Rightsizing and the Phenomenon of Survivor Sickness

While they may have kept their jobs, those employees who remain after a corporate layoff are hurting. Here’s what you should do to help them—and yo…

While they may have kept their jobs, those employees who remain after a corporate layoff are hurting. Here’s what you should do to help them—and your organization—heal.



Rightsizing, downsizing, layoffs—no matter how a reduction in workforce is labeled, it is a fact of modern corporate life.

But rightsizing can create serious personnel problems that can eat away at an organization like a cancer. In his book, Healing the Wounds, David M. Noer explains: “Layoffs are intended to reduce costs and promote an efficient, lean, and mean organization. However, what tends to result is a sad and angry organization populated by depressed survivors.”

Moreover, Noer and others have observed that reductions in a workforce (especially if they are large reductions) precipitate a phenomenon known as survivor sickness. Survivors of a layoff are the employees who remain in the organization after a rightsizing. The sickness arises because these remaining individuals feel violated and, as a result, they become angry, depressed, anxious, fearful, and skeptical. The biggest mistake rightsizing organizations make is failing to realize that survivor sickness exists and failing to recognize that steps should be taken to respond to it.

It is probably true that the intensity of such feelings is inversely proportional to the number of times layoffs have occurred in an organization. In those organizations that have never experienced a layoff, the feelings of betrayal among surviving employees are more intense than in organizations that have had a previous layoff.

A well-planned and well-executed rightsizing can reduce, but not completely eliminate, survivor sickness. As soon as possible after a layoff occurs, survivors should be given the opportunity to vent their negative feelings. Managers should attend a retreat or workshop to assess and address their own feelings about the layoffs and learn how to help employees identify and respond to signs and symptoms of survivor sickness. Supervisors as well as senior management should meet with surviving employees and encourage them to express their doubts and concerns.

A layoff represents a breach of the standard implied contract between employees and management. The traditional implied employment contract offered employees a permanent place in an organization and a career in return for behaving in accordance with the organization’s culture. Today’s organizations are finding that they cannot fulfill their end of the contract because they can no longer guarantee permanent jobs. Organizations need to alter their attitudes toward employees—and employees need to alter their attitudes toward organizations and their careers.

How Layoff Survivors Feel

David M. Noer, author of Healing the Wounds, says layoff survivors experience 12 different types of negative feelings about their situations and concerns about their employer—all of which can chip away at the well-being of employee and organization. These include:

  • Feeling dissatisfied with the employer’s layoff planning and communication
  • Feeling dissatisfied with the layoff process
  • Feeling that the employer lacks strategic direction
  • Feeling that things were handled unfairly by the employer
  • Feeling that the employer lacked a reciprocal employment commitment
  • Feeling betrayed and distrustful of the employer
  • Feeling fearful of job security
  • Feeling less likely to take risks and to be motivated to perform job tasks
  • Feeling that the employer lacks management credibility
  • Feeling intimidated by a sense of permanent change
  • Feeling that the employer is concerned only with short-term profit
  • Feeling depressed, anxious, and fatigued

To comment on this article or share your own observations, or to schedule a presentation, contact Terence Moore at 989-430-2335 or tfm43@speednetllc.com.


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