Analyze This

Managing The Pink Slip Blues

By Kerry J. Sulkowicz
Featured on Business Week

I’m a therapist practicing near Detroit, where layoffs are a frequent threat. (When they arrive, it’s almost a relief for my patients.) How can a corporation handle these (including the rumors) so that morale isn’t destroyed? And how can laid-off employees realistically assess their competence after being dismissed because of market forces? – S.H., Plymouth, Mich.

You’ve got your hands full, practicing near Motor City. While layoffs are sometimes required to save a company during downturns or after a strategic miscalculation, they can cause devastating emotional harm. Morale suffers not only because the dismissals signal serious internal problems but also because of the loss of colleagues  and survivor guilt among those who escaped the ax.

Because the threat of layoffs puts people under chronic strain, employees may indeed be relieved when the pink slip arrives and the suspense is over. But anger, depression, embarrassment, and plummeting self-esteem can follow quickly.

Here’s one thing companies can do: Openly acknowledge the suffering they’re causing. Calling layoffs “downsizing,” “right-sizing,” or “adjusting to scale” is an attempt to deny the trauma. It depersonalizes the humans who are suddenly out of work, downplays the aggressiveness of the action, and is a way to assuage the guilt of those making hard choices about who stays and who goes. The only thing worse than being fired when you haven’t done anything wrong is that awkward silence from leadership. It leaves you feeling at fault by default.

Senior managers also need to know that unaddressed rumors about impending layoffs will spread rapidly, paralyzing an organization. And they shouldn’t assume that those left behind, including themselves, will be unscathed by the experience. (My CEO clients agonize over these decisions.) Through HR or other professionals, senior managers should be attuned to the emotional fallout, including survivor guilt and lingering anxiety. Getting employees to put their feelings into words is one of the best ways to help, though it’s remarkable how often people are afraid to do just that.

FOR THE OUT-OF-WORK employee, the biggest challenge may be how to cope with feelings of helpless rage. Being laid off isn’t like being fired for cause. It’s not a chance to learn from one’s mistakes, and there’s no easy or obvious solution: It’s not so easy to move to a less vulnerable city or industry, for instance. And while most people are rational enough to know that their competence was never the problem, our minds don’t work so logically at these times. Self-doubt and anger turned inward take their toll. That’s why the best therapy in this case is to redirect that anger toward finding a new job. Even the necessity of listing one’s skills for a potential employer is useful. It’s a reality check that counters the distorted self-image that depression breeds. Counseling can help, but getting another job is, ultimately, the best medicine.