Inside a Layoff: Why We Care So Much About Our Jobs

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If you keep up with media news, you’ll know that my company has been gearing up for massive layoffs. The axe swung today. Seeing as this is all I can think about, and seeing as layoffs are, after all, the big gorilla of workplace issues, I figure today we can talk about the horrible reality that is job loss.

First, the facts. My company, Time Inc., is reportedly cutting nearly 300 of its 11,000 workers. In my division–Time magazine–the company will lop off about 40 heads. Some are being canned outright; they’re getting their pink slips today. The rest of us are being asked to volunteer. If enough of us don’t march willingly down the gangplank, they’ll start pushing.

Am I terrified? Nah. It’s this third cup of tea that’s making my hands shake so hard.

Not surprisingly, layoffs have a staggering effect not just on the laid off but on everybody in the workplace. It affects our performance (just count all the tired old metaphors I’ve used so far in this posting). It affects our families (my husband jokes that his nascent small business will provide us with all the instrument cases we can eat). It knocks about our emotional equilibrium, hobbles our confidence, widens our chasm of self doubt.

Why do we care so much? It’s just a job, right? And don’t thousands of people lose their jobs every day? In November alone, 136,415 people were laid off, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

That’s 136,415 anxious, depressed, possibly even hostile people, according to research by industrial and organizational psychologists who study the effects of layoffs. Rainer Seitz is one of them (a layoff expert, not a layoffee). Seitz, who teaches management at the Washington State University Vancouver, says the effects of a layoff ripple far beyond the axed employees to coworkers left behind and even the job market as a whole.

“We care so much because we attach a significant amount of self worth to our work,” says Seitz. There’s also what experts call a psychological contract between employees and employers: in essence, I’ll work hard for you, and in return you let me keep my job. The breaking of that contract perhaps explains our feelings of betrayal.

The remaining workers–the so-called survivors–suffer too. They can experience decreased productivity, increased stress, depression, anxiety, lowered morale and job dissatisfaction. A decrease in organizational commitment–loyalty to the employer–is common, adds Seitz. “There’s also survivor guilt: Why was I spared?”

Research has found that the manner in which a layoff occurs can rile workers just as much, if not more than, the actual firing. For instance, a lack of advance notice can really rub workers the wrong way. Failing to adequately and thoroughly explain the reason for the job elimination–even if it’s a macro reason like an industry downturn–can also tick us off.

“There’s also an interpersonal component of procedural fairness that creates a strong perception of unfairness,” says Seitz. In other words: “Were people treated with respect, dignity and sensitivity?” Or were you escorted out of the building by a security goon?

I can’t think that far yet; I’m still sifting through the pages of detailed layoff information sent out by our union (why do we need a freaking worksheet to figure out severance?!). Here’s my plan. Like many of my colleagues, I’m going to hope for the best but prepare for the plank.

Some additional reading about layoffs:

* Check out this collection of articles at about how to survive a layoff. I especially liked a piece titled “Diaries of a Downturn,” with short takes from readers about what they did while jobless (one tip: learn how to tend bar).

* has a useful site with resources for surviving a layoff including information about severance packages, collecting unemployment and preparing for the job search.

* This op-ed in the Christian Science Monitor is titled “My Pink Slip Had a Silver Lining.” This MBA is stunned to find himself out of work and has an epiphany: he hated his job anyway.

* Here are a bunch of useful articles about job loss collected on This piece advises on “almost painless” ways to make a career change.

* The American Management Association has a free webcast on Jan. 24 about handling a difficult performance review.

* Waiting around for layoff news? Go waste a few minutes at CareerBuilder’s Age-o-matic, launched just today. The highly scientific site lets you see what you’ll look like in 50 years–or if you stay in your “soul-sucking” job.