During my first experience with company reorganizations, my manager corralled a group of us into an unscheduled meeting and informed us that some of our colleagues had been “impacted” that afternoon. As a young 20-something new to corporate America, this business euphemism for being laid off was so foreign to me that it took me a minute to realize what had happened.
As my manager spoke about shifting responsibilities, the reality sunk in. Those of us in the room were the ones being spared. In a separate room, our colleagues were being updated on their grim fate. When asked if we had any questions, we survivors didn’t voice any, but I could see my own mix of shock, sadness and overwhelming relief reflected in the faces of my peers. I was glad it was not me to go, but I also felt guilty about it.
These feelings I experienced have a name: “layoff survivor’s guilt.”
“A version of survivor’s guilt is most common” to feel after a round of pink slips, said Melody Wilding, an executive coach and licensed social worker. “People who make it through a layoff often struggle with remorse on top of the change and transition of losing colleagues and the swirl of new teams and relationships cropping up.”
In this way, layoffs are destabilizing events that have long-term repercussions for your career. Career experts told us how layoffs can be a shock to your system, in both good and bad ways.
Processing post-layoff emotions takes acceptance and confidence.
First off, if you are having strong feelings like guilt or happiness after a layoff, accept them rather than fight them. “Give yourself time to cope with the sudden departure of colleagues,” said Lisa Orbé-Austin, a licensed psychologist who focuses on helping professionals manage their careers.
Orbé-Austin recommended finding someone “to share those feelings with, somebody who can validate them and see them as real and not dismiss them as like, ‘You should just be happy you have a job.’ ... It’s OK to feel sad for them and relieved for yourself,” Orbé-Austin said.
Sometimes, the negative feelings of survivor’s guilt can be connected to impostor syndrome, which might have you wondering, “They were more capable at their job. Why were they let go and I wasn’t?” Orbé-Austin said. If that’s the case, remind yourself that layoffs are business decisions and recognize your skills hold value for the organization.
Use the layoff bystander experience as a time to reflect on your own career at the company.
“There’s a reason you were selected to stay, so look for the opportunity to showcase your value,” Wilding said. “Remind yourself of what you have accomplished in the past. You can also mentor newer or junior colleagues, which reinforces your competency and helps decrease feelings of impostor syndrome.“
Of course, if you are feeling like a layoff survivor because you are overwhelmed and stressed from doing your departed colleague’s work, that merits a conversation with your manager. You don’t want to take on two people’s work after two people go. That conversation with your manager can sound like, “With [name] gone, that means we have less bandwidth for this project. I can pick up certain pieces, but I’d like to work with you on prioritizing what’s most important given my current workload,” Wilding said.
“[Research] found that layoffs targeting only 1% of the workforce subsequently led to a 31% increase in voluntary turnover, on average.”
The ensuing “free agent” mentality can be good for noticing new, better career opportunities.
In her 1997 memoir “Close to the Machine,” software engineer Ellen Ullman wrote about how layoffs at a software company where she thought she would “stay forever” permanently changed her relationship to work. She was one of the few layoff survivors: She didn’t immediately lose her job, but she used that mercy to focus all her energy on getting a new one and pivoting toward a career in virtual consultancy.
“No one who goes through a layoff is ever the same again. Some faith is gone, some comfort level is lost,” Ullman wrote. “Any day, you could be coming from the dentist to find that your social, laboring existence has literally been ripped away.”
Once you know that a company has downsized once, you may feel like you could be next. In this way, watching layoffs hit close to home can reset your measure of a company’s loyalty to its employees. After a layoff, “employees see less of an obligation to be loyal to the company, resulting in more of a free agent mentality,” said Charlie Trevor, a professor of management and human resources in the Wisconsin School of Business at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. “With this mentality comes the freedom to actively seek another job where, hopefully, one’s future will be less tenuous.”
Trevor co-authored 2008 research that found that layoffs predicted an increase in employees quitting. Looking at data from companies seeking to be included in Fortune magazine’s 1998 and 1999 “100 Best Companies to Work For” lists, Trevor and his colleague Anthony Nyberg found that layoffs targeting only 1% of the workforce subsequently led to a 31% increase in voluntary turnover, on average.
“Layoffs are linked to several perceptions that are tied to turnover likelihood, such as heightened mistrust, increased concern about job security, reduced job satisfaction, and lower commitment to the organization,” Trevor told HuffPost.
Before you decide to quit out of fear and mistrust, however, consider how the layoff happened. Trevor and Nyberg found that HR practices that conveyed fairness like a grievance or appeals process mitigated the likelihood of others leaving.
Questions to reflect on include, “Were victims treated with dignity and respect? Were they given generous severance? Did management communicate meaningful rationale for the downsizing, and did it demonstrate some degree of sensitivity and concern for the employees?” Trevor said, noting that how layoffs are handled can tell “a survivor a great deal about the company’s priorities and about the type of treatment one might expect moving forward.”
Layoffs are an important trigger to reconsider your relationship to your job, but don’t let it be the only way you evaluate how you feel.
“A layoff can be a traumatic event, but it does not in and of itself fully define your employment,” Trevor said. ”How are you treated? Do you enjoy your work? Are the pay and benefits better than you would likely receive elsewhere? Are promotions and a desired career path likely if you stay? ... While an emotional quit response to a layoff is understandable, it may not be the most beneficial approach for you.”