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Survivors of downsizing: helpful and hindering experiences.

Thirty-one downsizing survivors from both the private and public sector were interviewed to determine incidents that either helped or hindered their transition through 1 or more organizational downsizings. A critical incident technique was used to analyze and organize the data around themes that emerged. Themes were represented by both positive and negative incidents and were grouped using transition phases. Results support and add new detail and insight into topics developed in previous studies. Implications are discussed for organizations' handling of downsizing or restructuring as well as reducing negative and enhancing positive influences and events. Counseling recommendations are offered for easing survivors through the transition.


In a rapidly changing economy, corporations often decide to reduce the size of the full-time workforce. Corporate downsizing has become an important issue for researchers as they have attempted to understand the full impact of this business practice (Cameron, 1994; Cameron, Freeman, & Mishra, 1993). The widespread effects of organizational change have been examined in articles and books on personal and organizational healing; these publications have been aimed at managers and leaders, layoff survivors, and layoff victims (Gowing, Kraft, & Quick, 1998; Johansen & Swigart, 1994; Noer, 1993). Books are also available that describe the consequences of downsizing from economic and personal perspectives (e.g., see Allcorn, Baum, Diamond, & Stein, 1996). Most companies, however, do little to prepare their employees for a reduction in their numbers or help survivors deal with their reactions following the cutback (Armstrong-Stassen, 1994).

The majority of research on the individual's response to downsizing has centered on layoff victims; few studies have focused on the survivors of a workforce reduction. The studies that focused on survivors primarily used survey methods that assessed commitment, motivation, level of performance, job satisfaction (Brockner, 1988; Davy, Kinicki, & Scheck, 1991; Meyer, Allen, & Topolnytsky, 1998), stress symptoms, and coping mechanisms (Armstrong-Stassen, 1993, 1994; Mishra & Spreitzer, 1998) and how these are related to self-affirmation (Petzall, Parker, & Stoeberl, 2000; Wiesenfeld, Brockner, & Martin, 1999), gender and organizational level (Armstrong-Stassen, 1998b), self-esteem, self-efficacy, and intent to leave the organization (Mone, 1994).

In our review of the literature, we found only two related studies in which a semistructured group interviewing format was used. Evans (1995) studied U.S. soldiers in the downsized U.S. military, and Noer (1993) interviewed employees of a downsized private organization. Similar themes emerged from both of these studies, namely, increased stress; decreased motivation; reduced performance with extra workload, distrust/withdrawal of management/leader; and experiencing the emotions of anger, sadness, guilt, insecurity, and fear. In another study, Armstrong-Stassen (1998a) used mail-in questionnaires to assess the individual characteristics and support resources that facilitated adaptation to downsizing among 82 managers in a Canadian federal government department over a 2-year period. Acknowledging that "reactions of the remaining employees will largely determine the effectiveness and quality of the services provided by the federal government in the future" (p. 310), she found that the managers reported a significant decrease in their job performance and organizational commitment.

Of primary importance in understanding the survivors' experience is the changing relationship between the individual and the organization (Kets de Vries & Balazs, 1997; Rousseau & Wade-Benzoni, 1995), and, in particular, the breaking of the implicit "psychological contract" by the organization. This psychological contract is based on an individual's belief, which is shaped by the organization, that the exchange agreement between the employee and the organization includes an implicit guarantee of secure employment.

From our perspective, the model of grieving and bereavement proposed by Kubler-Ross (1969) and the transition model proposed by Bridges (1986) seem to be relevant for understanding the emotional upheaval of survivors and their possible stages of adjustment. We have conducted a series of transition studies and have built upon this experience in conducting the present study (Amundson & Borgen, 1987, 1988; Borgen, 1997, 1999; Borgen & Amundson, 1984, 1987; Borgen, Amundson, & Tench, 1996).


We conducted interviews with 31 workers from a number of organizations, including a federal human resources department, a hospital, a retailer, a private employment consulting group, and two oil and gas companies. All interviewees had remained in their organizations throughout the period of restructuring. Thirteen of the participants were men, and 18 were women. Their ages ranged from early 20s to mid-50s: 5 were 20 to 29 years old, 3 were 30 to 39 years old, 15 were 40 to 49 years old, and 8 were more than 50 years of age. Job tenure of each interviewee with their employer ranged from 2 to 29 years: 7 had been with the company for fewer than 5 years, 5 from 6 to 10 years, 7 from 11 to 15 years, 5 from 16 to 20 years, and 7 were with their organization for more than 20 years.

