Research by University College London has found that the survivors of corporate downsizing are almost as likely to need treatment for stress as their colleagues who have been made redundant. The authors of the research put this down to survivor guilt – that “there but for the grace of God” feeling and the sense that, somehow, you didn’t deserve to survive while others got the chop.
I’m not disputing the research but my personal experiences, and those of most of the people I know, lead me to a slightly different interpretation. In my view, the survivors need even more help than the people who have been made redundant, not due to survivor guilt but to survivor resentment.
In every working environment there are those people who don’t pull their weight and who are content to let others carry most of the responsibility. We’ve all come across them. When there are difficult tasks to be done, they are nowhere to be seen. Often, they are working from home or at another site but all their phones seem to divert straight to their voicemails. When difficult projects in unglamorous locations come up, these people just can’t be found and the same long-suffering colleagues end up spending nights away from home in crappy hotels, while the shirkers stay at home and get to see their kids every night.
But this behaviour eventually gets noticed so, when the bosses are looking for people to make redundant, our absentee colleagues are top of the list. After the tap on the shoulder, they walk out of the door with a year’s salary, sometimes more. As times are hard, for the survivors there is no bonus this year because the budget has been blown on redundancy payments. Those that are left must knuckle down and take on even more of the workload.
And boy are they pissed off. Their lazy colleagues have just walked out with large payments for which they have not had to do a stroke of work. Some will go straight into new jobs or use the money to start their own businesses. In the survivors’ view, these people have been lavishly rewarded for doing sod all and dumping on their colleagues.
I have seen survivors become very demotivated, not because they feel guilty about surviving the cull but because they resent seeing the piss-takers getting so much money for nothing. Often, they decide to start putting in less effort, marking time and waiting for the next round of redundancies. Managers expecting to see an upsurge in performance after a clear-out may be disappointed.
There would be less of a problem if bosses were willing to deal with performance issues rather than ignore them and then pay the shirkers large amounts of money to leave. If poor performers were tackled early on, most would either improve or leave the organisation. This would prevent the rest of the workforce from becoming demotivated and leave more money available to reward those employees who do put in that extra effort.
But to manage performance issues before they get out of hand requires managers to have difficult conversations. Few people like confrontation or, indeed, have the skills to handle it. Consequently, most performance issues are left to fester until paying the culprits off is the only way out.
Unless and until managers take on the uncomfortable task of confronting poor performers, bad behaviour in the workplace will continue to be rewarded with large severance payments. And companies will be laid low with survivor resentment.