When Layoffs and Fear Enter the Workplace

Blog / Produced by The High Calling
Layoffs and fear

At work, we started blogging on our internal website about coming layoffs.

They were announced in June, and then a corporate cone of silence descended. Employees would begin finding out two months later, in late August, but the silence was becoming stifling. Fear had entered the workplace.

There was a time when silence was official policy. But that’s over. The internet, social media, and new workplace expectations and realities have swept official policies away. Announce a layoff, and expect to see it tweeted on Twitter. The employer-employee contract died in the 1980s. We may yearn for the days of two-way loyalty, but they’re gone, swept away by the addiction of repeated downsizings. There’s only forward.

One of the things my team is responsible for is the corporate intranet, including news and blogs. We talked about what to do. If we can’t answer people’s most important question—do I have a job?—could we at least indicate that it was okay to talk about it?

Can You Blog Your Layoff?

My people knew that I had been laid off from a job with another company in 1999. They asked me what happened, and what I’d experienced. I told them.

One of them said, “Can you blog it? Can you blog what happened to you?”

Well, sure, I could do that. I could also think about the possible reactions and potential repercussions.

But then I thought about all of the people and families, worrying about the what-ifs at home, seeing the lousy economic news getting worse. If I blogged my own experience, it still wouldn’t answer their critical questions, but it might say it’s okay to talk about it, and we all share the same fears and concerns. And one thought kept running through my mind: Jesus never hesitated to say what needed to be said, to anyone.

Love your neighbor as yourself.

I talked with my boss and peers. I got the green light. I blogged.

The first post was about what happened to me in 1999—how it happened and how I reacted. And what I did to prevent the layoff from controlling me. The second post was about the questions I got from my family. The third was about a layoff when I wasn’t affected, but a close friend was.

I talked about shame, embarrassment, feelings of inadequacy, and questions from my children (like “Didn’t you work hard enough? Do we have to move?”). And then the ultimate understanding that my job, and the loss of my job, did not define my value. Because my faith defined who I was, and because I tried to practice my faith at church, at home, and on the job, it was my response to my layoff that defined who I was.

People Respond When You Shoot Straight

I can’t say my blog posts went viral, but it was something like that. Within three days, more than 2,500 people had read the first post. Comments got posted. One employee posted a blog himself. I received emails, phone calls, and visits. People stopped and thanked me in the cafeteria. The reactions were fairly uniform—it’s okay to talk about this; it’s okay to talk about what we’re afraid of. We’re all in this together.

The day after the first post, the company operator called me, asking me where to direct a reporter who was calling about a story. I gave her the name and number. She thanked me, and then hesitated.

“I read your blog,” she said. She paused. “It was good.” She paused again. “Thank you.”

In the third blog post, I talked about a time in 1992, when a close friend found out he was losing his job. He called me, and it was hard to imagine that my confident, focused, intense friend was devastated, depressed, and ashamed. And it got worse.

Layoffs Can Leave People Ostracized

We met in the company cafeteria the next day. I was waiting for him at a table. He walked over, lunch tray in his hands, and stood there.

“Are you sure you want to be seen with me?” he asked.

I thought he was joking. He wasn’t. His entire department had stopped speaking to him. He had to stay in the office for the next 45 days, and he was effectively ostracized.

I was stunned. So I did the only thing I knew to do. I stood and hugged him. He cried. What a scene that made, right in the cafeteria.

I told that story, with this point: I promised myself right there that I would never do to anyone what had been done to this man. And I urged the readers of 17 years later to make the same promise. I said that I knew it was awkward, and if you didn’t know what to say to someone who had just lost their job, try this: “How can I help you?” And help them network, be a reference, make some phone calls, and follow up with them later.

In other words, love them as yourself. The odds are good that you will be one of them, some day.

The People Who Don’t Lose Their Jobs

Layoffs not only affect the people who lose their jobs. They also affect the people who don’t. And I’m not talking about so-called “survivor guilt.” No, what usually follows a layoff program is a reorganization, changes in workloads, changes in team structure, and often changes in team leaders.

Team leaders play the pivotal role, and it’s difficult, because they often don’t know the answers to a lot of the questions. How will we work together? Do I have more work to do? Am I expected to work longer hours? Will we stop doing some things? How do we work with other teams? The team that provides the monthly statistics is gone —where do we get the information?

If we’re believers, we don’t leave our faith at the corporate door. While a layoff doesn’t differentiate between those who believe and those who don’t (the rain falls on both alike), the response of each can differentiate them. It’s what Tony Dungy, head coach of the Super Bowl-winning Indianapolis Colts, said in his book Uncommon: Finding Your Path to Significance: don’t let the bad things that happen to you define who you are as a person. The key is how you respond to those bad things.

Questions for personal reflection, online discussion, or small groups:

  • Have you had to lay a person or people off as part of a general downsizing? What thought processes do you go through? How do you decide, and what do you do when your decisions are not obvious?
  • If a downsizing has been announced, how do you plan? What do you do, if anything at all? What should you do?
  • What happens when a close friend or relative loses a job—how do you respond? A typical reaction people have in this situation is to feel highly uncomfortable being around someone who’s lost a job. Why is that?
  • Does a believer have any additional responsibilities or accountabilities that a nonbeliever wouldn’t have in a situation like this?
  • What if you “make it through” a downsizing and keep your job—what does the workplace look like? Do you do anything differently?
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