People who volunteered for the study did so with the understanding that all information they provided would be kept confidential. For the most part, this was not the participants' first experience with downsizing; 26 had at least one prior experience with downsizing.

Participants were interviewed within 6 months of the completion of downsizing in their organization. During the interviews, participants were asked to describe, in behavioral terms, the positive and negative incidents that they experienced during the period of downsizing. The interviews focused on three broad questions: (a) What recent changes have you experienced in the organization? (b) What helped you to adjust to these changes (the positive incidents)? and (c) What hindered your adjustment (the negative incidents)? This particular interviewing approach, called the "critical incident method," is based on the work of Flanagan (1954) and the studies he conducted in the Aviation Psychology Program of the U.S. Army Air Corps in World War II. Andersson and Nilsson (1964) used the critical incident method in analyzing the job of store managers in a Swedish grocery company, suggesting that "it would appear justifiable to conclude that information collected by this method is both reliable and valid" (p. 402). A number of researchers have used critical incident methodology to investigate a range of life issues: Alfonso (1997); Amundson and Borgen (1988); Borgen and Amundson (1984); Cohen and Smith (1976); Dachelet et al. (1981); Proulx (1991); and Weiner, Russell, and Lerman (1979).

The interviews were audiotaped, transcribed, and number coded. Transcripts were read by two of the authors several times in order to get an overall sense of the meaning. All statements resembling critical incidents were then extracted. Incidents were coded if the event was clearly identified and the outcome was clearly related to the study. After all of the incidents had been identified, the researchers worked with 90% of the items and developed a category system to describe the major themes. Three experts in the area of downsizing research reviewed the themes and supported the structure that had been developed. The remaining 10% of the incidents were used to test for exhaustiveness of the categories. The fact that no additional categories emerged when these incidents were sorted supported the exhaustiveness of the categories.


The interviews with the 31 participants produced a total of 648 incidents: 436 negative and 212 positive. The incidents were placed within 11 themes. Initially, we tried to organize the themes using the transitional time line framework suggested by Schlossberg, Waters, and Goodman (1995), namely, Moving Into (beginning), Moving Through (middle), and then Moving On (ending). We discovered that the only real differentiation we could make was between the incidents at the end (Moving On) and those that occurred earlier (Moving Into and Moving Through). Perhaps this was a result of interviewing participants approximately 6 months after downsizing procedures had been implemented in their organizations, or perhaps common themes are undifferentiated in these early phases. In any case, we decided to report the data combining the categories of Moving Into and Moving Through, with Moving On as its own category. The themes that we identified are presented in Tables 1 and 2.

Participants' reporting of both negative and positive incidents for each of the emerging themes reflected the mixed and sometimes conflicting reactions survivors had to the downsizing experience. No event or issue was universally experienced as negative, although there certainly were more negative incidents. Participants reported both hindering and helpful aspects for all themes. It should be noted that themes were equally represented across gender as well as across private and public sectors of employment.

Moving Into and Moving Through

In the interviews, survivors discussed their experiences during the introduction and implementation of downsizing, the downsizing process, and the way it was communicated to them. As plans to downsize were revealed and unfolded, employees reacted to the possible loss of their own job, changing coworker relations, organizational support programs, leadership, and the impact work changes had on their lives at home.

Process. Survivors cited 102 critical incidents (75 negative, 27 positive) concerning the restructuring process. The high participation rate, 65% for negative and 42% for positive incidents, reflected survivors' wishes to understand and be involved in shaping the restructuring process. These survivors clearly saw themselves as having a stake in the success of their organization's transition.

