HR Management & Compliance

Layoff Anxiety and Approaches to Termination

There is a lot of talk about the upcoming recession. That and other factors have made a lot of employees afraid that they might soon be laid off. The term for this fear is “layoff anxiety.” I recently had a chance to speak with an HR executive with relevant expertise about research into layoff anxiety.

The research, which was conducted by Career Arc in partnership with The Harris Poll, is called A Study in Modern Pressure: Layoff Anxiety. It polled 1,061 employees across the United States, with a simple mission: understanding to what degree they are worried about losing their jobs and why. The research found that 48% of those surveyed had anxiety about potentially losing their job. That number seems especially high when record-low unemployment rates are taken into consideration.

Why So Much Anxiety?

The survey found that the number one reason people experience layoff anxiety revolves around the Great Recession. Seventy-four percent of those who said they had layoff anxiety indicated that they had experienced a layoff, a termination, or joblessness during the recession. Another 36% were concerned about a pending recession.

I encourage you to check out the rest of the study for more details about the research.

The Role of Employers

This research indicates that many of your employers are likely anxious about an impending layoff or termination. I recently spoke with Kerry Field, SVP of HR and Chief People Officer at Harvey Building Products, as well as an expert when it comes to addressing and preventing layoff anxiety. We discussed the report and terminations in general, with the goal of helping HR and other managers approach terminations humanely for everyone’s benefit.

Work Is Your Identity

Before we dive into approaches for reducing layoff anxiety and humanely approaching upcoming layoffs, it helps to understand the stakes. An obvious concern for people who might lose their jobs is the finances. Indeed, the effects of financial stress have been well documented. Such issues are only part of a package of concerns for those recently let go.

One concern that tends to get overlooked involves the connection between an employee’s work and the person’s sense of identity. “We spend most of our waking hours in our place of employment,” says Field. She adds, “We are measured quite regularly in our jobs; it’s often more structured than other parts of our lives. It’s easy to fall into the habit of knowing who we are in the workplace.” The importance of that identity should not be underestimated.

When an employee is on the chopping block, taking care to be humane and support his or her transition out of the job can mean the difference between someone being cast into darkness and someone being put in a positive position to move forward. Additionally, the way employees are let go will be dissected by everyone in the company and can drastically influence the organization’s culture.

Creating the Best Scenario for Tough Situations

Perhaps the most important thing an organization can do to humanely transition employees out involves transparency. Suddenly marching up to their desk and having security walk them out is virtually never the right approach. Besides alienating other employees and creating uncertainty, it also increases the likelihood that employees, rightfully or not, might sue.

The degree to which organizations can communicate with employees facing potential layoffs or termination varies. In our interview, Field discussed a scenario in which the reason for layoffs involves the need for a specific set of roles or capabilities or a changing market environment. Such situations often require workforce changes.

In these situations, says Field, transparency before the fact is important. She says that “when leaders have an open dialogue with employees and associates on what is going on, the ‘why’ behind the market condition, and the business decisions that need to be made and have a very respectful and fair approach to how workforce decisions are made, you do end up in the best-possible scenario, given some tough situations.”

Such transparency can help employees understand the forces at work that might result in their being let go. Additionally, transparency after layoffs is critical for maintaining a healthy work environment. Fields suggests letting remaining staff know what happened and why it happened, as well as acknowledging that the company let people go and how it is moving forward.

Alumni Status

The way organizations treat former employees can have a large impact on how remaining employees feel about their jobs and their employers. One effective approach, according to Field, is to create an alumni program and “truly treat” a former employee “as an alum.” Regarding a situation in which she was let go from a major organization, she says that “becoming an alum was actually something that we celebrated.”

The alternative, which is all too common, according to Field, is when an employee’s leaving makes others think that “something wrong happened—something bad happened.” She continues, “It’s a shame that way because you’ve spent a considerable amount of time in a role serving an organization. And to have that moment where all of a sudden, you’re just not part of it—it’s just not human.”

Alumni programs have a lot of values. They help those who were let go accept what happened. They can be a way to roll out postemployment resources to former employees. Finally, you won’t burn bridges with those former employees. If things change or an organization finds a need for the talent that was let go, it will be in a better position to negotiate an employee’s return if that person was treated well.

Transition Support

Another way organizations can be more humane in how they approach layoffs involves providing employees with support as they transition out. Abrupt endings leave former employees dangling and are largely unnecessary. Such support includes severance packages, providing funds for employment services, and résumé support. In addition to providing your former employees with a lifeline, you also help your employment branding. When people suddenly find themselves with free time and a grudge, you can bet a certain percentage of them will take to Glassdoor or social media.

Final Thoughts

Perhaps the best way to look at how you approach layoffs and termination is to consider what would happen to you right now if you were let go. How would you want it to happen? What support would you need? This is a good place from which to examine your organization’s practices.