Should employers support non-terminated workers during layoffs?

While Canada’s unemployment rate is just six per cent, according to Statistics Canada, it doesn’t mean workforces are immune to layoffs.

Employment in certain industries, such as information, culture and recreation, continually declined between August and November 2018, noted Statistics Canada. Indeed, compared to 12 months earlier, employment in those industries was down three per cent nationally.

When a layoff occurs, attention is placed on the terminated employee, but what about those left behind? How are they affected and why should employers care about their state of mind?

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Jené Gordon remembers how stressed she felt when her employer of four-and-a-half years, an insurance company, laid off employees one after another. The firings went by department, she says. “They were letting people go very often. It was enough where we were talking about it.”

But it wasn’t just the number of layoffs that rattled Gordon, it was the way the firings took place. “What would happen is that we would all be working in our normal fashion and all of a sudden someone gets called into the office and then you don’t see them anymore,” she says.

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The manager would then collect the employee’s belongings, and colleagues would receive a standard email saying the employee has left the organization and it wishes them the best, says Gordon. “You know they didn’t resign so you know this person was let go, but when you don’t have the specifics as to why this person was let go or any background information or any sort of closure after the fact, you walk on eggshells . . . nervous and paranoid that you may be next.”

If not handled properly, layoffs can have a negative effect on the workplace, says Annette Blackstock, a human resources professional based in New Brunswick. “It could be detrimental, absolutely, if not handled properly, or if it’s seen as unfair,” she says.

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While people continued their daily work at Gordon’s workplace, there was noticeable tension in the air and people felt on edge. “You can see a lot of the relationships were ruptured as a result because now you don’t trust these people,” she says. “You don’t know whether or not you’re next. People are smiling in your face one minute and then, lo and behold, you’re let go.”

Employers should be as transparent as possible with staff after a colleague is terminated in order to prevent such fallouts, says Blackstock. While they may not be able to disclose details about employees who were terminated with cause, she says employers have more leeway in sharing information about those who were terminated due to organizational restructuring or other business reasons. “Whatever management can share and be transparent about I think is the best way to go about it,” says Blackstock. “Sometimes people are afraid to share too much information. The more knowledge you can give [employees] the fewer questions will arise.”

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As well, small team meetings or town halls are good avenues to discuss the reasons behind mass terminations and to solicit questions from employees, says Blackstock. She notes it’s also important for leadership teams to have consistent messaging around layoffs so employees left behind feel secure and confident in their jobs.

Employers can also show good faith by providing some support for terminated employees, says Blackstock, noting she’s seen companies provide affected staff with outplacement services and benefits, such as employee assistance programs, for a limited time.

“In all cases, you’re dealing with people and emotions, so it’s important to be as empathetic and sincere as possible,” says Blackstock. “How would you want to be treated if you were in their place? The actions of the company are important in times of challenges and, depending on behaviour, can make or break the spirit of those left behind.”