Survivors indicated that they were reassured when they could understand and could have a voice in the restructuring process. They expressed frustration when their input was not sought or when it was ignored to the detriment of the organization.
 If they outsource regionally, we could be a valued asset to the
 service provider and make this thing work, but if they do it on a
 North American basis well ... But no one's asking us how it should
 be done. It comes from top-down.--Engineer, Oil Company

Survivors were critical of aspects of the process that seemed counter-productive, wasteful of resources, or unfair. They expressed concerns that the costs of downsizing would outweigh the benefits.
 I don't think they [the company] realize how much extra work that
 we do for them, and so once we're not with them anymore they're
 really going to feel it and I just think they kind of dig
 themselves into a hole that way by outsourcing us.--Oil Company

Survivors were also critical when the burden of lost resources seemed unfairly distributed.
 We're a company that has a lot of integrity to be taken care of so
 when you start laying people off there I think it's really hard to
 understand. In other areas, they were heavy in the management-heavy
 top-end. There could have been more layoffs there instead of down.
 --Oil Company Employee

Coworker relationships. Nineteen (61%) survivors reported 31 negative incidents and 12 (39%) reported 18 positive incidents involving people they worked with before the downsizing. The vast majority of negative incidents involved grieving for coworkers who had been laid off. Participants expressed feelings of loss and sadness. Survivors who were transferred away from their colleagues experienced isolation and loneliness, and they also expressed guilt and envy (Brockner, 1992). Positive incidents involved coworkers supporting each other through the uncertainty of downsizing and finding ways to stay in touch with each other after downsizing.

Organizations need to be sensitive to the fact that employees form close relationships. If possible, organizations need to give survivors adequate opportunity to say good-bye and grieve the loss of coworkers. It was very disturbing to survivors when the organization did not allow them to prepare for, grieve, or even acknowledge the loss.

Survivors also reacted to the way the organization treated their colleagues during the layoffs. Fair and sensitive treatment was reassuring to survivors. Unfair or insensitive treatment generated resentment and anger.
 [Y]ou know, they were told that their positions were being
 eliminated, they were given counseling--financial and counseling
 about their package ... but then they were actually ushered right
 to the door and I think that is despicable.... [P]eople that had
 been with the company for 20 years that had been very good
 employees are made to feel that they've done something wrong ...
 very, very demeaning.--Oil Company Clerk

Survivors empathized and, to varying degrees, identified with those colleagues who were laid off. When organizations handled layoffs sensitively and carefully, they conveyed respect to those who lost their jobs and to survivors alike.

Leadership. The role of leaders in facilitating or hindering transition in a downsizing organization is a significant one. A total of 48 incidents, 36 negative and 12 positive, were reported. The participation rates for this theme were 18 (58%) for negative incidents and 8 (26%) for positive incidents.

A large number of these incidents concerned employee trust in management. Ambivalence was expressed by participants who felt that managers would try to look out for employees but, ultimately, had their own best interests as a priority. Managers were perceived as untrustworthy when they withheld information.
 I mean, there are some bad managers who say one thing and do
 something else. So again, that's not being honest. That's not being
 straightforward, so honesty I guess is extremely important and
 being forthcoming and forthright with people and just letting them
 know what the hell is going on.--Civil Servant

Survivors expressed anger when supervisors failed to provide the direction, support, and information that employees needed. In so doing, they failed to meet employee expectations of competence and reliability: "I think the problem is our management doesn't ... they just don't have any vision, no strategy; they're playing constant catch up" (Civil Servant). When leaders were perceived to be concerned about employees and to be honest, competent, and reliable, employee trust was enhanced.

Survivors were reassured by the presence of their supervisors during the downsizing process. Access to supervisors enhanced their trust.
 My boss would drop by and say "hello" and even though he didn't
 really have any concrete information to give me just that dropping
 by and saying "hello" made me feel a little bit more comfortable
 than some other people felt.--Oil Company Accountant

Participants also appreciated when their supervisors were proactive and demonstrated a positive attitude toward the change. As the liaison between the top-level executives and other employees, managers and supervisors were in a position to facilitate employee adaptation to restructuring.

Participants in management-level positions told us how difficult it was to fulfill their role of providing leadership, information, and support to others when their own jobs were threatened and changing chaotically. Jobs at the middle-management levels appeared to be the most vulnerable to the current round of layoffs. Because of increased workloads, the managers who remained had to adjust to a less personal form of supervising. Managers were also under the emotional strain of having to lay off employees with whom they may have worked closely.

