Know how to manage survivor guilt

Redundancy, threatened or real, is everywhere today. And its impact on the workplace extends far beyond those unfortunate people who actually lose their jobs.

Consider those left behind. They will have wondered whether their jobs were on the line. They will have experienced that guilty sense of relief when they realised that it wasn’t their turn – yet. They will have watched their colleagues be made redundant and leave. And then they may well have had to go through the same process all over again.

So how can you manage this survivor guilt – and the sudden lack of confidence that afflicts employees in a company announcing redundancies? And how can you prevent the almost inevitable development of anxiety, stress and low engagement? As Bev White, managing director at Penna Career Transition, points out: “Organisations must look after their survivors, and work to boost their morale and trust in the business. Their engagement and productivity are key to the future success of the company.”

Crucial role

HR’s role in managing this survivor guilt is crucial. As White notes, many of the current crop of line managers are too young to remember the last recession, and will have no experience of dealing with redundancies or the impact on their teams. This is where the HR function can shine.

Make sure managers are well-informed and have up-to-date information. Sit down with them and plot out how they are going to communicate with their teams – and what they are going to tell them. Try to anticipate the questions they will face.

Don’t underestimate the level of concern survivors will feel. This is where having a decent employee assistance programme could really pay off. And make sure that staff know who to approach with their concerns. Some people will prefer to speak to their line managers, while others will opt for the relative anonymity of speaking to an HR practitioner. Either way, their questions will need to be answered, and the company should be in a position to provide them with as much information as possible.

Health implications

Managers should be briefed on the potential health implications, too. Living with both survivor’s guilt and an ongoing fear of redundancy could cause serious stress-related health issues. Make sure line managers know how to recognise the signs of stress in their staff.

Perhaps the most important message to the survivors is that they shouldn’t feel guilt. You need to work with their line managers to convince them they are not at fault. Those already suffering from poor self-esteem will find it further eroded by survivor guilt and the quality of their work will most likely decline. A good manager and HR department will anticipate this.

While you may not be in a position to issue platitudes of the ‘your job is safe’ nature, you should do what you can to reassure staff. Tell them that you will always be open with them about the security – or otherwise – of their role. And make sure they know that you appreciate their dedication to their work and the organisation itself.

If you only do 5 things

  1. Communicate
  2. Be visible
  3. Acknowledge people’s feelings
  4. Anticipate their questions
  5. Know the legal background

Further information

Expert’s view:
Bev White, managing director, Penna Career Transition

What are the biggest challenges?

Managers are likely to be faced with questions from survivors about why they have stayed while their colleagues have gone. They may also find themselves challenged by survivors on the future direction of the company and where their role now fits into this.

Redundancies can be incredibly unsettling for everyone involved and so reassurance becomes key – HR can provide this to survivors with clear and regular communication.

What should you avoid doing?

Speaking to employees ‘on the side’, even to reassure them they are staying, is a bad idea. The redundancy process should involve as much transparent communication, for all concerned, as possible. Survivors also need to be spoken to face-to-face by their managers – e-mail communication should not be used as a substitute.

Any communication with survivors should be channelled through someone who is confident and equipped to deal with the situation in hand. There are many managers in their 30s and younger who may not have led teams through a downturn before and so they might be unsure of how best to answer questions and communicate company messages clearly. They should be given the necessary training and be well supported by HR

Top tips

  • Develop a clear communication plan so survivors know where they stand.
  • Don’t hide away. Managers need to remain visible in the wake of redundancies.
  • Get support if it’s needed. Managers need to have the knowledge and skills to answer survivors’ questions.
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