Survivor’s guilt: What those who escape the axe feel after layoff

While employees may be more understanding today than in a typical layoff situation, given the unique economic crisis, aspects of survivor’s syndrome will nevertheless crop up, which can hurt brand recognition in the future


These past few months have been witness to multiple layoffs across companies, in various sectors. The remaining lot feel relieved, yes, but they also feel a multitude of other emotions. Naturally, no employee will be completely relaxed, because they will all be waiting for the next round of layoffs. A layoff survivor experiences a cocktail of feelings —relief, stress, guilt and gratitude. These culminate to form what we understand as survivor’s guilt or syndrome.

Are the layoffs, which have occurred in the past few months, different from the ones before the pandemic? In a few ways, yes, but mostly not. The difference this time is that employees are at least aware of the reason behind the layoffs, and they know that their organisation is not the only one to have been impacted.

Manoj Kumar Sharma

“The psychological safety net will get impacted, and this will have an impact on the organisation’s brand as well.” 



Kamlesh Dangi, CHRO, InCred, says that the situation this time is different in the sense that animosity towards the leadership is lesser. This is probably because exiting employees have been assured of being rehired when normalcy returns or because employees are not holding the company responsible, for what has been a larger economic crisis. “While in a typical layoff situation, there is animosity towards the management, this time around it is lesser. There is more understanding of the situation even among the employees who are laid off,”elucidates Dangi.

However, this may not be true for every organisation. On the other hand, the stress, for employees experiencing survivor’s guilt, is that much more because they realise their former colleagues were let go at a time when finding another job is harder than before. This understanding compounds the jumble of feelings mentioned earlier to an extent.

This is not to say that all employees who survive a layoff are going to express these feelings. In fact, the majority may not even be perturbed at the least. However, there is a possibility that out of 100 employees, 30 of them may end up experiencing that change in too harsh a manner. And that number is still enough to impact performance.

So what do employees experience?

In the event of downsizing, the survivor’s perception of the organisation gets altered and so do their job descriptions. They may become narrow-minded, selfish and risk-averse, none of which spell good for the organisation in general. As a consequence, again, morale levels drop along with productivity, and the level of distrust towards the management soars.

It is not a defined set of emotions, attitudes or perceptions in any way as employees’ feelings vary from organisation to organisation, since different companies announce layoffs in differing ways. While few firms are unable to handle it well, others may be better at being more compassionate. This results in survivors experiencing layoffs in different ways, with varying levels of insecurity, uncertainty, resentment, guilt, sadness and frustration to name a few.

Kamlesh Dangi

“While in a typical layoff situation, there is animosity towards the management, this time around it is lesser. There is more understanding of the situation even among the employees who are laid off.”

Manoj K. Sharma, joint president and CHRO, Aarti Industries, agrees that feelings, such as relief and guilt, will be felt simultaneously by employees. “Instead of just one emotion, employees may end up feeling a mix of everything,” says Sharma. “The psychological safety net will get impacted, and this will have an impact on the organisation’s brand as well,” he clarifies.

  • After one goes through a jumble of emotions, the first effect of downsizing may be a burnout and decreased performance. This happens because the loss of personnel puts additional stress and burden of work on the survivors. They end up having to deal with more tasks, or worse, additional roles, all the while getting hardly anything in return for it. The commitment and loyalty towards the organisation decrease and feelings of apathy, disengagement and distrust begin to breed.
  • Second, depending on how sensitive an organisation was towards laying off its employees, organisational commitment varies. The more severe the circumstances of the layoff, the more loss in commitment from the employees’ side. If communication during the time was weak, unhelpful and inconsistent, an employee’s trust in the organisation diminishes significantly. It creates a ripple effect by increasing stress alongside it, and lowering future expectations of the employee within the company.
  • Third, they may tend to become more risk averse, thereby diminishing the very values of out-of-box thinking or taking creative leaps of faith. This is essentially a coping strategy, which is neither good for the organisation nor beneficial for the employee. They may display a reluctance to take personal risks and display reduced innovation in their work.

On the other end, there may also be a few employees going all out to give their best after a layoff. They are the ones who may try to reduce their feelings of guilt by diving headfirst into their work and ticking off as many KRAs as possible. They may even devote themselves to learning and taking up bite-sized classes, which have become a unanimous suggestion today. Along the way, they may even convince themselves that their peers were laid off because they could not perform up to the mark. While this may produce temporarily heightened productivity, it will not create engagement or increase morale.

An interesting side effect of surviving layoffs can be an appearance of Stockholm Syndrome in employees. Stockholm Syndrome is when hostages develop positive emotions for their captors.

Survivors may be dealing with increased levels of uncertainty and feelings of incompetence to handle the pressure ahead. One way of coping with the sudden change, is by identifying with the leadership or management, empathising with their decision to downsize, thereby distancing themselves from their former colleagues at the same time. This creates feelings of self-esteem and legitimacy of remaining with the organisation.

What can companies do to assuage their surviving lot?

When the dust settles, managers cannot expect their remaining team members to jump onto the bandwagon right away. For a few days or weeks following the layoff, the surviving employees need to be watched, for any signs of survivor’s syndrome. Every company layoff plan needs to include proper steps for managers to follow when reassuring the remaining employees.

It goes without saying that consistent communication should be made a priority. The company message — why the layoffs occurred, how the exiting few were chosen and what will happen to the remaining employees — should be properly prepared and delivered to workers. This way, the bad news seems less personal and is much more acceptable to both the exiting and remaining employees.

Further, it also facilitates trust between the employer and the employee. This means, communicating with staff across levels and doing away with feelings of uncertainty. A certain degree of trust is what has kept organisations functioning remotely throughout these months and it is that trust again, which will help them reassure employees.

Rumours are bound to fly and it is up to the management to prevent them from doing so by sharing the truth. The workforce needs to know why specific people are being let go of; what situation the business is in; what can changes the employees can expect in the coming days and whether there may be a possibility of further downsizing in the future.

Another way of reassuring employees is to enable them to survive the coming few months. For instance, learning avenues may be reintroduced into the organisation; specific skills may be mapped and a skill matrix may be defined, containing skill sets that are crucial for companies in the near future. This indirectly assures employees by letting them feel that the company is taking steps to make sure it gets to retain them in the future. Moreover, by upskilling alone, employees stand a greater chance of surviving any more unfortunate circumstances in the future.

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