Communication. How the organization communicated with its employees around downsizing was crucial to the success of the transition. Sixteen participants (52%) expressed 41 negative critical incidents involving communication, while 14 positive critical incidents were described by 11 (35%) of the participants. Findings indicated that sufficient, timely communication could allay fears and convey respect for employees. Inadequate, contradictory, or vague communication increased confusion, anxiety, mistrust, and speculation.

Confidence in the organization was hampered by vague communication or a lack of communication. Organizations' attempts to "soft-pedal" their downsizing plans only increased anxiety.
 In the beginning, it was unsettling because nobody really knew what
 these memos meant; there were vague references to downsizing and
 restructuring, and they talked about the fact that change was going
 to be taking place but it was unsettling and disheartening because
 we really weren't told what that meant.--Civil Servant

Unfortunately, at a time when communication was most needed, existing communication systems were often breaking down. Survivors commented that communication from the organization decreased as downsizing proceeded. Rumors circulated wildly in the vacuum, further increasing confusion. Failure to communicate plans created the impression that senior managers did not know what they were doing or did not respect employees. Specific cases of employees not being told about changes that directly affected their jobs were particularly distressing to them: "We were packing our boxes two days before the doors were shut and we didn't know where they were sending us yet" (Clerical Worker, Federal Government).

Employees need to know the "bigger picture" and the specifics of downsizing plans if they are going to play a role in creating the new organization. Survivors in our study reported that face-to-face opportunities for questions and answers were helpful as was access to supervisors who could provide answers to questions as they arose. Finally, several participants found that consciously limiting the time they spent engaging in downsizing "gossip" reduced their anxiety.

Feeling valued. Although survivors kept their jobs, their relationship with the organization changed profoundly. Frequently, their sense of being valued by the organization diminished. A large number of participants commented on changes in ways that the organization valued and rewarded employees. The majority of the incidents in this theme were negative, with 15 (48%) participants mentioning a total of 40 negative incidents. Only three positive incidents were mentioned by 2 participants.

As part of their psychological contract with employees, organizations offered employees long-term careers and promotions in exchange for good work and loyalty. When downsizing, organizations withdrew from this contract.
 I'd been here 29 years, at the time 53 years old. Would they really
 throw someone out within 2 years of their retirement date? And the
 company used to be very sensitive to people who were within 2 years
 of a milestone, and it became quite clear with the new environment
 they didn't care how old you are, how long you've been here, how
 near you were to a key milestone; you could be gone in a minute.
 --Oil Company Manager

Survivors went through a process of reevaluating their career aspirations within the changing organization and job market. Frequently, survivors reacted to the loss of long-term security and career development opportunities by questioning their hard work, commitment, and loyalty.
 You're always tempted to say what are you putting in the extra time
 for--they really don't care. And when I was younger, I thought they
 did and I do think they did; but now, I don't think that's true.
 --Oil Company Employee

Morale. Participants noticed changes in their own and their coworkers' feelings about the organization. Participants found that the negative moods of other employees contributed to their own negativity. Fifteen (48%) participants cited 48 critical incidents in which they noticed a negative change in their own feelings or those of other employees. Sixteen (52%) participants described 30 critical incidents in which they noted positive changes in their feelings or those of their coworkers.

Survivors described feelings of anger, cynicism, resentment, fear, and anxiety in themselves and among their coworkers. After one survivor's work team moved to a new office, the survivor noted,
 I was angry. As a group, we were all angry so that kind of feeds on
 itself. There was some anxiety about where it was going to be,
 whether it was this office or another office; there was anxiety
 about what I would be doing in comparison to what I had been doing.
 --Civil Servant

The survivors who reported positive feelings had made a conscious effort to maintain a positive attitude during the downsizing. Acceptance of the uncertainty and lack of control were important to a number of survivors.
 I went home every night knowing that whatever happened, it was; I
 wasn't really in control of it, and if it happened that I was going
 to get laid off, there are other reasons, that I didn't ask for it,
 and that was fine. But just carrying on that positive attitude made
 a big difference for me.--Accountant, Oil Company

Life after work. This theme consisted of incidents in which workplace changes and personal lives affected each other. Fourteen (45%) of the participants mentioned 28 negative critical incidents, including concerns about diminished quality of life for families, work tension affecting families, overtime taking away from family time, and tension that contributed to health problems. Fifteen (48%) of the participants mentioned 31 positive critical incidents. These included family friendly work policies; emotional support from spouses, families, and friends; distractions from work by children; and activities that provided relaxation and relief from stress.

