It would be tough to remember a week recently when there was not news of energy jobs being lost. Layoffs are now the norm in our industry and others. They create two different groups of victims – those axed and those spared. They also change the corporate environment and the skills needed to survive in it.
A Novelty Becomes Routine
Pick a nice euphemism: downsize, reengineer, streamline, reposition, reallocate, refocus, restrategize or, more recently, rightsize. There are endless ways to ‘spin’, sanitize and legitimize the harsh cutting of people from payrolls.
Some executives remember 30 years ago when layoffs were startling, embarrassing, and new. Mergers and “hostile” takeovers started threatening businesses that were marginally competitive and fat. One such business must have opened Pandora’s Box, discovering it was possible to disguise sloppy operations by cutting costs (employees) to boost short-term earnings. That income boost was enough – sometimes - to distract the attention of corporate raiders looking for wounded companies. It was also a painful public statement that your firm was in trouble.
Since then, when the economy was relatively stable and layoffs were a desperate last resort, competition and risks have increased. We all know global markets, technology, regulation and corruption make the ice thin for everyone. Downsizing has emerged as a regular, accepted way to manage through the business cycle. Ironically, we are at the point where stock analysts devalue firms that are not downsizing. Pressure to cut is constant, even if the only logic for it is a temporary and by no means certain rise in earnings per share.
Who are victims of downsizing? Most attention and corporate resources focus on people who are let go. They suffer financial stress and a sudden emotional loss - often as severe as the death of a family member. They might consider the following to get through a layoff trauma:
- Allow yourself to mourn the loss; imagine the process you would expect to go through in divorce or if a terrible accident took the life of friend - give yourself a breather and a reasonable chance to grieve so you can move on.
- Don’t blame or punish yourself for something you had little to no control over
- Give yourself fair credit, a “pat on the back” for past contributions and for skills you learned in the former position;
- Fight the natural tendency to slow down, retreat, and isolate yourself; have a daily goal - talking with 3-5 people to vent, network, get advice, or any combination of these
- Prepare financially; if possible have 6 months of expenses saved for this emergency
- Prepare strategically; keep a fresh resume, build skills with training or education, network regularly, engage with professional associations, and always be “active in the job market”
- Remember your situation is temporary - an unusual chance to reevaluate and “re-launch” your work life; focus on defining and then winning an optimal new position and, as you would for medical or legal needs, buy the best professional expertise you can afford
Most downsizing efforts do not generate anything close to targeted results – usually due to the negative effects on survivors (e.g., low morale, reduced motivation, top performers jumping ship, lost productivity, increased conflict). Employees left behind after a layoff have a paycheck and a degree of self-esteem, at least temporarily. But they don’t have much else and their new problems can be overwhelming.
Survivors are battered emotionally. Their trust level – at best – drops to minimal. There’s guilt, anxiety and confusion - why were they spared? Why were best friends and colleagues, who seemed to contribute as much or more, selected to go? How long before the next wave of job cuts, and why would they be spared again? What is there to look forward to? Some survivors get new or changed job descriptions – are they prepared with the skills needed? Some do more work – for the same compensation – to make up for lost staff. Where do they get time and energy to adjust to their new demands?
As survivors are forced to adjust, work harder and smarter, dig in and “suck it up”, they question if their firm will even survive. Have basic corporate strategies improved (unlikely)? Are competitors suddenly weaker or more vulnerable (no)? What’s “management” thinking, and why? To cope as a survivor, consider the following:
Tactics for a New Era
- Seize the opportunity – you’re supposed to produce more and perform different tasks now, so it may be appropriate to talk with your boss about professional development. Take initiative; what new training and education do you want and how will it be provided for you? Once you secure it, use the training to build skills that make you more of a contributor and, at the same time, more marketable – to increase your confidence, energy and self-esteem and to focus you (like your laid-off colleagues) on being active in the job market.
- Remember even though you kept a job, you may still need to go through a grieving process over lost friends, dismembered work teams, or valued bosses who are gone; again, give yourself enough “slack” to mourn and adjust so you can move on.
- Expect to experience many of the same reactions to stress as laid off employees – low motivation, confusion, depression, physical illness or exhaustion, fear, anger, mistrust and frustration – and get help.
- Review and refine your priorities; reduce uncertainty by finding out specifically what performance is now expected of you – so as you face new or unfamiliar tasks, you first do the ones most valuable to your boss and your customers.
- Consider – particularly in large firms, layoffs in one division or city do not mean a lack of opportunity elsewhere in the company – so network across and outside your organization.
Businesses imitate each other – the “herd mentality”. The ‘layoff button’ is now one of the first pushed. Odds are sooner or later we will each be in one or both groups of victims – those cut and those surviving – so it helps to know and prepare for the challenges facing each.