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The Missing and the Disappeared – The Emotional Trauma of Layoffs

June 30, 2011


“Organizations that once saw people as assets to be nurtured and developed began to view those same people as costs to be cut.” David Noer

I recently heard a story that really troubled me. Laura (her fictious name) is middle-aged (an age range that keeps being redefined in today’s marketplace) and hanging on to her job by a thread. Laura works for a mid-sized hospital in New Jersey – let’s call it “Good Samaritan.”  

Hospitals have had record layoffs in the “new economy,” with over 152,000 in 2010 alone.  Although Laura is deeply concerned about the future of health care providers and the prospects for her long-term employment – her greatest stress is the treatment that she and her colleagues are experiencing as a result of the “great disruption.”

You see, in the past two years, Laura often finds her former co-workers and friends, “missing” when she returns to work after a weekend or holiday. Some simply “disappear,” with no word about their dismissal.  No one speaks their names. No trace of their belongings can be found.  References to former employees are discouraged in memos and meetings.   

How does Laura know these are the new rules?  Is it codified policy at Good Samaritan? 

No, says Laura – it is not. Everyone learns quickly (even the newly hired) via the grapevine.  She attributes the firings, layoffs and secrecy to the new hospital COO, hired in 2009.  Everything changed when she was hired.

Laura is depressed and anxious most of the time. She dreads every workday, especially Mondays.  Needless to say, employee morale is terribly low.  Laura would love nothing more than to leave, but the market’s weak, especially for someone “her age.”  She’s supporting her laid-off spouse and subsidizing her aged mother.  It’s a sad story – but what’s more disturbing – it is becoming shockingly commonplace.

Laura’s Not Alone – Layoff Horror Stories Abound

These stories really shake me up.  While they don’t surprise me – they are deeply distressing – as they should be to anyone who has an interest in the economic and societal well-being of this country. Too many people are being treated badly – inhumanely in today’s workplace.  There are hundreds of horror stories describing how people, many after years of service, are literally trashed. I know that this isn’t news, but my concern is that it is becoming “normed,” in our thinking and rationalized as the new normal.

 Laura’s story seems tame in comparison to some events described here:

  • An executive assistant who worked for his company’s Creative VP (they were hired together) for 17 years, who worked long hours on a presentation and then found a check with a layoff note marked, “No Severance” on his car windshield in the company parking lot.
  • An IT employee in a badly understaffed Tokyo branch of his company, who found himself in the midst of a sudden takeover. When he took a day off to take his wife (in the 3rd trimester of her pregnancy) for a check-up, then another half-day off because he was ill the following Monday, gets a call asking if he’d resigned.  When he arrives back on Tuesday, the newly hired HR person from an outsourcing firm tells him he’s fired as of month’s end and says, “We need people who are available to work in the office 24/7 without question,” and  “taking off two consecutive days is essentially stealing from the company. It’s not the company’s fault that you will not be able to support your family.”
  • A group of employees receive an email invite to an optional conference call, usually held to share financial reports and updates. Later that day, the same group is told to meet in the conference room to hear the call together. So far – all routine.  On the call, the CFO, claiming to be out-of-town (in reality he’s in a hotel 5 miles away), breaks the layoff news.  Wait there’s more; they are also told they have to come back to work the next day to find out when their last day will be and that the date is subject to change because many of them will have to train their non-local replacements. The company then enforced a zero tolerance for noncompliance with the request, warning that the laid-off workers would lose their separation agreement which allows them to file for unemployment benefits.
  • Then there is the man who is asked to create and deliver “exit packages” (containing severance pay, final paperwork, etc) to those being laid off… and then gets his own package the day after he finished handing them out to everyone else.

 It raises some powerful questions.

Who are we and what are we becoming?

The examples above are among the worse, but tragically, they are by no means uncommon.  It is fair to say that there are many conscious and considerate employers out there that have gone to great lengths to layoff employees in a respectful and just way.  And given the burden on so many human resources staff to carry out these mandates from senior managers, let’s acknowledge how stressful this must be for them. 

But it’s also fair to say that too many of us, especially in positions of relative power, remain silent and in doing so, condone the actions of our organizations.  We adopt the language of “fiscal austerity” and “fiduciary responsibility” in justifying the unconscionable treatment of our co-workers.

Engagement, Loyalty and Trust

Engagement is a big buzzword these days.  I regularly see reports and polls measuring engagement or lack of it. Endless strategies are being discussed to attract “top talent” or retain it.

Loyalty’s been declared dead or near death in today’s workplace. It was, “killed off,” says author Lynn Gratton, in a New York Times article, The Shifting Definition of Workplace Loyalty, “through shortening contracts, outsourcing, automation and multiple careers.”   Considering the future of workplace loyalty, Gratton states,  “Looking at the bigger picture, you can consider loyalty to your team, your department or a cause.”