Survivors drew support from their families during downsizing while also trying to insulate their families from their work tension: "I have a great husband, great kids, and they love me unconditionally, and I draw my strength off that" (Civil Servant). Survivors found that acknowledging their work troubles but limiting the time they spent worrying about them helped them to keep work worries from overwhelming their family lives.
 Well, when the rumblings started, I brought the family together,
 and I said, "There's some big changes in the works and if you see
 me come home unhappy or whatever or worried or concerned, it's
 nothing you've done, right." I have three boys, and I just wanted
 them to know ... I just said, "I'm going to try not to bring my
 problems home, but if you see me kind of down or whatever, let's
 just do something fun; it's not you, it's me and nothing you've
 done; and if it's something you've done, I'll talk to you about
 that."--Human Resources Manager

Eleven survivors (36%) reported having health problems that they felt were connected to the increased tension at work; these included sleep disturbances, irritability, and headaches. Four survivors noticed that they and other coworkers took more sick time than they usually took, both during and after the downsizing. Several survivors found that activities such as yoga, jogging, working out, and gardening helped them to take their minds off work.

Possible job loss. Most employees considered, at some point, the possibility that they might lose their job either in the current round of downsizing or in a future round. Negative and positive critical incidents regarding job loss were reported by 13 (42%) and 9 (29%) of the survivors, respectively. The 29 negative incidents reflected anxiety, fear, and sometimes panic about job loss. The 21 positive incidents included both survivors who recognized that they could cope with job loss, as well as a few incidents that gave survivors confidence that they would not lose their jobs.

Participants' perception of their own employability outside the organization influenced their feelings about potential job loss. They assessed their skills, their contacts, their age, and the current job market.
 As a manager, you don't have the same skills to offer outside and,
 therefore, reemployment is a slower process. Technology can pass
 you by when you're dealing with people issues versus the hands on
 stuff.--Oil Company Production Accountant

Organizational support. Participants discussed programs and policies that the organization used to try to facilitate the transition process. Negative and positive critical incidents involving organizational support were reported by 11 (35%) and 10 (32%) of the survivors, respectively. The 19 negative incidents involved organizational neglect of employees' mental health, poor quality or ineffective programs, and the withdrawal of financial support for training and education. The 16 positive incidents involved good training, valuable workshops, good employee assistance programs (EAPs), and flexible policies.

Failure to acknowledge the mental strain employees experienced during downsizing and failure to support employee mental health were described as damaging by survivors.
 There's a real lack of appreciation for the mental stress that is
 put on individuals ... that doesn't show immediately. It's not that
 you run into a door or something. It shows over time, and there
 seems to be a lack of concern for that in the workplace.--Oil
 Company Engineer

Survivors noted the lack of planning for their transition "Support hasn't been part of the whole plan.... It can have a devastating effect" (Civil Servant).

Survivors, for the most part, found that the efforts the organization made to support employee mental health helped. Several federal government employees commented on the value of workshops conducted for remaining employees in which emotional reactions to downsizing were addressed.
 We talked about the emotional roller-coaster, and although that's
 for the unemployed again, we're looking at the dynamics of change
 and the fact that you go through these peaks and hollows kind of
 stuff. So, the organization took it upon themselves to develop this
 kind of thing to at least address and recognize that this was going
 to be there, that people were going to be experiencing that. There
 was a proactive approach to dealing with those inevitable things.
 --Civil Servant

Acknowledgment of employees' emotional strain indicated the organization's concern for its employees and impressed survivors that the organization was both sensitive and proactive.

Survivors also benefited from knowing that they would have choices if they lost or left their jobs in the next round of downsizing. Good EAPs, opportunities to retrain, financial support for further education, and opportunity to take unpaid leave of absence to look for other work were all cited as valuable organizational programs by participants.

Moving On

Having moved through the significant steps of the restructuring, remaining employees were faced with the task of working in the new, leaner organization. Survivors' concerns for coworkers who had lost their jobs, their own job security, and the organization's success were still present as new issues emerged. Survivors performed more work, or different work, with new colleagues, often in a different physical environment. Survivors experienced continued changes in their morale, commitment, and job satisfaction as they adapted to these changes.

