The post-layoff playbook: How to avoid 'survivor's guilt'

Taking care of your laid-off employees is important. But how can you restore trust with the employees who make it through?

Businessman walking away from colleagues with head bowed - stock photo

Employees who survive layoffs are charged with holding the company together. Whether or not managers listen to their concerns can make or break a company’s culture.

Photo: Justin Pumfrey/The Image Bank/Getty Images

Jennifer Burke was on her way to Hawaii for her daughter’s wedding when Zillow followed through on its long-anticipated layoff. She asked her manager to break the news to her by message in the car. You’re one of the safe ones, her manager responded.

“I felt relieved, of course,” Burke said. “I felt apprehensive. I felt sympathy for my co-workers that I knew were going to be laid off.”

But Burke felt a twinge of something else too. The impostor syndrome was kicking in. Why had she been spared instead of her colleagues? What if others were wondering the same thing? That feeling, mixed with the uncertainty around possible future layoffs, led to a bout of emotional confusion. A sort of “survivor’s guilt.”

Layoffs have swept across the tech industry as companies reckon with financial uncertainty and whispers of a recession. Taking care of laid-off employees is critical; companies like Carvana and Klarna have come under fire for carelessness with mass Zoom layoff calls and minimal severance packages. But another demographic of workers often flies under the radar: the employees who make it through. They’re charged with holding the company together, picking up their former co-workers’ assignments and maintaining morale amid hiring or salary freezes. Whether or not managers listen to their concerns can make or break a company’s culture.

“The extent that leadership can share what’s going on and provide that reassurance and psychological safety, the stronger a culture can be coming out of it,” said HR adviser Jessica Yuen.

Stressed and overwhelmed

Security software company OneTrust laid off 25% of its staff in early June, citing a shift in “capital markets sentiment.” The cuts have naturally led to more work and frustrations among some of the remaining employees, two current OneTrust employees told Protocol. They were granted anonymity to protect against potential repercussions. OneTrust did not answer Protocol’s questions in time for publication.

One employee said she’s been satisfied by the communications from leadership, attending “ask me anything” sessions and commiserating with co-workers. She’s busier, but it’s not unbearable. But the other employee Protocol spoke to said she’s completely overwhelmed, working almost 12-hour days and feeling increased pressure to perform as well as her laid-off teammates. She worries that her co-workers who were let go needed the job more than she did, that they deserved to stay over her. Sometimes, the stress feels “too big” and she finds it excruciating to focus on the tasks at hand, which leads to another vicious cycle of impostor syndrome.

“I’ve caught myself just sitting at my desk, not working,” she said. “I’m too stressed out. I don’t know where to start. And then if I’ve sat there wasting half a day, being frozen and unable to work, then it circles back to, well this other person probably deserved [their job] more than me.”

She still hasn’t received official notification of who was laid off. LinkedIn and Glassdoor have been filling in the gaps. Sometimes she’s found out someone is gone by trying to reach them and receiving a bounceback email. OneTrust is betting on employees’ resilience, she said, but it’s hard to muscle through when she’s not getting the support she needs. The company has also implemented a hiring freeze except for necessary backfills and paused scheduled raises.

“We’re being asked to just believe in the company,” she said. “Just have faith. It’s hard to do that.”

Leadership at OneTrust is busy, she said, and she gets that. But she needs more communication and support in order to do her job effectively. Others are feeling this way as well, she says, and might be considering other options. But the prospect of leaving isn’t ideal, either. “Do I stay because I know I probably made the cut and just work 12-hour days and hope I’m rewarded for that someday?” she said. “Or do I go somewhere else? But that might be a company that decides they need to make this decision six months down the road. And I'm the newest employee there.”

Burke’s experience at Zillow has been better, as she knew since October that the layoff was coming. She’s an escrow assistant, and with the shutdown of Zillow Offers, she knew there would be a major decrease in business. Zillow’s leaders told employees that a significant portion of them would be laid off, though they didn’t specify who or how many. To help employees prep, they announced the severance package details and served as references for employees who decided to apply elsewhere. Burke received some job offers but decided to stick around. Zillow did not respond in time for publication.

“I feel they’re doing a really good job at doing what they can to keep us all informed on where we stand,” Burke said. “But there are a lot of external factors that aren’t really in anybody’s control.”

When Burke was applying to jobs in the fall of 2021, the market was in her favor. Now, it’s chaotic and uncertain. “What if the business doesn’t come in quick enough and there are more layoffs?” Burke said. There is no guarantee she’d find a new job quickly.

Still, Burke has taken solace in the in-depth and in-advance communication from Zillow’s leaders. It’s made all the difference — she said almost everyone she knows who was laid off would jump right back to Zillow if the opportunity presented itself.

What managers should do

In the wake of a layoff, everyone’s stressed. Employees are struck with the precarity of their jobs. Leaders are tasked with the entire fate of the company, making sure the business stays afloat. You can’t promise every employee that their job is safe. But Yuen said leaders should make sure employees know they will be taken care of in either situation.

“It’s about psychological safety,” Yuen said. “You want them to know that if something were to ever happen, here’s the reasoning behind it. Treat employees like adults.”

Managers may feel the impulse to shield employees from harsh truths, but transparency is especially important during down periods, Yuen said. Yuen recommended having straightforward conversations with employees about job expectations and focusing on employee confidence. Impostor syndrome could easily lead to workers wanting to jump ship, so it’s necessary to counterbalance that impulse.

“It’s a natural human tendency to be questioning what is my value, what is my place in this organization?” Yuen said. “If they are feeling impostor syndrome, how can we build up their confidence in what they bring to the organization?”

Yuen encourages managers not to be afraid to let employees verbalize their feelings and ask frank questions about the business. Leaving everyone to process the layoff by themselves could be devastating for company culture and productivity. Let your employees air out concerns and ask questions.

The OneTrust employee wants acknowledgment from leaders that the situation is unsustainable. She wants to feel heard. “I can put my helmet on and get through hard times,” she said. “But there’s a lack of communication there. Those of us who are left are going through a lot too.”

After Burke found out she made the cut, she met up with a group of co-workers before her flight to her daughter’s wedding. Most were people who had avoided the layoff. Over dinner, they exchanged their phone call experiences and the unsettling feelings they were left with. Burke is still working through these feelings, but she’s hoping for the best.

“My No. 1 hope is that the new business plan is highly successful and that I continue to be a part of Zillow for a very long time,” Burke said.


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