them see that downsizing opens new opportunities and channels for promotion."

With any change, there is a period of adjustment. In general, employees' attitudes generally decline in uncertain times such as these. Yet there are major exceptions, depending on how management treats its remaining workers. "Effective managers realize that planning, communication/listening, trust and employee development are necessary to move employees quickly through these stages and to do downsizing 'right,'" The Hayes Group concludes.

Earlier: 5 Strategies for Managing Employees after Layoffs


Survivor Syndrome: Are Those Left In The Office Prone To Bullying

by CGC Coaches

Challenger, Gray & Christmas, Inc.'s @Work Blog, July 7, 2009

After Layoffs, Help Survivors Be More Effective

by Anthony J. Nyberg and Charlie O. Trevor

Harvard Business Review, June 1, 2009

Restoring Productivity and Morale after Layoffs

The Hayes Group International, Inc.

Boost Employee Morale After Layoffs

by Dennis LaRosee

Workforce Management

Managing after Downsizing

by John Shepler

JohnShepler.com, June 15, 2009

Downsizing Survivors: Motivating the Employees Who Remain After Layoffs

by Susan M. Heathfield

About.com: Human Resources

Survivors Can Soar After Downsizing

by Susan M. Heathfield

About.com: Human Resources

Laying People Off? Help Survivors Cope

Business & Legal Reports, Inc., April 2, 2007

All Topics