New job. Survivors faced multiple challenges in adapting to their new jobs, as the following comment reflects.
 So you had an increase in workload, a different job description,
 and virtually no training because they had downsized that too, so
 you had to learn by the seat of your pants.--Human Resources

Twenty-one (68%) participants reported 59 negative critical incidents, and 16 (52%) participants reported 32 positive incidents involving new work tasks. Negative incidents included dramatically increased workloads, decreased autonomy or status, difficulties learning new skills without training, unclear job descriptions, and lack of challenge. Positive incidents included the opportunity to learn new skills and enjoying more challenge and responsibility.

Participants found that their workload greatly increased as a result of downsizing. The workloads increased both in terms of the volume of work and the range of skills expected of employees. Survivors in service jobs expressed anxiety over the impact increased workloads had on the individuals they served: "Fewer people were looking after larger case loads; the case loads went from 110 to about 250 or 300, 400 patients" (Hospice Worker). Survivors found that they received no support in adjusting to this new increased workload because everyone in the organization was stretched to the limit. They recognized that increased workloads were virtually inevitable in downsized organizations; what they wanted, however, was some acknowledgment of the extra effort they were making.

Some participants found that their new jobs lacked clear descriptions. Others enjoyed the freedom to create a job that suited their skills. However, when managers and supervisors had conflicting expectations, employees became frustrated. Some noted that even after their jobs changed, other employees still sought advice from them in their old job roles.

Survivors were frequently placed in jobs that required new skills. Although most of the survivors valued the opportunity to develop new skills, some expressed frustration and anxiety when they did not receive adequate training to perform their new jobs competently. Insufficient training left workers open to criticism from new colleagues. The need to "prove" herself to unfamiliar colleagues in a new job area contributed to one survivor's anxiety. Some survivors were fearful of serving clients when they lacked confidence in their new skills. Positive incidents indicated that sufficient training and support gave workers a sense of competence and an opportunity to develop in new areas.

Conversely, survivors who were demoted from management positions found that their new jobs made poor use of the skills and expertise they had developed over the years. Demotion meant to them that their skills and expertise were no longer valued by the organization.
 I was afraid, to a certain extent, that my capabilities would be
 diminished by being sort of lost at the local office level, and I
 probably carried these feelings around with me.--Civil Servant

Anger and resentment, in some cases, created a "work-to-rule" attitude.
 It's been difficult over the last 3 years to come back here
 because during my periods of acting assignments, I developed a lot
 of additional expertise and information and knowledge that you're
 kind of a twisted sister when you think about how you want to use
 that. Do you want to give it away to the employer free or do you
 want to say, "No, that's not my job anymore; you're not paying me
 anymore to provide those services." --Human Resources Manager

If other values were met through their new positions, former manager s and supervisors were able to maintain positive feelings about their jobs, even with a loss of status. Some were given the autonomy to define their new work role.
 I talked to the manager and recognized that they respected my
 expertise and again allowed me to autonomously see where I was
 going to be the most useful--not directed.--Human Resources

Another survivor, who was positive about the change, valued fair pay over status.
 Some people may like a title on the door. I was always, "just pay
 me fairly and I'll do what you want me to do." As far as my role, I
 had no problem with that.--Draftsperson, Oil Company

New coworkers. Employees from different departments, offices, and companies were brought together as a result of the downsizing. New working relationships took time to develop. Frequently, new people were learning to work together concurrently with new systems or hierarchies. Negative and positive critical incidents involving new coworker relationships were discussed by 12 (42%) and 4 (13%) of the participants, respectively. The 30 negative incidents involved difficulty meeting and working with new coworkers, frustration training new people, and frustration working with people who lacked skills. Some participants described new coworkers as bitter, mistrustful, or angry as a result of the downsizing; some encountered open conflict with new coworkers. The 8 positive incidents involved efforts to make new people feel welcome and growing comfort with new coworkers over time. Within this theme, the importance of the physical environment in either facilitating or hampering coworker relationships was mentioned by 6 participants (5 negative, 1 positive).

