Layoff Survivors May Feel Psychological Cost

ByABC News
February 15, 2001, 12:30 PM

Feb. 16 -- The ship goes down, and you're one of the lucky few who makes it to a lifeboat. You get out alive, but you're tortured by thoughts of "Why me? Why not someone else?"

It's called "survivor syndrome." Psychologists watch for it in disaster survivors, and it's something companies need to think about when they're planning layoffs.

The first victims of layoffs are obviously the poor souls who lose their jobs. But layoffs can have a profound effect on the surviving employees as well, especially if companies don't handle the transition well.

DaimlerChrysler one of several companies announcing mass layoffs in recent weeks is planning to eliminate 26,000 jobs in the three years, 20 percent of its employees. "This is literally rocking the foundation of our work force," says spokeswoman Megan Giles.

Conflicting Emotions

Psychologists and business professors say that survivors of layoffs experience many of the same conflicting emotions as survivors of much greater hardships, such as plane crashes or wars.

"On the one hand you're happy to be alive, a positive emotion," says Columbia Business School professor Joel Brockner, a leading expert on corporate survivor syndrome. "But it's sprinkled in with a heavy dose of negative emotion: 'Maybe it's not over,' 'It could happen to me.'"

Brockner says survivors often feel guilt that they kept their job while others lost theirs. "The more they feel, 'It could have been me,' the greater the guilt," he says.

Be Open and Clear

Human resources experts say it is crucial for companies to reassure surviving employees about their job security. The best way, they agree, is for companies to be as open and frank as possible with their workers before, during and after the layoffs, in order to maintain their trust.

Establishing clear criteria for determining who will be laid off can assuage survivors' guilt, experts say. "We tried to find a way that's objective, not subjective," says DaimlerChrysler's Giles.