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While it’s not the same as losing your job, being left to pick up the pieces after a round of layoffs comes with its own challenges. How do those who remain stay sane?

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Things remain tough out there for software engineers. While Elon Musk’s new-look Twitter started the trend, it was far from the end of tech companies laying off chunks of their technical staff. 

The tech layoffs storm has roiled through the industry for nearly six months now and shows no sign of slowing. So far this year, nearly 185,000 workers across 620 separate tech companies have found themselves without a job, according to Layoffs.fyi, which is tracking the scale and scope of the mass firings.

Asking the big questions

For every employee fired, many others remain in post, and the backlog of work to do never gets any shorter. While the wrench of seeing your job taken away from you is difficult, it’s also a challenging time for those who remain behind.

“One part is the communication aspect,” says executive coach and former VP of engineering at CircleCI and Travis CI, Lena Reinhardt. “It’s important to help people understand what’s going on, why things have happened, and being as transparent as possible.” 

However, Reinhardt recognizes that may not always be possible. Business decisions are business decisions, and are by definition private. But some kind of openness is important, not least because those employees who remain will likely have questions that need answering by their bosses.

Key among those questions are two big ones: what do such layoffs mean for those who remain, and are there going to be more layoffs soon?

That last one is often more difficult for managers to answer, Reinhardt admits, because staffing levels are often the purview of the C-suite. 

The former is an easier one to answer – and one that you should be able to when asked. Reinhardt points to the Kubler-Ross change curve – which is used when a patient is informed of a terminal illness – as a parallel to be utilized in layoffs. 

People are initially shocked. That shock turns to denial, then anger, then depression, before acceptance and integration. Helping people get to those later stages by being honest and upfront about how their responsibilities will change can assuage any guilt, and help maintain a healthy workplace for those who remain.

Being kind pays

Counterintuitively, given they’re on the way out of your organization, it’s also important to those looking to handle and support survivors of layoffs to treat the people leaving the organization well. 

“Many organizations, when they’re doing layoffs, they’re not as concerned about how they’re treating the people who are being laid off, because those people are no longer going to be part of the organization,” says Andrew Brodsky, assistant professor of management at McCombs School of Business at the University of Texas at Austin. “But it’s actually important for the survivors’ motivation to see that the people laid off are being treated well.”

Likewise, putting in place severance agreements that guarantee anyone subsequently fired will retain healthcare or severance pay for a period of time can help manage not just the guilt survivors of layoffs face, but the fears that they’ll soon be left without support should the layoffs spread. 

That’s vital, because layoffs breach what Brodsky calls the “psychological contract” workers have with their employers. “In their mind, they believe that if they work hard, they will keep their job and they will be promoted,” he says. “The problem is when that psychological contract is breached, suddenly they now realize that no matter how hard they work, they still may be laid off anyways, which decreases motivation really heavily.”

The guilt-fear paradox

One of those who knows the guilt-fear paradox well is Leandro César Silva, who was a senior software engineering manager at Loggi, a Portugal-based company, and has since moved roles. 

“I’m a survivor of two layoffs: one in August 2022 and one in February this year,” he says. He is also in a unique position where he has had to prepare an organization to lay off people and define the process to choose people who are affected. In both instances, César Silva ended up having to let go between 25% and 35% of the team members he was involved with. 

Because of that, César Silva began to feel guilt before the layoffs, compared to many who feel it after they survive. But he also recognized the need to gee up his teams and to assuage the guilt that could be felt when so many others lost their jobs. 

“After the layoffs, I talked with everyone on my team,” he says. “I heard a lot of kinds of guilt.” Some people felt that their salary was high so they deserved to be fired more than those who were impacted. Others felt that if they had only set up projects to help those who were fired, they might have avoided the chop.

“Basically, you need to give space for people to feel what’s happening,” he says. “You need to communicate well. You need to give more information when the layoffs are finished, and why it has happened.” 

That first meeting after the enaction of layoffs is vital, says César Silva. “Immediately after a layoff, if you can show the new organization, that helps a lot to improve the sense of belonging of the people left,” he says. That includes showing people where their roles have changed, why, and why their tasks are important. 

That isn’t easy for managers, who may be feeling their own layoff survivors’ guilt too. But it’s important to pay attention to the small details, like asking staff members to “talk for a minute”. Even if a conversation is totally innocuous, asking for a minute to speak to an employee can result in them thinking they’re about to be fired in a post-layoff world. 

“Some people feel guilt,” César Silva says. “Some people feel fear. It’s not the same, but you can keep your team and move forward after a layoff. But it’s not too easy. You need to take care of people’s feelings first.”