For the first time in my career I am experiencing the organizational consequences of an economic downturn. For the first time I am saying goodbye to colleagues who are, for the most part, innocent victims of the need to reduce costs and preserve cash flow. 

To my organization’s credit, it took into account our longer-term vision and strategy in making the difficult choices of who would stay and who would go. But that doesn’t make it any easier for those who have been asked to leave. And it doesn’t make it any easier, today, for those of us who have to say goodbye to valued friends and colleagues. 

The first thing I did when I heard the news was cry. I reminded myself that it is okay and very normal to experience a sense of grief and loss. We invest so much in people. As a small company, we tend to know each other well and enjoy each other’s company. To lose someone – it is very personal. 

The second thing I did was reach out and send brief email messages to my departing colleagues, thanking them for their friendship and contribution. Although I know they may not want to talk to me today, I think it is important that I express my feelings and support as quickly as possible. I admit there are some on the list I do not know well and I elected not to contact them. I hope those who are closer to them did so.

I also invited departing colleagues to reach out to me if they think I can be helpful to them in any way. They are going to need to find new sources of income and no doubt feel panicked and uncertain about the future. I hope I can be of help to them. I only made this offer to those whom I genuinely want to help. If I can’t follow through on my promise, it is probably better not to offer to help. A reluctant supporter is not what they need going forward. What surprised me was how quickly I heard back from a number of my colleagues. They thanked me for my support and some indicated they had an interest in seeking my help as they plan their next steps. 

Some people talk about experiencing ‘survivor guilt’ as part of a down-sizing. My most salient experience of this, before today, is a high school friend who has been with Nortel for almost 20 years. He has talked about what it feels like to survive layoff after layoff. 

In our case, there were certainly questions about how decisions were made, about whether we had considered reducing pay across the board and/or offering part-time arrangements or sabbaticals as alternatives to asking people to leave. I have to admit that I have considered the possibility of taking an extended leave as we work through this downturn.  I have worked for my company for almost ten years and been a strong contributor for most of those. But right now, I can’t help but feel that I’m not doing my share and maybe it would be better if I stopped collecting a paycheck for awhile. I think that is one of the most difficult things to overcome when layoff notices are announced – we all wonder ‘why them and not me?’ We are momentarily grateful that we escaped this round, but then wonder why, and wonder if we’ll be next.

While the worst of the economic crisis may be over, there is general agreement that the upturn is nowhere in sight. We will likely operate in a depressed climate for a period of time and that inevitably means more people will lose their jobs as companies strive to remain solvent, and those who have lose jobs as part of that will struggle to find new opportunities. 

As a survivor of downsizing, you can play an important role in supporting friends and former colleagues. First, be a support and confidante.  People need to vent, to express their frustration and their fears. Second, be a source of help. Keep a watchful eye on opportunities and forward them as appropriate. Make connections where and when you can.  Finally, assess where and how you can increase your own contribution.  This is not the time to rely on your history with your organization.  We are all vulnerable.  Take time to think about how to maintain and increase your impact. Be grateful for surviving a downsizing.