Workforce consultant, Tammy Erickson, states that the quid pro quo of “modern” employment is more likely to go like this, “As long as I work for you, I promise to have the relevant skills and engage fully in my work; in return you’ll pay me fairly, but I don’t expect you to care for me when I am 110.”

Trust, according to Gratton, is about the present, while loyalty is about the past.  But according to author, John Hagel, “We all agree that trust is increasingly important but trust is rapidly eroding. It turns out that the very practices that helped us build trust in the past are now contributing to the erosion of trust.” Hagel wisely  points out that people who now commonly refer to themselves as a  “personal brand” continue to promote themselves in the same way companies have historically done – identify key strengths and credentials and hide weaknesses.

However, in the new rules of building trust, Hagel offers a new prescription, “In a more and more challenging world where we constantly confront situations that we never encountered before, what is our reaction when someone presents an image of great strength and complete control, with no weaknesses? We don’t trust them. We know that we are all human beings, possessing unique strengths but also great weaknesses. We are all increasingly challenged as we face mounting performance pressures. If someone only presents strengths and accomplishments, we know they are not sharing with us the full picture. If they don’t trust us enough to share their weaknesses and vulnerabilities, why would we ever trust them?”

Hagel’s bold perspective suggests that we are at the precipice – in the in-between of old models of trust and loyalty and something very different. A completely new idea is being born as the outmoded thinking erodes

Layoff Survivor Syndrome is Real

Laura, our distressed hospital employee, suffers from what organizational psychologists call Layoff Survivor Syndrome.  It is a pronounced psychological and physical stress response, a form of trauma, to the shock of job loss all around you and chronic uncertainty of the future.   It is also a result of losing the support and companionship of co-workers.

According to Harold G. Kaufman, a professor of management and director of the organizational behavior program at the Polytechnic Institute of New York University, “In fact, survivors are also victims. Like people who escape harm when others are hurt in a natural disaster or terrible accident, employees who keep their jobs in a downturn often feel guilty. It’s exactly as when you lose a good friend or a sibling you feel responsible in some way.”

Grief is the appropriate response for loss.  Loss of co-workers, loss of affiliation, loss of financial security,  loss of routine and yes, even a loss of a sense of loyalty.  Unfortunately, many people don’t take the time they need to go through the inevitable stages of grief, or even recognize or acknowledge them.  It’s easy to become overwhelmed by the mix of emotions a person can feel under these circumstances – grief, fear, hurt, sadness, guilt, resentment, anger and a sense of betrayal.

Though some organizations have started to recognize the vital role emotions play in every aspect of their employee’s well-being and resulting performance, too many have displayed a stunning lack of emotional intelligence in their  post-recession era behavior.

How Your Brain Says “Threat”

In an earlier post, Why Neuroscience Should Change the Way we Manage People, I laid out the rationale, based on the latest research, on how and why we cannot continue to manage based on an early 20th century paradigm.

What we now know is that the brain is a social organ. It’s neurological and physiological functions are directly shaped by social interaction.   According to David Rock, author of Your Brain at Work, “When leaders trigger a threat response, employee’s brains become much less efficient.” 

Our amygdala sits like a sentry, watching, guarding and protecting us against perceived threats. When activated, it acts with the brain stem (our “Reptilian” brain) and our response to the danger is fight, flight or freeze.  The freeze state, from a brain perspective, is a state of dissociation. 

David Rock’s work highlights how powerful the impact of threat can be, “Although a job is often regarded as a purely economic transaction, people exchanging their labor for financial compensation, the brain experiences the workplace first and foremost as a social system. When people feel betrayed or unrecognized – for example when they are reprimanded, given an assignment that seems unworthy, or told to take a pay cut, they experience it as a neural impulse, as powerful or painful as a blow to the head. Most people who work in companies rationalize or temper their reactions; they “suck it up,” as the common parlance puts it. But they also limit their commitment and engagement. They become purely transactional employees, reluctant to give more of themselves to the company because the social context stands in their way.”

Let’s not be deluded. The fiscal and managerial choices that have been made in the past three years will reverberate for a long time – and the implications will continue to unfold.  The idea that most employees will forget, adjust and move forward (with even higher expectations of performance) is naïve. The past is indeed prologue and cannot simply be swept away by economics or managerial declarations.

Let’s not forget Laura and so many like her  that are working harder than ever, stretched mentally, emotionally and physically.  And let’s also remember Laura’s colleagues, unceremoniously banished from their jobs without so much as a goodbye.

It’s a legacy we all share.

Thanks for reading and taking the time to comment, subscribe, share, like and tweet this article. It’s appreciated.

Louise Altman, Partner, Intentional Communication Consultants

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