In some cases, organizations appeared to make no effort to help remaining employees meet and work with new colleagues, leaving employees to struggle alone in an unfamiliar, unfriendly environment.
 Very depressing, boxes everywhere, people in this--don't know who's
 next door, nobody introducing themselves, nobody knowing where to
 go ... Well, the whole place is just a big uproar and we have lots
 of people who, if we said "want to leave?" they'd be walking out
 the door.--Oil Company Employee

The trust colleagues need to work together effectively was missing: "You have a group of people that essentially don't trust one another, yet they have to work together" (Human Resources Manager). Tension, mistrust, and anger about the downsizing was sometimes directed at colleagues:
 There's been a lot of coercion kind of things happening. Coalition
 approaches, where 2 or 3 people get together and start attacking
 other individuals, probably because of feeling threatened and loss
 of control, so trying to gain some control back.--Human Resources

Resentment also grew when employees had witnessed the loss of a skilled colleague only to have to help train that colleague's replacement.

Efforts to introduce and welcome new employees were a necessary and helpful first step toward enhancing coworkers' relationships. Attempts to help colleagues meet on a social level were seen as somewhat helpful. Although such efforts enhanced coworkers' comfort with each other, they did not address issues of how to work together. Formal team-building sessions were described as valuable.

Several survivors commented on how changes in the physical environment, including new buildings and office layout, helped or hindered their relationships with new coworkers. For some survivors, being in closer proximity to other workers enhanced their sense of belonging.
 Actually, everybody moving together on our floor has been a
 definite positive. Being spread out on the different floors felt
 like you weren't really part of the team before.--Oil Company

The reverse was also true. When workers were physically separated on different floors or in different buildings, the sense of teamwork diminished. Workers who were physically isolated from others felt forgotten by the organization and isolated from their new work team.


In reviewing the data, it is clear that the moment an organization announces its decision to downsize, the psychological contract between employer and employee changes. Employees are not content to sit by and wait for decisions to be made. They want information and want to have input into decisions and policies. This more active stance is consistent with some of the existing literature. Davy et al. (1991) discussed the need for employees to have a stake in the success of their organizations' transition. Noer (1998) described an unquenchable thirst for information that characterized the psychological state of most downsized employees. The experience of downsizing is often chaotic; in the midst of this uncertainty, it is not surprising that employees try desperately to regain some form of control. Under these conditions, the trustworthiness of management is imperative. Mishra and Spreitzer (1998) indicated that trustworthiness was reflected through concern for others, openness, honesty, competence, and reliability. Certainly, when the participants in our study described the role of effective leaders, they emphasized the same qualities.

In a time of downsizing, there is a real need for clear and open communication during all stages of the process (Brockner, 1992; Caudron & Hayward, 1996; Noer, 1998). Cameron et al. (1993) suggested that there is a strong need for top-down vision combined with bottom-up input. Our results certainly supported the need for maintaining clear lines of communication.

The actions of managers play an integral part in establishing the nature of the new psychological contract (Rousseau & Wade-Benzoni, 1995). As was indicated in the results, the survivors focused not only on their own situation but also on how others were treated during the transition. The perceived integrity of the downsizing process can either destroy or build new loyalties.

The new realities that confront downsized employees need to be understood at many different levels. Realizing that an anticipated event (e.g., a promotion) may not occur is in itself a transition that requires adaptation on the part of the employee (Schlossberg et al., 1995). Such nonevent transitions might cause employees to change their future plans and reassess their view of themselves and the value they place on work.

There is little doubt that the downsizing process creates a great deal of stress in the workplace. Our earlier transition studies (Amundson & Borgen, 1987; Borgen & Amundson, 1987; Borgen et al., 1996) have confirmed the importance of emotional support from family and friends as a coping strategy. In the downsizing context, working life is charged with anxiety as everyone tries to come to terms with the downsizing process. Employees grieve for colleagues who have left and experience uncertainty and anxiety about who will be the next person to lose his or her job. Under these conditions the importance of support from family members is critical.

When we compared our findings with those of other studies (Armstrong-Stassen, 1998a; Cameron, 1994; Noer, 1993), there appears to be considerable consistency among the findings. One point of departure, however, was in the category New Workers. The downsizing experience represented a period of considerable turmoil during the job loss period, and this continued afterward as people faced the challenges of working with new people, in new groups, and in new organizational cultures.

Counseling Implications

The stories we have presented provide a description of a process that is flawed, in many instances. However, in the midst of all the problems, some positive moments have also been reported. These positive incidents provide some indication of how counseling efforts should be directed.

As a starting point, it is clear that there is a real need for clear communication between people at all organizational levels. Counselors could play a key role by helping to establish communication guidelines and by monitoring the effectiveness of the ensuing dialogue.

At a more personal level, the downsizing transition process creates major personal challenges. Some of the issues that have been described include grieving for coworkers, anxiety about present security, increased workload, demands for new training, and coping with new colleagues. There are also major value shifts and, in some instances, the need to create a new identity in the workplace. In the downsizing environment, workers often find that they need to evaluate their current options and take a more proactive approach to their career development. The issues that have been described include both personal and career concerns and suggest the need for a comprehensive counseling approach. Herr (1999) suggested that this overlap of personal and career counseling reflects a more dynamic approach that is needed if counselors are to cope with the challenges of the twenty-first century.

In addition to individual counseling, participants in our study were very positive about counselor-led workshops in which they had the opportunity to discuss and validate their emotional reactions. These workshops presented an opportunity for both emotional validation and action planning (Borgen, Pollard, Amundson, & Westwood, 1989). Counselors can help survivors examine existing resources and develop new resources for coping. Action planning can include both a focus on the current situation and a longer term perspective.

On an organizational level, counselors can facilitate the transition through team-building workshops for new colleagues. Survivors benefited some-what from seeing evidence that their organization was concerned about worker well-being, but they did not see actual changes in coworker relations as a result of workshops. It is likely that onetime workshops cannot address the complex issues new coworkers face as they adapt to the downsized organization. Issues of damaged trust in the organization and its impact on coworker relations must be explicitly addressed. Furthermore, in order to be effective, team-building efforts must be supported and followed up by managers.

Limitations and Further Research

Our research offers many interesting perspectives on the downsizing experience. In interpreting this data, however, one must be aware of its limitations. The study is limited in scope because there were only 31 participants. A more extensive study would involve a larger number of participants and would control for variables such as age, ethnicity, gender, and occupation. The participants in this study also had previous downsizing experiences. It would be helpful to learn more about how these previous experiences contributed to the participants' current experiences. The study also only provided a retrospective view of the downsizing experience. It might be interesting to complete multiple interviews at different time periods. Of particular interest here would be to examine how perspectives change during the period of downsizing.

Assessing the long-term impact of downsizing requires further research with a focus on the new dynamics in the changed workplace. Further research could expand on the influences and intricacies of changing power differentials and blended company cultures on individual as well as group adjustment.

Another topic that deserves further research study is the experience of people who direct the downsizing process. These actions undoubtedly create their own psychological challenges. How do people make the decisions about downsizing and then put them into action? The results from our study would certainly suggest that the process, in many cases, is handled very badly.
TABLE 1 Moving Into and Moving Through Themes

 Negative Critical Positive Critical
 Incidents (N = 31) Incidents (N = 31)
Theme n % Total n % Total

Process 20 65 75 13 42 27
 relationships 19 61 31 12 39 18
Leadership 18 58 36 8 26 12
Communication 16 52 41 11 35 14
Feeling valued 15 48 40 2 6 3
Morale 15 48 48 16 52 30
Life after work 14 45 28 15 48 31
Possible job loss 13 42 29 9 29 21
 support 11 35 19 10 32 16

Note. Total = total number of incidents in each category.

TABLE 2 Moving On Themes

 Negative Critical Incidents Positive Critical Incidents
 (N = 31) (N = 31)
Theme n % Total n % Total

New job 21 68 59 16 52 32
New coworkers 12 39 30 4 13 8

Note. Total = total number of incidents in each category.


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Norman E. Amundson, William A. Borgen, Sharalyn Jordan, and Anne C. Erlebach, Department of Educational and Counselling Psychology, and Special Education, University of British Columbia. Correspondence concerning this article should be addressed to Norman E. Amundson, Faculty of Education, University of British Columbia, Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada V6T 1Z4 (e-mail:
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Author:Erlebach, Anne C.
Publication:Career Development Quarterly
Date:Mar 1, 2004
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